Saturday, May 28, 2011

It's Still May, right?

This essay was supposed to run on Book Reporter's Mother's Day May Cavalcade of Mommy Memories, but I guess they had an over-run of riches. My mother was a fascinating larger-than-life personality, and our relationship was complex and worthy of not just an essay, but a whole book. (Still working on that. But there's a novel on the front burner, as always.) Enjoy. Relate. Go hug your mommy. Wish I could hug mine.

I knew my mother was different. I knew because other mothers did not scream the following when one of us scraped a knee: “Don’t show me! Go get your father! If Daddy’s not home, go get the neighbor! If the neighbor’s not home, flag down a stranger and ask them if they know how to make a tourniquet!”

My friends didn’t play at my house because they knew they were taking their lives into their hands. Any of us could drown in a pool of our own blood while my mother shrieked ‘do you need stitches?’ and ‘can you drive a stick shift and take yourself to the emergency room?’ from behind her mask of clenched fingers.

Luckily, my father was calm around injury. And since we weren’t allowed to skateboard, climb trees, or use any utensils except spoons, we usually got hurt only when my father was home. Usually.

One Spring my mother volunteered to help my Girl Scout Troup while my father was away on business. Long tables were set up with materials to make crafts. There were no scissors, no knives. I remember Styrofoam, pipe cleaners, plastic balls. But what I remember most vividly was a piece of plastic splintering into a weapon beneath my thumb, the shards going in and the blood pulsing out, roaring redder than a cardinal.

Because there was another mother there, a witness, my mother seemed to rise to the challenge. She led me to the bathroom, handed me a towel. But I made the mistake of looking down. And this time, instead of my mother screaming, I was the one who wailed that it was never going to stop! That I was dying! And that was it; it was too much. The blood, the noise, the belief that it would end in the bathroom, with my father at a convention shaking hands when he should have been home holding mine. My mother couldn’t stop the blood, but she could stop the hysteria. She slapped me across the face and said, “Stop!”

She may as well have said split an atom, morph, turn water into wine. The other mother ran up the street to summon a nurse, a calm person accustomed to hysterical children. Her soothing voice confided that thumbs bleed more than other parts of the body, a fact I would carry with me always. (Thirty years later I clung to it like a lifeboat, dripping in a kitchen from a bagel-cutting injury, as my mimosa-fizzed friends insisted I would not die before the lox was served.)

You are guessing I did not choose a career in the healing profession. No. Although I am a writer, my mother’s legacy of, well, hysteria, lives on in my work. My debut novel was about a woman with panic disorder. My current novel, THE BIRD HOUSE, features a paranoid overprotective mom. Yet there are always words I cannot bear to type: Compound Fracture. Jaws of Life. And the worst: Blood.

Live carefully enough, close your eyes during select movie scenes, and you can stay on the blood periphery for a long time. Until a baby arrives on the scene and starts to crawl. On the back of every child containment device it reads: Never Leave Child Unattended. I take this seriously; I must watch them until they go to college. Until then, they must not bleed.

Still, it happens. The phone rings, I turn away. Her formerly perfect forehead slams against a shelf. I pick her up from the carpet, my mother’s words dancing in my head: Is it bad? I turn her over, wincing. No blood, no bump. She stops crying, and I am perplexed. I heard the sound; I felt the vibrations beneath my feet. Do I need to call the doctor? Does she need to go to the ER?

Other people would have called their mother; I knew better. I did the only thing I could think of: I got down on my hands and knees, and recreated the fall. I closed my eyes and pulled my arms away, clunking my own head. Hmmm. It stung a little. My daughter looked at me and cocked her head; even at six months, she understood I was insane.

I didn't call the doctor. I didn’t let my daughter go near the shelves again. And when, the next day, my baby and I sport faint matching bruises on our foreheads, I tell my husband we fell.

“You both fell?” He asks.
“You should be more careful,” he says, sing-song-ing it to our daughter, before he realizes whose child he is talking to.

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