I never thought of my Mom as a real person, when I was a little girl. Still, she was the center of my universe. Of course she was a person, but not real like I was real, not real like sisters, not real like my friends, not real like anybody I was allowed to call by their first name. Mom was more like a teacher: just there; like the sun is in the morning. Mom never got embarrassed or sick; she was never afraid of the dark or had nightmares; she never got distracted or wanted to play instead of do what moms are supposed to do: be there for kids. Mom was nothing like me.
When Mom showed up at school, I felt myself get taller. My insides felt all tickley, and I wanted to point to her and cry out, “That’s my Mom!” She smiled in a way that made the center of my chest feel warm and glowy. She looked straight into the eyes of Teacher, like she was the only person in the room. That’s the way she talked to me, too. Like she had all the time in the world, and like I was the only person on the planet. Mom listened long and hard before she said what she thought. When she talked, I had to listen, ’cause those brown eyes of hers locked right onto mine, and when that happened, my ears opened right up so her words went straight into my heart, even when my brain argued back and I could feel my bottom eyelids trying to squinch shut; even when what was in my brain came spilling right out of my mouth before I could clamp it shut. That’s ’cause lots of times I didn’t believe what she said: like that stuff about walking in the other guys shoes, and sisters are yours to keep forever, and sometimes it’s okay to get a “B,” and rats live in messy rooms, and creep up and bite toes off at night.
Mom was super-neat and tidy. I was bad at those things, and she said things to me with her straight-lipped voice, “You exasperate me…Just put your clothes away….It’s easier if you do it right the first time…” I tried, but most times got off course because something else was on my mind, like tap-dancing in my new skort, or I was seeing if I could still skip more stair-steps than Bonita when we ran up to our room. Mom never did stuff like that, so she never understood how I could get distracted from keeping a tidy room.
Once I heard Mom tell my friend Betty’s mom that she could see Ma Kettle’s point about never cleaning ’cause everything just got messy again. Ma Kettle looked a tinsy bit like Betty’s mom, short and round with robin-legs and kinda plain. Still, Betty’s mom never had hair flying off in all directions and she never let her bowls slack way down low, and and no woman I knew in real life scratched under her bowls making them flop all around, the way Ma Kettle did.
Betty’s house was messy, but Mom said, it was deep down clean, just a little cluttered. I never saw anyone quite as messy as Ma Kettle, but she had a bunch of boy kids, which was probably more hopeless than my kind of messy.
Mom never got sick, she just took care of kids. When I got sick with the flu or chicken pox, or when I got my tonsils out, Mom brushed my hair with a soft boars’ hair brush, which was about the same as getting soft hugs and kisses that took root in my scalp and sunk right into my soul, where they stayed forever, like one of those indelible marks that Sister Mary Something-or-Other always talked about in catechism.
I heard Mom tell Mrs. R, for across the street, about her doctor visit on account of backaches. I never even knew moms could have aches. Mom said she had to get bare-naked and walk around in front of a special back-doctor, so he could figure out was causing the backaches.
Oh my,” Mrs. R said. “That must have been sooo embarrassing,” and she took a sip of coffee, put her cup on the saucer, and tipped it every-which-away, studying the bottom of the cup, like a bug might me down in there.
Mom said it was embarrassing, but her back hurt that bad. I remember it because for one thing, it was news to me that Mom could hurt, and for another thing, I never even thought about Mom naked, let alone walking around in a doctor’s office, while he was sitting there writing in a tablet and peering at her over his glasses and making those scratchy-coughy sounds in the back of his throat the way all doctors do. That was kinda like one of my nightmares come true: where I show up for school with nothing on but my slip. Only in my nightmare, nobody noticed, I’m just living in fear that someone will, before the day is out and I can get safely back home.
Now that I’m a grown, I realize, just like me, Mom was once a little girl, too. This year, I asked my grand-daughter if she learned anything on her first day back at school. She wiggled around, dancing one foot down the porch step, and back up again, distracted because she had other things on her mind. Her eyes danced as they met mine, and I saw her lips press together holding something that her brain wanted to let out. As our eyes looked into each others’ soul, I remembered how proud she was to have me as her mystery reader. My Lord, I thought, she’s a real person, not just a little girl. Just like me.