It’s a crisp Sunday morning in Huntington and I’m sitting in church trying not to perish from boredom. This is not to say that I disliked or dislike Church in general nor do I wish to disparage organized religion as a concept. But let’s face it. I’m a kid in church. When Jesus, wearing the robe he did his painting in because it already has stains, said for the children to come to him, he probably didn’t make the little nippers sit there for upwards of an hour listening to choir music and readings from the Bible. I know this true because the Bible hadn’t been written yet. So don’t make me feel guilty for being bored in church. At least not this Sunday. I’m already feeling a little guilty.
It’s Mother’s day and I haven’t gotten my mother anything.
Using what budding genius I had available to me back then, I grab a tithe envelope. Giving back to the church community is something my mother would like to be known for so right away an easy solution presents itself. Except I don’t have any dollars, so I do the next best thing. I write a Mother’s Day poem on the back and present it to her after church. She laughs. The rest of the family laughs. Great success.
I believe the torn envelope with the chicken-scrawled, handwritten poem holds the record for the longest thing on the fridge, at least in my memory. It wasn’t the first thing my mother taught me, but her laughter at my antics gave me confidence to be funny. Without that, I don’t know if I would ever say the observations that pop up in my head. I mean, I probably would, but let’s just say it’s because of her. She’ll like that.
On a Sunday afternoon in California, many years later, my mother is lamenting to me, over video chat, that she’s never featured in any of these Tuck Life essays I’m writing. The first words out of my mouth are because that’s weird.
“What do you mean that’s weird?”
What I mean, Mother, is that for a son to write about his mother there can be some rather Norman Bates implications that I really don’t want to imply.
Although when I think about it, my mother could run one hell of a bed and breakfast. She would make it Scottish Highland themed or maybe Civil War battlefield adjacent. Something with lots of stone. And coffee. You can see how slippery of slope it is to write about one’s mother’s hospitality dreams. Fear not, we will slip no farther down the slope. I’m pretty bad at stabbing people in the shower.
“Why don’t you write about me? You write about Dad all the time.”
Because it would be too boring.
“I’m not boring!”
Damn it, Mom. That’s not really what I meant. Okay she has me here. I do write about my Dad a lot. The best way I can explain how I view my parents, from a writing standpoint, is that my father is a fascinating art exhibit.
My mother is the art museum.
An art exhibit you can study. You can write about a painting, how it makes you feel, how you are inspired by it, what sticks with you when you walk away. There’s whole galleries of Father in my mind. But how do you write about the museum? It’s everywhere the art exhibit isn’t. It surrounds you, puts a roof above you, and may even contain a cafe. Where then does one begin? Like any building, you start with the foundation.
My mother is a teacher of children.
Countless times, or maybe 2,549 times, I’ve listened to my mother explain how to raise children. It’s pretty weird hearing this from one’s mother when one is still pretty much a child but I’ve always considered myself an elder shaman. Most of the times, approximately 76.2%, these conversations would take place on the way to the Mall. It’s about a 15 minute drive from home to the Mall and those fifteen minutes allow for just enough talking to cover the basics. Current parents and future parents, get ready to take notes.
The first concept in her ever-evolving seminar, is that parents must fight the battles when the children are young and it’s easy to win. Vanquish them when they’re small and can’t drive and you won’t be facing an insurgency in their teens.
The second concept is to maintain consistency with discipline. This, according to my mother, is really really hard to do. She backs this up with a story that I’ll share with you. As a young child I almost filled out my Hospital punch card (9 surgeries and the 10th is free!) with the number of surgical procedures I underwent. The result of one of these surgical procedures left me in a body cast at the age of three. Apparently this did not sit well with me because when I got home I began crying and fussing and misbehaving [hitting]. Now, most of you might cut me some slack because I was three years old, crying, and in a body cast, but most of you are not my mother.
Hopefully though one of you is my mother or else this grand gesture of an essay isn’t going to get me off the hook, but I digress.
My mother promptly picks me up in the body cast and places me on the bed in my room. Time out. In a body cast. But I was misbehaving, and what I really needed wasn’t to get my way but to be reminded that the Universe still had consequences despite the traumatic experience I was going through. She isn’t kidding though when she says it’s a hard thing to do. Body casts are heavy.
There’s probably more slides in this parenting PowerPoint, but we can’t dwell on the museum’s foundation. The walls await.
Beyond teaching, my mother is an explorer.
I say explorer but what I really mean is she loves weird stuff. However, explorer sounds better. Growing up, I spent summer days with my mother around because, as a teacher, she too was out of school. This would prove to be a volatile combination of bonding with each other and annoying the crap out of each other, and probably my father too. For many years we didn’t have cable television or really any television at all so to silence my cries of boredom, my mother took me to the library. We probably went to the library at least twice a week. Besides books, the library also had videos you could check out. Despite our lack of television reception, the VCR worked. One of the videos I checked out, and watched for the first time, was Star Wars.
I’ll let the magnitude of that sink in.
Mom carting me and the books back and forth from the library probably helped make me the reader and writer I am today. And, just for some analogy fun, I should mention the children’s section of the library was redone by my father, the architect, so in this case he gets to be the building. Plus, I love bragging on my father because he never does it himself.
Humility is not something Mom worries about.
Not content to merely read about the world, my mother enjoys traveling. Before there were iPads and other debilitating devices, my parents kept me occupied on road trips with other exciting measures. We played games. I say games plural because I’m sure there were other games but the only one I can remember is my mother’s favorite game she invented. It’s called, “Look at the Scenery”. Our conversations would go something like this.
What are you doing?
“Looking at the scenery.”
I want to play a game.
“We’re already playing a game.”
What game are we playing?
“It’s called Look at the Scenery.”
Look at the Scenery, the game for all ages, baffled me then and baffles me now as to how it could possibly entertain anyone. I kept thinking there was some secret, some rule, some quirk that made it interesting. There’s not, or at least I’ve never found it, but there is one instance where I came close to understanding.
In the eighth grade, my family went on an educational tour of Scotland. My friend Owen went too. On the final leg of the tour, we spent a day in Edinburgh. After touring the giant castle, the 89th castle we had seen so far, fatigued from travel, me and Owen were at loose ends. Fearing that we might not be touring appropriately, my mother taught us how to properly enjoy a city.
Step 1. Find a cafe with outdoor seating and order a drink.
Step 2. Look at the human scenery.
Step 3. When finished, find another cafe.
Owen and I lounged it up all the way down the Royal Mile. Of the many castles and towns and kilts we saw in Scotland, that day on the Royal mile is one of my fondest memories thanks to listening to my mother. Although that last bit is difficult to admit.
To his credit, Owen taught my family a traveling tip too. “When in doubt, eat Italian.”
Doubt, though, is not something I associate with my mother. She speaks with confident strength because she’s used to speaking from a position of power. She teaches school, remember. But her words aren’t the only time I’ve seen her strength. We’ve laid the foundation, raised the walls, and now we need to complete the museum roof
Above everything else, my mother is a protector.
It’s a cold day in December, I’m in the fourth grade and I need to get ready for school. I think it’s December. Let’s say it’s December. This is a memory from when time and dates weren’t as fixed a structure as they are now. It’s also one I share with trepidation because I haven’t asked permission, I don’t know how to ask permission without ruining the elegance of the moment. Mother, you told me to be consistent with consequences, and, well, this what happens when your kid turns out to be a writer. Let’s start again, this time, with confidence.
It’s a cold morning in December and I need help putting my shoes on. At this age I couldn’t put my own shoes on by myself, we hadn’t figured out a system yet to work around my disability limitations, and so I’ve brought the shoes to my mother to put on. During this time, my parents are in the process of moving the family from the house on a hill to the home and neighborhood where I would do the rest of my growing up. Stress running high, my mother puts my shoes on the wrong feet. I don’t remember if I said anything, but if I did, and I probably did, it’s a smart ass remark. The kind of remark my mother would normally brush aside or retort back. Today is different. When I realize she’s crying, I know something is wrong but not what, and the truth of that is not for me to tell. My father swoops in, taking over and if the moment significantly affects me, it’s only in retrospect. That morning is the first time I remember understanding that parents have feelings too. That parents are people. That my mother is a person and not the force of nature I believe her to be.
Struggling with your own shit is hard enough, at least until the invention of modern plumbing, but when you have to deal with another person’s problems, things can get overwhelming. As I’ve written about before, in the tenth grade I suffered a calamitous bout of pneumonia resulting in a five week PICU vacation. That’s the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for those of you looking to book your next holiday. While roiling through the morphine withdrawals, I hallucinated many things, none of them fun. The one bright moment was when I saw my mother for the first time since I woke up from the induced coma and experienced two epiphanies (Epiphany is a holiday my mother encourages) one right after the other.
The first epiphany may shock you. Hallucinating like a professional, I saw my mother had a third eye smack dab in the middle of her forehead. It didn’t look weird, just a regular eyeball in a completely normal eye socket located on the upper North side of her forehead.
The second epiphany may shock you too. Consider grounding yourself. Despite the bizarre appearance of a third eye, to me, my mother was still my mother. The third eye really didn’t look that bad on her either. When she hugged me, I felt safe.
Skipping ahead, a month after I’m out of the hospital and rehabilitating, my mother and I have another of our car conversations. This time it’s on the way to physical therapy. I forget exactly what I’m bugging her about but she finally asks me to stop. When I inquire why she’s so bothered, and I mean who wouldn’t want 16 year old me bugging them, she says something like this.
“When you were in the hospital, I had to put all of what I was feeling away because I needed to take care of things and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t carry all of that too. But now you’re out, and you’re getting better, and I’m having to deal with all of the things I didn’t think about”
And then there is silence in the car. We make the left turn on to Hal Greer. My mother doesn’t break down, she doesn’t cry, she simply continues on doing what she’s so good at doing. She takes care of me. We get to physical therapy and afterwards her demeanor is as if she never made that statement. But I remember it as the time my mother showed me the burden an adult must carry. The weight of it is something I, at the ripe age of 29, am only beginning to appreciate. The internal fortitude, the strength it takes to push on in the grown-up world knowing the things a grown-up knows. My mother prepared me for that.
With the way I talk about her, you could be forgiven for thinking my mother was the prevailing influence on my development. While this may be true, I’d like to point out the things my father taught me. Fishing, business email etiquette, Cribbage, etc. The important things. When I was five, I ate Mexican food and green mint ice cream. Later that night, I upchucked it all over the floor. My father cleaned it up. He still does a lot for me now too, but when one gets down to it, there remains a difference in what I learned from my parents.
Dad taught me how to put on a shirt. Mom showed me how to kick ass.