True South

Regrets, I’ve Got a Few

The penitence of parents

By Susan S. Kelly

Lent looms and then — BOOM — the season of gloom is upon us, those 40 days and 40 nights during which one is meant to repent. But if you’re a parent, guilt knows no season. It’s just always around, or in literary lingo, omnipresent.

Take my 38-year-old son, who not long ago revealed to me that as a child, he used to stand over the trash can while eating cookies so he wouldn’t drop crumbs on the floor. Oh, what this casual confession says. I never told him to do this; he just wanted to avoid the problem, or hearing about it. That he was so amenable pains me, the way he was when I just took him out of one school and sent him to a magnet that required a 45-minute bus ride. This would be the same son who, as a 2-year-old, kept waking at 3 a.m. for so many consecutive nights that I finally took him out of the crib, set him on the floor with a cut-up orange, and said, “Fine. Have fun. See you in the morning,” and went back to bed. No wonder that, later, when he woke up sick in the middle of the night, he always walked around my side of the bed to wake his father instead. Can I catch a little slack here? I remember when I was answering so many children’s questions and child-related telephone calls that I couldn’t take my own temperature because I couldn’t keep my mouth closed around a thermometer for three consecutive minutes.

At least I managed to rescue his brother, whom I happened upon in his room with the mini-blind cords wrapped around his neck because he’d been playing “Pirates.” The same child who, because I told him to visit the dermatologist, wouldn’t do anything about his warts except wrap three fingers on one hand in duct tape for six weeks because he’d heard it would make warts go away.

Confession may be good for the soul, but on the whole, I think I prefer yesteryear’s Lenten mite boxes, where all you had to do was part with some of your allowance. Though I probably failed in that department too, since I once discovered a child trying to extract a nickel from between the car seats with tweezers. Those kinds of memories can be assuaged with this one: How short a space in time elapsed between my daughter telling me tearfully that she didn’t want me to die (“Don’t worry, honey. It will be a long time before I die.”) to telling me that she wished I was dead. That was probably about the same era that her phone’s voicemail message was “My give-a-damn’s busted.” At least I escaped another friend’s fate, who discovered a pamphlet titled “How to Take Care of your new Tattoo” in her daughter’s Kate Spade pocketbook.

Oh, the countless little deaths I delivered, including, say, the April Fool’s morning that my daughter danced into the kitchen and merrily, mischievously, announced that she hadn’t done her homework. I barely looked up from the bagged lunch I was fixing in order to comply with her school’s eye-rolling rule of packing no disposables, only recyclables. Would it have cost me anything to play along, to acknowledge her 7-year-old April Fool’s effort? Two decades later, I still cringe at the memory.

Thank heaven that friends’ stories go a long way in the “I’m Not the Only Mean Mother” department. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty, but one friend who’d reached the end of her parenting rope with her tantrum-throwing 5-year-old picked up the phone, mimicked dialing as he writhed on the floor, and said, “Hello? Yes, is this the adoption agency? I have a child available . . . ” And this from another mother’s shame vault: The afternoon she took the car keys and got in the car and began backing out of the driveway, all the while calling, “OK, I’m leaving now, hope you can take care of yourself,” while her child wailed with despair. One acquaintance told me that when her son was disconsolate about a terrible grade he’d made on a test in fourth grade, she’d taken him in her room, sat him down, and said, “Listen. You were planned, and I know a lot of people in your class who were accidents.”

Still, surely for every painful-to-recollect instance, there’s a corresponding instance of sweetness, and I offer these up not as defenses, but to keep myself from weeping. Such as the child calling during his first week at boarding school, desperate with fear, panicked and frantic because he was washing clothes for the first time and “the washing machine in the basement is stuck and I’m required to wear a collared shirt to dinner and they’re all in there wet” — and my assurance, four hours away, that the machine was simply between cycles, wait a few minutes and it would begin chugging again. The same child I sang “My Best Beau” to, from Mame, when I was rocking him to sleep as a baby. I sang “Baby Mine” from Dumbo to his sister in the same rocking chair. The three children whose old-boyfriend box of letters and memorabilia, whose Jack Daniel’s bottle filled with sand from the summer job at the beach, and whose slab of crudely painted wood commemorated a summer camp mountain bike competition, are all still in their bedrooms somewhere, though the three themselves are long gone. You take comfort where you find it, in the baby album entries you made so as not to forget the child who said, “I did that later ago,” meaning already, or “I won, now you try to win me.”

And when that doesn’t work, there’s always the adult child to give an old scenario a new spin. “Relax, Mom,” the tweezer-wielding son reminds me. “It was a double-headed nickel.”

Terrific. Allowance issue absolved. Back to atoning.

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud grandmother.

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