Ode To Mama
(A Mother’s Day post from 2007, with a few minor edits…)
Let me begin by saying that this is not going to be one of those sappy, superficial, hallmark-card-wannabe mother’s day posts that spouts off about how all mothers are courageous & generous & infinitely tender, and mine is the best of them.
‘Cause my mom sure isn’t perfect. And let’s face it: we all want to have that hallmark-card-poetic-perfect mother, but most of our moms more closely resemble Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We complain about how mom spoils the kids, or doesn’t spoil the kids enough; how she whines about wanting to see us, or whines about seeing too much of us; how she shakes her head in disapproval when we don’t wash & re-use the ziplock baggies…but at the core, we all want to think the best of our moms.
Despite little squabbles and irritations and the uncomfortable “mommy-dance” we do around each other in the kitchen, we love our moms and long to be able to give her that tear-jerker, pink-flowered, triple-layered, extra-stamp-oversized mothers day card. (Until our moms criticize our husbands, that is. And then all claims to heritage are null and void, and the best we can hope for mom is that she is the cackling, green-skinned, wicked-witch-of-the-west, and if we throw a bucket of water on her she will scream “I’m melting!” and disappear in a puff of smoke.)
I didn’t have a picture-perfect childhood. But lets be real; who did? It would be cool to claim that I was born on the streets of Harlem…or as the spoiled princess of an oil sheik…or some other overly-dramatic tale. But in all reality, as with most of us, my childhood was just kinda average. Our family had an average share of laughter & love & fun, and an equal share of angst & pain & dysfunction. It would be more fun to tell you about how my dad was an axe murderer, and my mom saved us from hurricane floodwaters, and raised us all by herself while working seven different jobs and getting her PhD in sociology or something. Nope. Nothing worthy of the next blockbuster movie. Just…normal…parents-still-married-after-all-these-years, boring, beautiful, messed-up, typical-life kinda stuff.
When I was little I called my mother, “mama.” I’m not talking about when I was a toddler, though I probably did then too; I’m talking about when I was 10 & 11 & 12, and even 18. If I wrote about her, or to her, I wrote, “Mama.” I guess phonetically it would sound more like, “mawmuh” – but I just said it & wrote it the same way you’d think that a baby might say their first word. No doubt, that must’ve been my first word. Mama was a devoted stay-at-home mother when I was little, birthed us all as naturally as the hospitals at the time would allow, breast fed us for more than a year, and had us all out of diapers before the age of two, since they were cloth diapers, after all. She was the consummate doting mother. Really! That’s not superficial, or sappy, just the truth.
These days she looks back on all that, and shakes her head and says, “I could’ve known myself better; I should’ve had some outside pursuits.” Well, all the could’ve’s & should’ve’s doesn’t change the fact that my toddler/little-girl years were pretty idyllic.
I have so many happy, fun memories with Mama; going to museums, picnics in the park, being the coolest kid in kindergarten ’cause my mom was room-mother and brought homemade cupcakes with lotsa frosting & sprinkles. We never took expensive vacations to ski resorts or foreign countries (ooo, does border-town, tourist-shopping in Mexico count?), but would spend a week of bliss at the beach, camping at Mustang Island State Park, or cabin-ing at South Padre. To this day, the taste of grape Hubba-Bubba brings back memories of sunscreen & sand castles & my sister and I trying to kick our floaties out past the second sand-bar; I can almost taste the rubbery glob of purple-grape, gritty-with-sand-&-salt, sweet flavor of summer vacation. Mama would let us turn up Air Supply on the van stereo, and in the evenings we would all sing harmony into the relentless ocean wind and sand-crab-crawling dunes.
These sweet memories mingle with the nagging notion that Mama was also kinda mean. Especially when she did things like make me take responsibility for my own actions, y’know? I remember this time that I procrastinated a big science project…and the morning-of, I wanted her to bail me out. I gave the usual excuses about forgetting, and being so tired, and maybe I was sick, and bring me the thermometer so I can hold it against a lightbulb before I put it in my mouth so you’ll think I have a terrible fever… But she was always a little suspicious of that 104.7 degree fever, and made me march to school anyway and face the consequence of the unfinished science project. So mean.
She was also mean about stuff like boys. When my 7th grade boyfriend decided he didn’t want to go steady with me anymore, Mama was not anywhere near infinitely tender with my insistence that I could not possibly go to school the rest of the week. I distinctly remember a rolling of the eyes, and some speech about how I would forget about him soon enough anyway, and besides, I only had 2 hours left of daylight to mow the lawn, so I better get off my bed & quit wailing out the lyrics to “You’re The Inspiration.” I can’t remember that guy’s name…but I can still sing all the way through “You’re The Inspiration.”
Mama did the usual stuff like chauffeur me to ballet class and dance company rehearsal five or six days a week. She sewed my twirling costumes and bought a Ronco Rhinestone Power Plus to attach the 742 rhinestones, precisely 1/2 inch apart, on my sapphire-blue “wonder-woman” leotard and wrist-bands. (And come to find out, those of two other girls in my twirling team, too.) When my baby brother was little, she walked my sister & me back and forth to school at Barton Hills, pushing him in his little sun-shaded-umbrella stroller through the Texas heat. She helped us with homework when we needed it, and helped in our classrooms, and endeared herself to our teachers, so we were always “teacher’s pet.” Santa Clause usually brought me exactly what I wanted, and the Easter Bunny always delivered a basket of sugar-bomb treats to my bed headboard without my waking, despite my determination to stay up & figure out how the heck she managed it. Mama made a hot breakfast each morning (even though I never appreciated it, & to this day loathe the smell of bacon/sausage/eggs in the morning…and am now vegetarian), and a sit-down family-dinner every evening. And Mama always told me I was beautiful. And talented. And that I could be and do anything I wanted.
Though I must admit, when I was in college and told her I wanted to be a dancer / singer / actress, and go to Broadway and be a star…she was a bit taken aback. “But Teri! You could be a doctor! Or a lawyer! Why, you could be President of the United States of America! Get a degree in something practical!” I’ve always wondered where she thought all those dance classes & choir practices & church-summer-musical performances were headed…???
Mama has always been a runner. She would claim that she’s no athlete, but she is. When I was growing up, her daily routine of running the 3 mile loop at the Zilker Park Hike & Bike Trail was pretty standard. These days she still runs, competitively even, and has recently garnered two first-place & one third-place age-category wins. But her fitness and athleticism has been hard-won. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s, battled back from that; then the bone-density-damaging chemo treatments that resulted in a compound pelvic-bone stress-fracture which derailed her running for about two years.
Mama overcame alotta hard stuff. The world she grew up in didn’t allow girls to run, or dance, or wear pants, or do much of anything besides look pretty, be quiet & have babies. And that’s just the surface stuff. Her deeper, personal childhood sorrows include an abusive, mentally-ill father, the too-young responsibility of ‘mothering’ her 5 siblings when her own mother had to go to work, a severely crippled baby sister who died before the age of seven, a brother who committed suicide…and more. She’s what a 12-stepper would call an overcomer.
Her life would make for a gripping movie script…along the lines of Freedom Writers. Rife with tragedy and sorrow, hope and marriage and babies, the dogged pursuit of teaching troubled kids in a rough neighborhood… When I was heading into my teen years she went back to school to get her elementary ed teaching credentials. She taught high school before we were born, but with my baby brother in school, was ready to pursue something of her own again. I remember the hours she sat hunched over textbooks and note cards, snapping at us to leave her alone so she could study. She was cranky. But she was top of her class. She then taught for 20-something years at sort of an “inner-city,” at-risk elementary school in Austin, called Becker. It wasn’t too far from our house, but it was on the other side of the tracks. Literally. As a teacher, she was…(how to communicate adequately?)…astounding. The effect she had on her students was staggering. Changed lives. Transformed families.
I spent most of my teen years mad at Mama. She was so stodgy, so old-fashioned, so strict. I mean, all the other girls got to stay out till midnight. I was a good kid, made straight A’s, why did I have to call & check in all the time, why did my curfew have to be so early? It was just so unfair, and Ricky would never want to date me if he always had to have me home by 10pm! So I did what any overly-protected, goody-two-shoes-wanting-to-be-bad-girl would do: I snuck out. My dad snored, and Mama had this white-noise thing, so they never knew it when I creaked open the front door and ran up the street to meet Suzy & the other girls at the top of the block. We’d cruise around and do cool things like drink swiped-from-our-parents-liquor-cabinet rum and coke out of mayonnaise jars, and steal street signs, and toilet-paper the boys’ houses we had a crush on, and hang out at Pag’s for an hour or so. Suzy would drop me off just before 1pm – she was ultra-cool and had a really late curfew – and I would sneak back in, so nervous Mama would hear me and be furious, while Suzy drove back home to clean up her mom who was in a drunken stupor on the couch.
In college I started thinking Mama was pretty cool again, ’cause she sent me money & care-packages of shampoo and notebooks and homemade cookies, & helped me with my laundry when I brought it home on the weekends. I had this boyfriend for awhile, and she was cool with him, and that was pretty fun. But then I transferred to college in another state (to pursue that whole dancer/singer/actress thing) and met my true love. She wasn’t so cool with him. And that wasn’t so fun. Might have had something to do with the fact that we met, fell in love & got engaged within 3 months. And then eloped 4 months after that. Remember that whole thing about criticizing our husbands??? Needless to say, we were, hmmm…at odds…for a while there.
But then I became a mother. Mama was there when Caleb was born; I’ve got the video of her sharp-intake of breath when she heard the cry of her first grandchild, and her choked-back sobs of joy. She helped me through the frustration of first-time-nursing, rocked the baby while I napped, washed my dishes & did my laundry. She was there to help when he ended up in the hospital at five days old, and she was there again & again when we were facing yet another surgery. Just over a year later, Mama was there when Autumn was born, and once again, I’ve got video of her clapped-hands in surprise, and her squeal of joy to discover that she had a granddaughter. She was the one to come into surgery with me while the doc sewed up the c-section incision; and then to help us for days with laundry, dishes, babies… When Caleb had a horrible bout of seizures, she flew in from TX to help and comfort. When Eliza had to be induced 5 weeks early, with only a few hours notice, my mom bought that last minute airline ticket and arrived in time to welcome the baby and help care for us all.
Over the years, Mama has grown and changed. She adores my husband now. And we share a passionate pursuit of Jesus Christ and the Biblical truths He taught. We laugh, and bicker, and walk & run & chat. But above all things I know that she is “there” for me. Whether for the expected due-date of a baby, or the last-minute emergency appendectomy, she loves me enough to drop her busy plans and cancel her commitments, and come. To comfort, to help, to rock a baby, to sweep a floor, to wash ziplock baggies, to care, to love.
Sometimes I look back on my own childhood and wonder about how Mama tolerated all my overly-emotional dramatics. I wonder about how she managed all our busy schedules, not to mention how she & my dad afforded to send us to all those classes & camps & things! I never thought we were rich, but I didn’t feel poor either. Mama didn’t buy me those trendy Calvin Klein jeans, but when I needed a prom dress, we went to Foley’s and she let me pick whatever my heart desired. I feel the prick of chagrin now, but remember how my teenage self-centered demands always sought more & more. “I’ll need shoes to match, Mama. And all my hose have runs in them. And wouldn’t this necklace just go perfect with the dress?…and these earrings?…” I about want to smack myself up-side-the-head just remembering it!! But the weird thing is, for really special stuff like that, my Mom usually got it all, from the dyed-satin pumps to the pearl-drop earrings. And when it came to the big night, she was almost as giddy as I was, grinning with pride as her daughter pranced around wearing two-months-worth-of-grocery-money in swishing, swirling, purple/black iridescent taffeta and lace.
Mama’s not perfect. She has struggled, with anger, sadness, bitterness, failure. But she’s always been an overcomer. She’s been a blond, a red-head, and a bald-head, and now is a slightly-salt-&-pepper silver. But she has always been beautiful. She’s been a lab technician, a teacher, a pianist, a runner, a bookkeeper, a hand-bell player, a choir director, a science lab builder, an oceanographer, a chauffeur, a cook, a coach, a frequent-flyer…
But first & foremost, she’s my Mama.