Sunday, May 09, 2004

who she was before i met her

If her diary is to believed, at 13, she juggled boys like beanbags, declaring a different one her favorite every week. She said they were "marv", and noted details like her outfit for the day: I wore my new pink shorts and my candy-striped blouse. Her Girl Scout troop threw parties where couples would sneak off to neck behind stacks of chairs. A boy she liked crossed her and she stuck him with a pencil. It seems she took no shit from boys.

She never got her Butterfly Badge because the assistant troop leader didn't believe in killing things for badges, and she was just fine with that. Instead, she learned how to make and cook on a coffee-can buddy burner, and how to inject herself with a syringe full of nerve gas antidote in thirty seconds or less, in case there was another war.

The librarian she assisted busted her for smoking across the street with the bad boys. Bad in this case meaning they had motorcycles. When her boyfriend went off to serve, he left her in charge of his Indian, which she raced with the other boys.

She spent countless hours in hospitals with one parent or the other, learning the trick of wearing glasses and dressing older to bypass the 'no visiting children' rule. She translated for her mother Lillian, after Lil's stroke; they went everywhere together. She heard a terrible story at her father's bedside, when he thought he was going to die, about his peeing in a pig's eye. He denied it later, when he realized he was going to live.

As the only Jew in a Catholic girls' school, she was convinced that the nun who taught swimming (in full habit) was determined to drown her to avenge the death of Christ. She still doesn't like the water.

She blew away my virginal straight-arrow father by being the first woman he'd ever met who would walk across campus in the fishnets and leotard that were her costume in the play they were in together. She dated a couple of his friends before she got to him. Guys would watch her working at the candy-and-cigarettes kiosk and try to come up with an excuse, any excuse, to talk to her.

When she was a college student, the government gave her acid when they were trying to figure out how to use it for mind control. She discovered the meaning of life on one of these trips, and wrote it down. Years later she found it, Xeroxed it, and mailed it to me: my elbow was the only part I could read. I have yet to take acid. I got the message.

In 1968, she was a trainee stockbroker when the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago. The morning after she'd faced off with the cops, she took off her shoes, climbed up on her desk, and called her coworkers capitalist running dogs. Security escorted her out, and that was it for stockbrokering.

Her mom taught her how to crochet. Mrs. Hule taught her how to cross her legs in a skirt. Nobody, apparently, taught her how to cook.

Her father tried to talk her through cooking a turkey, the first Thanksgiving of her married life, but he hadn't told her that it was going to need to thaw out first. He also suggested she tie up the legs with rope, keeping all those things in that paper bag neatly locked up inside the turkey.

She loved her folks a lot, and lost them too soon.

Her prom date was recovering from mono, and too weak to stay for more than an hour. On the way home, her car got a flat. In the rain. She went out and dealt with it in her prom dress. The car was heavy because her date didn't even get out.

She knew how to do things, and the things she didn't know, she learned.

A doctor suggested that she could improve her eyesight by learning how to shoot, and she became a very good shot. I still believe she was actually a spy, and won't admit it. She learned to throw knives.

She didn't get a high-level security clearance job because she had a cousin who had defected to Russia. He'd defected back, but that apparently wasn't good enough. He was the cousin she liked the most. He's our smartest relative, she told me at the family reunion where I met him.

Warriors don't raise warriors, they raise diplomats, a woman told me once at Harbin Hot Springs. I don't know what my mother raised, but I know that she was as interesting before I knew her as she has been ever since. Sometimes I think the problem with her being my mom is that I didn't get to meet her earlier, if that makes sense; when she had the mod short haircut, when she wore black turtlenecks and hung out in basements snapping her appreciation of the poets she'd gone to hear, when she tried to convince her talent agent boss to represent a particular folksinger she'd discovered.

There are other things I missed. I never met Terrible Tiny the dog, or the grandmother who said a polite but firm fuck you to the doctors who said she'd never use her hands again by teaching herself to make things, quilts and clothing and lace, with those hands. There are pictures--a little girl with a bird who could be me, a teenager with careful eyebrows, a young woman with her parents--and there's the diary I made her read aloud to me in February, and a rayon skirt of Lillian's design that I remade into shorts. Charm bracelets and threadbare stuffed animals and a little beaded clutch purse with a ticket stub, a comb, and a small bottle of perfume. But as much as I handle those objects, I still wish I could have known my mom sooner.

Because she's so damn cool now. Sure she makes me nuts sometimes; I always return the favor. The worst fights I've had with anybody have usually been with her. The way she cries when robots (even evil killer robots) get hurt in movies embarrasses me senseless. But I've never envied other people their mothers, most of whom seemed like Stepford wives compared to my political, opinionated, take-no-prisoners mom. I've never thought I should run away to someone else's house (the someone elses usually ran away to ours, where Mom would talk them down in the kitchen.) When I called her from Seattle and told her I'd been tear-gassed, she was proud of me, and had motherly advice: shower in cold water first, so the capaiscin doesn't get into your pores the way it will with hot water.

I've never wanted to be someone else's daughter, because I've been so proud to be hers.

Happy mother's day. You know who you are.