My best friend. That’s the short, simple answer, one that satisfies the first rule of true story telling and gets to the gist of it right away. It’s also the kind of rote response that daughters like me privileged enough to give it sort of skip over. Like those sing-songy verses in the Hallmark cards too cliché to really mean anything, the kind that made me glad I could grab a blank card and write my own sentiments to my one-of-a-kind Mum.
She was also a nurse, seamstress, fishin’ buddy wife, wisecracking life of the party wannabe Rockette. That’s the rest of the answer. Tall and thin, she’d be the first to make jokes about having a schnoz for a nose and a bustline that “nature had forgotten.” Then she’d smile, flashing pearly whites all the way back to her prized gold-capped upper molar. (It always showed up in pictures, so she’d joke about that, too. Something about a pirate dentist.)
Once in a while, she did get an “I’m really mad” furrowed up face, but didn’t like how it was making “old crow” creases between her eyebrows, so tried to stop herself as best she could. Another trademark move, when my sister and I told her to stop yelling at us, was to holler “I’m NOT yelling!” Then she’d feel silly and start grinning again. No one really noticed her nose or the other features she’d poke fun at once they caught that smile—-like she was looking full on into the sun. “Your mother is beautiful from the inside out,” my dad and their friends would say. And even before I realized mothers came with a variety of faces and temperaments, I knew what they meant.
Back when she was still Mommy, she was the best friend I needed when my at-school friends got busy, bored, or mean. I figured every girl had one like her at home—-a softer, girly version of a daddy who didn’t have be at work till suppertime—-with a hug and a promise that the problem was with the other kids, not me, and I was gonna be just fine.
She wasn’t a cool mom, a helicopter mom, a soccer mom, a health-conscious mom, a career mom, or any other mom adjective we need to use today. Neither was she my play buddy—-one of those TV ad moms flitting around behind me wearing a fairy costume or hanging out drinking cocoa in my blanket fort. (No moms did that back then and, if they did, it would have been annoying and kinda creepy. That’s why they sent us to Girl Scouts.) She did, however, crank out the best homemade Play-Doh and custom Barbie clothes and watch me play with great satisfaction.
“Gee, thanks for these neat PJs!” I said. I was about eight and she’d made matching pajamas for me and Barbie and I was showing Barbie’s off to Ken at the kitchen table. “Barbie’s gonna wear them when she sleeps over Ken’s house tonight,” I said. My mother stopped stirring whatever she had on the stove and cleared her throat. “Ah, honey, Barbie shouldn’t really be sleeping over Ken’s. They’re just dating still.” Years later, we’d laugh about that pre-Birds ‘n Bees discussion and how I cried until she told me it was OK for my dolls to pretend sleep together as long as Barbie kept her new PJs on. And how I crammed naked Ken down on top of her in their Barbie case “bed” and went on to play with something else.
I can’t remember exactly when or why we started calling her Mum. Not because of Beatlemania or any stodgy British mum. We’d never even been to England. And there was definitely not a stodgy bone in her body. But sometime mid childhood, Mom just didn’t seem to fit, so we softened the vowel and she became Mum. To this day, hearing or saying that word is like a maternal heartbeat, the sound of the special way my mother carried me through life.
Mum and Dad didn’t fight. Not long or loud enough, anyways, to be scary or strain their solidarity. She was his equal—-a tall order since, while my father shared my mother’s disposition and sense of humor, he also had an insatiable need to have his own way. Mum let him have it, or compromised, especially when it came to staying in the kitchen versus going out on the boat. A good arrangement all around because, aside from whoopie pies, whacky cake, Christmas cookies and a couple casseroles she got off the side of a soup can, Mum didn’t like to cook, and Dad preferred sandwiches he could hold in one hand while he fished with the other.
Like all families, we had our rough patches. Some of them might have made other mothers take to bed or the bottle, but Mum never stayed down long enough to get bitter. She wasn’t going to “make lemonade out of lemons” or anything eye-rolling like that. But she certainly wasn’t going to stop laughing for long. She had a gift for turning sad tears into happy ones, and somber situations into punchlines. She’d tell me all about her tough shift as an operating room nurse—-describing all the “ectomies” and other procedures she helped perform in gory detail—-then launch straight into the joke of the day without skipping a beat. The cornier the better. Limericks and spoonerisms were her forte, so she’d jump at the chance to tell anyone who’d listen about “the man from Nantucket” or poor Rindercella who “slopped her dripper.” Sometimes she’d realize mid-spiel that she hadn’t appropriately gauged her audience, and would clear her throat, blush, and finish with more flourish than ever.
By the time I was in high school and Tom (my future husband) entered the picture, I wondered if Mum might be too much for him. Shy and reserved by nature, he came from a family who didn’t hoot and holler most of the time, and certainly didn’t get off-color around the dinner table. So I was leery, but not for long. By Christmas, Mum told Nana he was “the one” for me and Tom started calling her Hot Ticket, a nickname borrowed from her Hot Tickets bowling team. “Merry Christmas, Hot Ticket!” Tom said as he handed her a box of chocolates and kissed her cheek. “Oooh…I’ll never wash this cheek again,” she sighed, all Marilyn Monroe breathless and flitting around like a peacock.
Some fifty years later, that Hot Ticket holiday stands out like a grand finale with no encores, a shimmering mirage of what could have been. What my mother was like when I was a child was a short story that, for me, eclipsed into “what my mother was like.” Period. She died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage just after I turned 18. Thankfully, she did see me graduate high school and was able to watch me—-just barely, according to the stingiest of definitions—-grow to adulthood. In all the years since, I know I’ve enhanced that innocent, coming of age time in my life so it plays—-perfectly Photoshopped and remastered—-over and over in my mind. But that’s OK. We have long talks every day. And I always find ways to write my own special words about her in the blank places.
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Building my life story one question at a time