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 epidermis. If we were out in public and a wet washcloth was not readily available, she made do by spitting onto a hanky.
Dirt apparently was her enemy. She could never 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.”
One of the things I remember most often about mom was her energy and her sense of humor. My siblings and I decided that she resembled a little bird, in particular a wren. She was short and plump and scurried about on her short legs from one chore to another. When we came to her with a problem she would pause and listen intently, her head cocked to one side, just like a bird listening for a worm under the grass.
We also teased her about what we called her asbestos hands. She was always cooking and baking. She could remove a hot dish directly from the oven with bare hands. I still don’t know how she did it. She never got burned or blistered. Maybe she really was a saint. How else could you explain that?
Mom was almost always cheerful and very funny. The exception was any early hour before she had a few cups of coffee. She definitely was not 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 would hear her thundering footsteps hit the floor and she would throw open the bedroom door and bellow at my father who was often 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.”
When I was a young newlywed, I turned to her often for advice and guidance. Some of it seemed a bit dicey. Like the time she told me that camping in the woods, sitting around the campfire, and communing with nature was great fun.
“Huh?” I said. “Don’t you remember our family camping trips of the 1960s? It may have been fun for Dad and us kids, but I remember you being stuck at the campground all the time, doing the same tiresome, mundane, repetitive chores, only under primitive conditions. You left your electric stove and dishwasher to cook over a two-burner camp stove (only one burner of which was working) and scrub pots and pans in a tiny rubber dishpan. Sleeping on the hard rocky ground and trying to stay out of the puddles that collected when it rained all night. You call that fun?”
“Oh, I am not talking about that kind of camping,” she said. I’m talking about what I call fringe camping.”
“What’s fringe camping?” I asked.
“Grab a lawn chair and follow me,” she said.
At a nearby park, we hid in the woods next to the campground.
“Look,” said Mom. “There’s your brother David and his wife Wanda setting up camp.”
“Are we going to join them?” I asked.
“Not just yet,” she cautioned. “See how busy they are, setting things up, gathering firewood, building a fire, firing up the grill? Timing is critical. I’ll tell you when.”
Just as David and Wanda finished all the work and settled into chairs by the fire, Mom and I sauntered out of the woods, calling, “Yoo-hoo, Can we help with anything?”
“”No,” he said. “We’re finished. Pull up a chair and relax.” We hogged the warmth of their fire, drank their beer and soft drinks, and ate all their marshmallows. When it came time for them to crawl into sleeping bags, Mom and I headed for our comfy homes, our hot showers, and our warm beds. As is often the case, Mom was right. Fringe camping is great.
Mom was a fun, but thrifty shopping companion. At the mall, she always headed for the clearance racks. On one shopping trip in 2002, I spotted a sweatshirt with the words “welcome to 2000” printed on it.
“Look at that,” I said to Mom. “Who would buy a shirt that outdated?”
Mom said, “I would. At my age, my friends and I can’t see well enough to read it anyway.”
I would not have been surprised to find in her closet shirts with the slogans, “Happy VJ (Victory over Japan) Day” or “I went to the Rudy Vallee concert and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
I was aware of her diminishing eyesight since 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.”
“It was half-off,” she said. “Anyway, it’s for your stepfather. He is a diabetic. Sometimes he needs a little piece of candy when his blood sugar gets too low.”
“Mom, if he ate all that candy and cut himself shaving, he would bleed maple syrup.”
Her next excuse was, “I need to keep it around for the grandkids.”
“Your grandkids are in their 30s. They are 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.”
“Yeah, I tried that once,” I said. “I froze an entire tray of cream-filled snack cakes. Did you know if you poke a hole in the cellophane wrapper and throw the entire tray into the microwave, you can eat the whole trayful in a matter of minutes? Of course, the hot icing will sear the roof of your mouth until ragged flesh hangs down like those soapy, swaying strips of foam at the car wash, but that’s the price you pay for instant gratification.”
“Well, she sniffed, “I have better self-control than that. I will 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 over 50 years ago. Any minute now you’re going to remind me that, thanks to me, you have hemorrhoids the size of golf balls and stretch marks that make your abdomen look like the flames custom -painted on a 1957 Chevy BelAire. 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 am missing my mom a lot today, this Mother’s Day. It is also the month that she passed away last year at the age of 89. It is also the month of my birth, so in her memory, I will 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.