When my niece, Nikki, was in second grade in a Catholic school, she had a homework assignment to write an essay about three people she thought should be named saints. She chose the Pope, Mother Teresa, and her grandma (my mom). Mom was flattered to be included in such august company. About the only thing they had in common was that my mom was born in August.

I feel very blessed to have been raised in a warm and loving home, but Mom could be one tough cookie when it was called for. With five kids under the age of ten, she had to be. I called her a lot of things back then (under my breath of course), but Saint Shirley was never one of them. In my teens, I  never once considered her for canonization, unless that meant aiming a cannon at her. Figuratively, not literally, of course.

After I got through my teen years, I considered her to be my best friend and most ardent supporter and a trusted advisor, but I still refused to address her as Saint Shirley, no matter how often she asked.

One of my earliest memories of my mother is of her frequently chasing her five children with a damp washcloth and washing our faces rigorously, with the enthusiasm of a carpenter sanding a two-by-four. To this day, I would swear that I have at least one less layer of the epidermis. If we were out in public and a wet washcloth wasn’t readily available, she made do by spitting onto a hanky.

Dirt apparently was her enemy. She couldn’t tolerate a child with a dirty face or a runny nose. As an adult, I asked her why she was so fixated on our cleanliness when we were young. Her response was, “I just never wanted my kids to look poor or uncared for.”

Mom was almost always cheerful and very funny. The exception was an early hour before she’d had a few cups of coffee. She definitely wasn’t a morning person. In the years before she started working outside the home (she worked the register at Kroger and referred to herself as The Chubby Checker), we knew better than to disturb her sleep. We’d hear her thundering footsteps hit the floor and she’d throw open the bedroom door and bellow at my father who was singing cheerfully while he shaved, “Shut the hell up in there, Gene!”There she stood in the doorway in her nightgown, her hair poking out of and around the pink plastic curlers, her face smeared with Vaseline because she said it would prevent wrinkles, and her face creased with a very unsaintly scowl. Dad, who was a morning person, would cheerfully respond, “Yes, Dear.”

As she aged, I was aware of her diminishing eyesight. One of our frequent stops was the local drugstore where Mom could get a pair of glasses for only five dollars. She was really proud of that bargain. She started with the weakest lenses they offered, then over the years gradually worked her way through the racks to strong and then even stronger lenses.

“Mom,” I said, “what are you going to do when you have reached the limited strengths they offer?”

“Well,” she said, “I hope they sell seeing-eye dogs in the next aisle over.”

Mom and I once shopped the after-Easter sales. We separated and met later at the registers. Her stack of bargains entirely consisted of a dozen bags of Easter candy. Mom had an insatiable sweet tooth.

“Mom,” I said, “what are you going to do with all that candy? I thought you were on a diet.”

“I need to keep it around for the grandkids.”

“Your grandkids are in their 30s. They’re more likely to want a cold beer than a chocolate bunny.”

“Ok, then, for the great-grandkids,” she amended.

“Really, Mom? Black jelly beans and those awful pink circus peanuts which look and taste like a cross between attic insulation and Styrofoam? Aren’t those your favorites?. Why don’t you admit that all that candy is for you?”

“Okay, okay, but I am going to freeze it. It is a good way to keep from eating too much at once. You just thaw out a piece at a time in the microwave. I’ll just eat one piece a day. This should be enough to last me until I die.”

“Mom, why do you always do that?”

“Do what?” she asked with a false air of innocence.

“Base all your purchases on life expectancy. Your criteria for purchase the last few years is that the item will last as long as you do so you won’t have to buy it again. It’s so depressing.”

“I’m just trying to be practical,” she said with a wounded sniffle. “You don’t appreciate all I have done for you. After I went through 12 hours of labor for you…”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, not that again! It was decades ago. How long do I have to pay for that? Geez, eat the candy and leave me alone.” I figure it’s just a matter of time until the Olympic Committee comes up with a mother/daughter guilt competition.

I miss my mom a lot, especially every May on Mother’s Day, the month that she passed away at the age of 89. It’s also the month of my birth, so in her memory, I’ll say this:

Mom, wherever you are, I hope you are at peace. Also, I am sorry about the hemorrhoids and the stretch marks and the times I refused to call you Saint Shirley.

2 thoughts on “Mom: A Drill Sergeant With Spit on a Handkerchief

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