Mom’s The Word
Here’s to the woman who loved us. No matter what
By Susan Kelly
Our first grandchild was recently born, and as the paternal grandmother, I’m aware that my job is to zip my lips, use a lot of hand sanitizer and stock up on organic foods so he doesn’t go into puberty at age 4. Whenever today’s baby and child-raising issues (read: rules) come up, my mother always says, “I don’t know what we did when y’all were growing up. We just . . . lived.”
I don’t know what she did either, while we were locking ourselves in the bathroom, breaking thermometers and playing with the mercury. It’s a shame about mercury being so deadly and all, because you haven’t lived until you’ve chased not-quite-liquid, not-quite solid skittering silver beads across floor tiles. When that activity paled, we headed outside and dared each other to grab the electric fence, seeing who could paralyze themselves the longest before the shock got the best of you. Dry ice was a favorite toy, too — to burn your fingers, or throw in the toilet and watch it steam and billow — but it was only available once a year, for the school carnival witches’ kettle on Halloween.
Back then, teachers didn’t ask you to write essays on what your parents “did.” Thus, they were spared the humiliation of one friend, whose son wrote, “She picks her teeth until they bleed” (that’ll teach you rabid flossers!), or another, whose child said, “They like to relax.” My own son didn’t even have to write down his answer; he announced it in carpool one day when he saw my knuckles whitening on the steering wheel as his friends competed to see who could blat the biggest imitation fart noises inside their elbows. “Y’all be quiet,” he commanded. “My mother doesn’t like children.” Which is only slightly less mortifying than the drawing my daughter recently unearthed, of herself crying in bed, sick, and the mother standing by with a cartoon balloon saying, “There’s nothing I can do.” A tattered, handwritten note from first grade reads, “I’m sorry I got on your nerves.” What I’m sorry about is that I saved it, to torture me all these years hence.
For absolution, I take comfort in my old-school pediatrician. “My child has a rash,” I worried when he returned my call. His succinct advice: “So what?” His prescription on the endless night of a child’s coughing and coughing? “Just move into another bedroom so you can get some sleep. You’re a mother, not a martyr.” I’m also grateful to the elementary school that kept a gross of ramen packages on hand, so my middlest didn’t starve all those days I refused to deliver his lunch bag when he forgot it.
Yes, yes, guilty as charged. I also failed, like some other mothers, to make up the dorm room bed with five fitted sheets, one on top of the other, so the child could merely strip one off, week after week, instead of doing laundry. But listen, when you asked that I please not fold your underpants on the counter, where everyone could see that you still wore eyelet bloomers instead of bikinis? I did that, I did. And I want you to know that now, when I glimpse those Kraft-paper lunch bags, unused and undisturbed after two decades, or come upon a long-expired coupon for frozen yogurt for good behavior at the dentist, a treat I failed to cash in for you, I cry a little. I’m sorry. I love you so very much. But you’ll have to find your own money for the therapist. OH
Susan Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and proud new grandmother.