If you’re around my mother enough, at some point, she’ll tell you that she was a soda jerk. If you’re me, you then think of her as “the” soda jerk. In all capital letters. The Soda Jerk. I assume there were good times and people having fun at the drugstore. She never told me about those things. That wasn’t what was important. What she told me was that she learned how to sweep the floor without raising dust. Since I grew up in the house with The Soda Jerk, I must also know how to sweep that way. Although I don’t remember being explicitly taught the technique.
But that’s how she rolls. I don’t specifically remember much. She’s the steady quiet force that molded me into what I am. If I’m a tree, then my father is rain showers and wind and sunrises and sunsets. Noisy and showy. My mother is the soil. When a young tree is planted sometimes there are cables attached to the ground to keep it vertical. She’s the cables. And the ground.
She’s always been there for me. I remember having my tonsils out and she got me a book of comics from the library. Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. It was the only thing that made the pain go away. I read the comics every Sunday. Ever since.
She’s always been watching out for me. Even when I wasn’t aware of it. Which was most of the time. I used to walk to Kindergarten. One day, I was walking to school and was nearly at the end of Alpine Street in Gorham, New Hampshire. A big old car pulled up to the sidewalk. It was the lunch ladies. They offered me a ride to school. Naturally, I accepted. It was cruel to make a kid walk to school, anyway. What I didn’t know was that my mom was watching me walk to the end of the street. Like she did every single day. A hundred yards away, she saw a car pull up and watched me climb in. There was panic. Apparently, I survived, but I learned that she was always watching. I was never much for hitchhiking after that.
I used to get in trouble for saying “crap” or “frigging.” Those are bad words? Yes, they are. One time I was walking up the stairs into the kitchen area of our house in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Mom was balancing a checkbook. Or trying to. She was focused and didn’t see me there.
She said, “Shit.” I was startled and pleased. All right, Mom!
She saw me and clapped her hand over her mouth. The Soda Jerk will always present a proper façade. But there’s something else going on in the background.
There was always a hot meal. There was always a bag lunch for school. My clothes were always clean. The house was always tidy. There were never tantrums or histrionics about housework. And she often had a day job as a dietitian. I suppose my sister and I did chores, but I doubt we made a dent. Ultimately, my parents, largely my mom, made our home a secure place for us to grow. Our home was always squared away. Nowadays, commentary on this might seem sexist. Or condescending. I hope you hear me showing respect for hard work. For the “always.” The kind of commitment to a home and to children that stretches out for decades that I saw (and ignored at the time) should be recognized. Worshipped. Like it was landing on the moon. Or flying across the Atlantic for the first time. But, instead, it’s a quiet kind of commitment. Quiet resolve. Nobody will notice unless you are paying attention over the vast sprawl of time. There are no fireworks to draw your attention. Thankless drudgery for some. For me, it was her gift. A launching pad that threw me and my sister into orbit.
Once, several years ago, my mom had some pretty invasive surgery to fight off cancer. I offered to come home to help. She said no. Years went by. The following is the only conversation I’ve ever had with her about it.
“How’s everything going with your health after…you know.”
Maine Yankee. Quiet resolve.
And now I’m in trouble because lots of people probably don’t even know she got cut on. And I’m still scared of getting in trouble.
But it’s not all stoicism. Once, we were in a store in Portland, Maine. They were selling kites in one corner. She sometimes has a kite in the trunk of her car so she can have an impromptu kite-flying session if the wind is right wherever she is. She was looking at two different kites and trying to decide which one she would buy. She called over the salesman.
“Can you tell me which one of these is more fun?”
To the salesman’s credit, he didn’t flinch or spit-take his coffee into the air, like I would’ve.
“Well, ma’am. This kite here is a lot of fun. But this one can also be really fun.” Dead serious.
“Thank you.” She went back to touching each kite with furrowed brow. Which one?
It was hard for me to smile with my jaw dropped open so far.
She just wants the best. Even when it’s impossible to know.