As a new mom, I had great visions of the sensitive young men my baby boys would grow up to be. My boys, I told myself, would never play aggressive sports like football. But after my first son cried and begged for an entire year to join his friends on the football team, I finally relented and soon found myself sitting in the stands and biting my tongue when the coach yelled, “Be tough! Don’t act like a girl!”
Eventually, my sons convinced me to bring television into the house, and with TV came name-brand shoes and clothes, slang speech, stooped posture, and “cool” hairstyles. As much as I dislike our consumer culture, I have come to accept my rough-talking boys with their baggy jeans and shaved heads. I realize that, as young males growing up today, they need to fit in.
My brother and his wife recently had another baby girl. My sons, who already adored their first girl cousin, were thrilled at the news of a second. We went to a local crafts fair to pick out a gift for the newborn. Coming upon a collection of handmade baby clothes, the boys and I admired and discussed possible outfits.
“These purple pansies are cool,” one son commented.
“Touch this corduroy,” his brother said. “It feels good.”
When we brought the perfect ensemble over to the vendor, I was surprised to see her face filled with emotion. She said she traveled to a lot of shows, but she’d never seen boys get so involved in picking out a baby outfit. We had made her day.
I guess my sons’ unique, loving hearts are intact beneath their rough exteriors.
Pamela L. Bordisso
My son Andrew and I are in the car. He is talking, but I’m not listening. I have just cleared all remnants of my ex-boyfriend from my home, gathering up his T-shirts, underwear, toiletries, and other odds and ends, and tossing them all — fittingly — into a garbage bag. Now I’m on my way to his house, supposedly to deliver these items and nothing more. But who am I kidding? I just want to see him again.
I’m thirty-seven and divorced. I’ve been through breakups before, but this one blindsided me. All my plans for the future dissipated in the blink of an eye.
Andrew is taking the breakup in stride. He realized years ago that he couldn’t wish a stepfather into his life. For a nine-year-old, he seems a little too wise, perhaps even jaded, about the realities of adult relationships.
As we turn the corner onto my ex-boyfriend’s street, I clutch the steering wheel tighter. The sight of his house sends me into a near panic: I no longer have any right to be here. I know now that I’ve made a mistake, but I can’t turn back. I pull up to the curb and tell Andrew to wait in the car.
As I knock on the door, I half expect a strange woman wearing only a dish towel to answer. But nothing happens. He’s out, probably enjoying the beautiful summer morning, and I’m knocking on the door of his empty house. Feeling embarrassed, I hang the bag full of items he never would have missed on the doorknob and slump back to the car.
Andrew chats amiably on the way home, as if he doesn’t notice that I’m not holding up my end of the conversation. I reach under my sunglasses and wipe away a tear. There’s a throbbing pressure at the back of my head.
As soon as I park the car in our driveway and shut off the engine, I fall apart. Resting my head on the steering wheel, I let the tears fall.
Andrew urgently pats my back, worried and afraid. “Mom, what is it? What’s wrong?”
I tell him the truth: “I’m just so sad.”
Eventually, I pull myself together, and we go inside. Trying to stay busy — and to convince my son that I haven’t completely cracked up — I do the dishes, scrub the sink, and mop the floor. When I’m through, I notice that the house is eerily quiet. I walk down the hallway and find Andrew doing the one thing a nine-year-old knows to do to make his mother smile: he is cleaning his room.
I don’t remember why I stayed home from school that day. The usual childhood complaints carried little weight with my mother, whose standard response was “Take an aspirin.” But on this particular morning, I was allowed to stay home, and I chattered away nonstop as Mom rolled out a pie crust on the yellow-tiled kitchen countertop.
I knelt in my father’s dining chair with my elbows propped on the counter. I knew Mom was irritated, but I took no particular notice. She was always irritated about one thing or another. If she gave any clues that her annoyance was about to exceed its usual limits, they were lost on me.
Suddenly, something I said caused her smoldering anger to flare into a bright red blaze. Immobilized by terror, I watched as my mother pivoted toward me, the rolling pin raised over her head, her lower lip clenched between her teeth. When she snarled, “You son of a bitch,” I bolted.
I ran for the foyer, then rounded the corner into the living room, my mother hard on my heels. I circled back into the kitchen, and Mom continued after me, hurling curses as she came. We went round and round like this several times before I gained enough ground to make a break for it. Flipping the laundry-room door closed behind me, I flung open the back door and burst outside to safety. My frustrated mother hurled a final “God damn you!” then slammed the door, clipping off the sound of her sobs. I stood staring at the door’s swaying curtains, the same gauzy yellow as the ones above the kitchen sink, as she snapped the deadbolt home, making my banishment complete.
I waited in one spot for hours, until I finally heard the brittle click of the door being unlocked, signaling an end to the day’s hostilities.
That was only one day among many that led to a mutual animosity between my mother and me. In my thirties, that animosity gave way to cold detachment, and more recently, to wary reconciliation.
Not long ago, Mom called to gossip about another family member’s alleged misbehavior. Not being without sin myself, I declined to comment and suggested that she talk directly to the people involved. For some reason, my evasive response caused her to burst into tears. “What did I ever do to you?” she wailed.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I have lived waiting for her rolling pin, softly whistling as it descends, to splatter my brains across her yellow kitchen.
Castro Valley, California
I hold my toddler’s hand as he lifts one leg and then the other into the tub. Hints of muscle dance around the last traces of baby fat on his calves and thighs. He smiles up at me and sits down hard, splashing us both. I lather the soles of his feet, his hands, and his underarms.
“Don’t wash my penis,” he says.
“I’ll do it.”
“OK. Be sure to pull your foreskin back.” He’s not quite three; I wonder if he even knows what a foreskin is.
“I know,” he says confidently, pulling his whole penis forward. We settle for him holding his penis while I douse it with water.
After the bath, I wrap him in a towel and carry him to my bed, where I lay him beneath the down comforter. Scooping moisturizing cream into my hand, I rub it along the length of one of his legs until it shines like a buttery Christmas turkey. Then I return that leg to the warmth of the comforter and pull out the other.
There will come a time when my son will not want this kind of intimacy with me. Our physical contact will be reduced to the occasional hug and peck on the cheek. We will not lie with our heads on the same pillow, breathing each other’s breath. He will not lay his beautiful head on my breast and say, “I love you, Mommy.”
I can only hope that the intimacy he and I have now will teach him how a loving relationship should be.
I wouldn’t say we were ever a “normal” family, but at least we kept up the pretense — until Dad left, that is. Then Mom began drinking more and more and entered into a promiscuous phase.
The strangers Mom would bring home from bars were hard to predict. I’d keep my ears open, listening until the man would leave. Once he was gone — occasionally taking something of value with him — I’d bolt the door and check to make sure Mom was OK and hadn’t fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. Then I would try to get some sleep.
Our one-room apartment didn’t allow for privacy, and I sometimes watched Mom have sex. The first time, I wasn’t sure what was happening. I thought this strange man was hurting her. I didn’t know what to do. Should I dial 911? Sneak out and get help? Then I realized, to my horror, that she was liking it.
I take solace in the fact that Mom didn’t mean to have sex in front of me. She was just too drunk and desperate for affection to remember that she had a child in the room.
I was elated when Mom announced that she had a steady boyfriend. Joe lived in a small metal box of a trailer surrounded by dozens of others just like it. The night I met him, he tried to act the part of a dad. He and Mom and I played a game, popped popcorn, and watched a movie.
I remember Mom whispering excitedly to me while Joe fiddled with the TV antenna: “Guess what — I don’t feel like drinking when I’m with him. He doesn’t believe in it. We just have some coffee and talk!” Her face was aglow. “Just like you’ve always wanted,” she added.
But moments later, while Mom was in the bathroom, the girl who delivered Joe’s newspaper came by to collect some money, and he cornered her and asked her to give him “some pussy.” As the girl slipped out, calling him a pervert, I thought about what this would do to Mom. I couldn’t imagine telling her.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to. Two weeks later, Mom and I went to the trailer park to deliver a present to Joe. Mom was an artistic person when she wasn’t drinking. She could draw and paint and had once even made a sculpture of my dad. On this day, she’d crafted a little housewarming present out of popsicle sticks, a wall hanging with the word welcome.
When we knocked, Joe didn’t answer. His tin-can trailer was empty.
“He moved out in the middle of the night,” the property manager told us in disgust. “Screwed me for the rent.”
Mom couldn’t believe it. She’d just loaned Joe all the money in her bank account.
“There must be some mistake,” Mom said to the manager. “I just talked to him last night.”
“Sorry, honey,” the manager said.
I looked down and bit my lip, trying to keep from crying. My mother stood there for a while with the popsicle-stick creation dangling by a string from her hand. Trying to maintain some dignity in the presence of her child, she smiled through her tears, took my hand, and said, “How about we get some hot dogs and a root beer?”
That’s my last clear memory of my mother. Not long after that, I had to go and live with relatives. Staying with her had become too dangerous.
When my son Robin was two years old, I became frustrated with his aggressive behavior. The more I tried to teach him to be gentle, the rowdier he became. I was beginning to attribute his frequent kicking and throwing to some sort of character flaw.
Then one night, we both awoke at 4 A.M., and, after a snack in the kitchen, Robin ran off to the toy room, where he began to play loudly with balls and sticks and drums. Without my daytime chores to distract me, I was able to sit down alongside the trucks and puppets and watch his wild play. I soon felt myself being drawn into the fun. Unable to resist, I spontaneously grabbed a toy car and rammed it into a tower of blocks. Robin surveyed the rubble with delight, then gave me a surprised look that said, “You know how to play!”
We began to rebuild our tower. Robin could hardly wait for the stack of blocks to be finished before he crashed his car into it. We played like this until sunrise, building houses, towers, and walls for our toy cars to knock down.
During the last twenty years, my work has taken me to Australia, Brazil, China, and other far-flung destinations. I try not to call my mother while I’m away on overseas trips, waiting until I get home to tell her I’m safe. This spares me from having to listen to her well-intentioned travel-safety tips, such as “Don’t leave the hotel.”
Last fall, though, I broke with tradition and called my mom from the sports bar at the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong at nine o’clock on a steamy Saturday morning. A group of forty or so Americans had assembled there to watch live satellite TV coverage of the first game of the 2000 World Series, the famed “subway series” between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees.
During the second inning, I picked up my cellphone and called my seventy-year-old mom in Erie, Pennsylvania. I knew she’d be watching the game from her easy chair, and I wanted her to know that I was watching it, too; that I was somehow connected to her, even though we were twelve time zones and ten thousand miles apart.
I called her several more times over the course of that record-length game. I’m sure the other fans in the bar thought it odd that this bleary-eyed, middle-aged man spent so much time on the phone with his mother. They couldn’t have known that this was a special occasion for us.
I was born in the summer of 1956, the year of the last subway series, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yankees. A fussy, colicky baby, I cried unless kept in constant motion. All day and most of the night, my parents pushed, rocked, and carried me around to keep me from screaming.
My mother was — and is — a rabid Yankees fan. Determined to root for her team and keep her firstborn son from wailing, she placed me in the baby carriage, propped a transistor radio up next to me, and tuned it to the first game of the series. Then she pushed me around and around our upstate New York neighborhood, ear cocked to the radio, pausing only to cheer for the Yanks. She must have looked like a madwoman to the neighbors who saw her from their windows or front porches, but she was oblivious to their stares. She claims she listened to most of the 1956 World Series this way.
So when, forty-four years later, I phoned my mother during that first game of the 2000 World Series, it felt as if I’d come full circle.
Kurt E. Cavano
Ocean Grove, New Jersey
My husband and I both believed in the family-bed concept. From infancy, our son slept in our bed or in a crib adjacent to it. As he grew, we brought in a single bed to adjoin our double. This arrangement was a comfort to all of us: my husband and I knew our son was OK, and he knew we were always there. Mornings were particularly sweet, as we woke up with a beautiful, cooing baby crawling across our bodies.
When my son was four, my husband and I got a divorce, and I soon entered into a new relationship. I don’t know whether my lover actually objected to the family bed or I just assumed that he would, but at that point, I insisted that my son begin sleeping in another room. My son’s anger over this new development manifested itself in moodiness, crying fits, and nightly battles that often ended with him sobbing himself to sleep. I felt torn between my motherly instincts and the need to appease my lover. Trying to compensate, I indulged my son in other ways and became inconsistent with discipline. In time, he began to wear a look of sad bewilderment.
My son is now twelve, and I have remarried. My husband is a good stepfather, but he is strongly opposed to physical proximity between my son and me. He doesn’t understand that a mother’s kiss is not a French kiss, but an ambivalent consummation: a blessing laced with sadness over the separation that begins with birth.
Sometimes when I’m taking a nap, my son comes in and lies down on top of the covers. He is no longer cuddly, but fidgety and talkative. If we hear my husband’s footsteps on the stairs, one or both of us will jump off the bed. We haven’t forgotten the time when the door flew open and my husband unleashed a litany of angry accusations.
Still, I welcome any opportunity for closeness with my son. During our conversations, I have to fight the urge to put my arm around him and hold him. I imagine that, if I did this, the emotional dam that has held for so long would break. We are both careful not to cross that line.
When coming out to friends and family, I saved the worst for last: my mom. She was the one for whom my revelation would be the most difficult, the most devastating. All the previous conversations had been just dress rehearsals for this final, climactic step.
Once I’d uttered the words “Mom, I’m gay,” the rest of my prepared speech tumbled out in a cathartic rush: Not to worry, I was happy. And safe. Above all, it wasn’t her fault. Being gay was a blessing. In fact, if there were a “straight pill,” I wouldn’t take it. I was still the same son she’d always known, only now she knew everything.
When I’d finished, my mom sat immobile in her reading chair, clutching her novel on her lap, apparently oblivious to all that I’d said after the initial bombshell.
“I’ve always pitied gay people,” she finally sobbed.
The following week, though, my mother left me an answering-machine message that took me by surprise: “Well, I just attended my first PFLAG meeting. I cried the whole time, but they said that was normal.”
Incredible: I had only briefly mentioned the support group PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — figuring it would take a relentless campaign of pleading and cajoling to convince her to attend a meeting, and here she’d already tracked down the local chapter.
A few months later, my mom and I attended the PFLAG national convention. After a long day of workshops and speeches, we enjoyed a performance by the local gay chorus. “It is such a pleasure to sing for all you parents out there,” the choral director said, his voice cracking, “because we can never do so for our own parents.”
My mom shook her head in disbelief.
“This is why I wanted you to come,” I whispered, putting my arm around her. “Now you know how special you are. Please be there for others who aren’t as lucky as I am.”
Several weeks after that, my mom left another message on my machine: “Well,” she said in mock exasperation, “I just joined my first PFLAG committee.”
And so my mom became an advocate for other people’s children. But she never forgot to support me, as well.
“I pray every day that God will send you a boyfriend,” she once confided to me. “It felt odd at first, but I’m getting used to it.”
My first husband and I adopted a thirteen-month-old Canadian Indian boy. We named him Jeff and cherished him as much as we did the five-year-old daughter to whom I had given birth. Jeff was a good-natured child, fun loving and affectionate. At the age of five, he was the first to comfort me after my father died. And when I lay seriously ill, he wiped my forehead with a damp cloth.
When Jeff was fourteen, my daughter developed a malignant brain tumor. She died after a three-year battle, and the long tragedy proved too much for my marriage. Jeff, though, continued to display steady devotion to both his father and me as we established separate lives.
After finishing school, Jeff joined the Marine Corps, and I remarried while he was away serving his four years. When his letters grew less frequent, I attributed the change to growing up and the distractions of his duties.
Shortly after his stint was up, I received word from Jeff that he had been contacted by his birth family in Canada. He said the “band” — their word for tribe — wanted to pay his way up there for a special celebration. He’d decided to go.
I welcomed this news, happy that Jeff would have an opportunity to explore his roots. Though he’d never expressed much interest in his origins, he now sounded genuinely excited as he told me he was going to meet his eleven younger brothers and sisters, and that his birth father was the chief of their band. I anxiously awaited his return from the visit, eager to hear all the details.
When Jeff’s call finally came, however, I was stunned by what he told me. He began by calling me “Sarah,” not “Mom.” Then, in an almost practiced fashion, he said that he had called to say goodbye, that he was changing back to his Indian name and moving to Canada, and that he wanted to thank me for all I had done for him. I sputtered that surely there was room in his heart for two families and asked him to please stay in touch. He seemed to soften a bit and ended the conversation with a promise to come and see me before he left.
But that visit proved a disappointment, too. Jeff wore a T-shirt that said, on the front, OUR FRIENDS, with pictures of famous Indian chiefs; and, on the back, OUR ENEMIES, with pictures of Custer and other infamous Indian fighters. He seemed to be playing a role, trying to act tough and defiant to hide the real struggle that was going on inside. The night he left, he stiffened when I tried to hug him, and then stared stoically past me as I cried.
Jeff has been living among his birth family in Canada for almost two and a half years now. He calls intermittently, usually when he is between girlfriends and feeling lonely. He is unemployed and seems adrift. I’ve asked if I can come see him, but his answer is either that I wouldn’t be welcome there or that it’s “not a good time” for him. He has alluded to alcohol abuse among band members, and I fear he has begun drinking too much himself. He told me recently that he had been arrested for sexual assault, though the charges were later dropped.
Now I worry and grieve and torture myself with regret over the times my daughter’s illness took precedence over Jeff’s needs. I am sorry we didn’t keep his Indian name when we adopted him. I am sorry we didn’t better prepare him to deal with racial prejudice.
Jeff is thirty now, but he is still a little boy in my dreams. The other night, I dreamed of him again: he was about four years old, and he was floating up into the sky, like a kite without a string, drifting farther and farther away.
My five-year-old son is furious with me. He calls me “butthead,” “stupid,” “idiot,” and “poo-poo head.” He throws himself on the floor and cries with rage. He hates me.
Five minutes later, he rolls up into a ball and squeezes onto my lap: “I’m your baby, Mommy. Pretend.”
“OK,” I say. “You’re my baby.” I stroke his face and tuck his hair back behind his ears. “Here, Baby,” I say, “here’s your bottle. Now I need to change your diaper.” I tickle his sides as I pretend to change him. He giggles. “Change me again! “ he says. He loves me.
Then his little brother walks into the room to ask me a question. “Don’t talk to him,” my older son snarls, his eyes narrowed to slits.
My parents divorced when I was seven, and my mother, my little brother, and I went to live with my mother’s parents in Pittsburgh. My grandmother was a heavyset Hungarian woman with thick arms and legs and a booming voice that announced her dominion over the household. Though generally a loving person, she was also a strict disciplinarian with a fiery temper.
My mother’s seventeen-year-old sister was still living at home. One rainy day, my grandmother ordered her to drive my brother and me to school. My aunt refused, they argued, and my grandmother picked up an umbrella and beat my aunt, screaming, “Talk that way to me again! Go ahead!” Bruised, bleeding, and weeping, my aunt drove us to school. My brother and I sat in the back seat, silent with fear.
Months later, when Grandma caught my brother and me playing with matches, we experienced her wrath firsthand. She stood us against the wall, took Grandpa’s belt, and whipped us one at a time. Our mother had to leave the room to keep from crying.
After the whipping, we were sent to bed an hour early. We lay with our blankets up to our chins, blubbering loudly. Suddenly, our door banged open, and we saw the silhouette of our grandmother in the doorway.
“You stop this noise now,” she said, “or it will be worse for you!” But we were both so terrified, we only cried harder. “I warned you!” she yelled, and she stormed downstairs, leaving the door open. A moment later, we heard two sets of footsteps coming up the stairs, and two voices.
“Get out of my way!” our grandmother shouted.
“Please, Mom,” our mother cried, “they can’t help it!”
“I’ll make them help it!”
Our mother appeared outside our bedroom and quickly closed the door, but not before we saw Grandma coming up the steps, her new umbrella raised over her head. There was a struggle. The door opened partway and then closed again as our mother fought to keep Grandma out.
“God damn you!” our grandmother shouted. We heard the umbrella hit our mother, and we heard our mother scream. I cried even louder, feeling helpless as I listened to the umbrella strike her repeatedly.
We never spoke of that night, but I’ve not forgotten how our mother put herself in harm’s way to protect us.
Bowling Green, Florida
Forty-two years ago, if a nineteen-year-old girl became pregnant, and her lover did not want to marry her, life as she knew it soon came to an end. It certainly did for me. Three months pregnant and deserted by the man I had idiotically thought would love me for the rest of my life, I was whisked off to my aunt and uncle’s farm, where I would give birth and my baby would immediately be taken for adoption.
When the baby came, I heard the sound of its cries, but I could not bear to look at its face, fearing that seeing it would only make it harder for me to let go. I wouldn’t even have known that the baby was a boy had the midwife not asked my aunt to hold “him” as they wrapped him in sheets before taking him away for good.
In the decades that followed, despite my initial numb denial, I was haunted by thoughts of my faceless baby. I never had another child.
When my doctor told me I had cancer and gave me only two to five years to live, I knew I wanted to do one thing before taking my last breath: see my son’s face. It took months to locate his adoptive family, a Welsh couple living across the Atlantic. When I finally made contact with them, they informed me that their son Nathan — my faceless baby — had passed away just two years before, after a long and painful battle with AIDS.
Nothing can numb the pain of losing a son twice. I am happy now that I don’t have too much time left on this earth. At least when I die, I will finally be where my baby is.
I didn’t think it was a big deal, but Mom was furious. On a third-grade quiz, where it said, “The sky is __,” I’d written, “Purple,” and my teacher had put a giant red X through it.
I’d seen my mom angry before, but this time was different: she was taking my side.
Mom said she was going to school to talk to my teacher. I pleaded with her to let the matter go. After all, I’d still gotten a good grade on my paper.
“No,” she replied firmly. So I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.
Later I overheard my mother telling my father about the encounter: Mom had started out by asking my thin-lipped, no-smiles teacher why she’d marked the answer wrong. On the defensive, my teacher had responded that the correct answer was blue. But Mom had insisted that the sky has many different shades, including purple, and that she wouldn’t narrow her child’s view of the world.
It has taken me nearly forty years to appreciate fully what Mom did for me that day. By standing up for her principles, she taught me never to let anyone take away my unique view of the world.
Spring Mills, Pennsylvania
My mom once told me that, after having three girls, she was so happy to have a baby boy that she unknowingly showered me with extra attention. Now she knows she is doing it, but she can’t help it. She says she likes to do extra things for me. I don’t know how long this special treatment will last, but I plan to enjoy it while it does.
It’s funny — at least, it’s funny to me — how mad my sisters get when our mom waits on me at meals. They always say, “Oh, yes, get the favorite son some more milk. Make sure he doesn’t have to do anything for himself.” I don’t care. I like the attention. When I come downstairs in the morning, Mom always has my orange juice poured and the newspaper open to the sports section. There’s usually a bowl of cereal with a little pitcher of milk beside it. After I sit down, she serves the toast and peanut butter. All this, of course, is after she has awakened me with a cup of hot chocolate.
My sisters would like to know: what is it about mothers and their sons? If my sisters take off in the morning without making their beds, then that’s the way their beds stay for the day. If I leave without making mine — which is more often than not — Mom always manages to have it made up by the time I get home from school. And if I happen to forget my lunch, all I have to do is give Mom a call, and she will deliver it to the school office. She even takes the blame for not making sure I had it when I left.
I can understand why the girls get annoyed, but rather than being jealous of me, they should just accept the situation and realize that they’ll probably treat their own sons the same way someday.
At the time of our marriage, my husband and I were both raising adolescent boys. Because the boys were loath to accept new authority figures into their lives, it seemed easiest for my husband to be the primary parental authority for his two sons, while I remained the authority for my one.
About six months into our marriage, we learned that my eighth-grader, David, and my husband’s seventh-grader, Bob, had skipped school together. I took David off into one bedroom to discuss the matter, and my husband took Bob into another.
Two hours later, David and I emerged, both of us red-eyed and spent. I felt certain that David sincerely regretted his misdeed, that he understood how much he had disappointed me, and that he truly intended not to do it again.
Bob’s encounter with his father, on the other hand, was over in five minutes. After lots of yelling and a bit of shoving, my husband grounded Bob for two weeks with no TV.
Afterward, of course, Bob asked David what his punishment was. David was at a loss for an answer.
Diane K. Fisher
From the time my son began to eat, I fed him only organic fruits and vegetables. I juiced them up, added brewer’s yeast, and watched him grow into a big, strong, healthy boy.
On his third birthday, we were taking the bus to the local YMCA for a swim when he announced to everyone within earshot, “Today’s my birthday.”
“That’s great,” the bus driver said. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going swimming, and then Mama made bran muffins and lentil soup.”
“Oh,” the driver said, “you poor little boy.”
My son had no war toys. Instead, we took walks with my old wagon and sled and spent hours reading and playing noncompetitive games. I took him along when I marched with local peace groups, shouting, “No nukes!” I even registered him as a conscientious objector when he was only weeks old. And I kept a vigil once a week at our local military recruiting center with a sign that read, OUR CHILDREN ARE NOT CANNON FODDER.
After his graduation from high school, my son went to that same recruitment center and enlisted in the Marine Corps for four years. When I drove him to the airport for his overseas tour, he said, “Don’t worry, Mom. It’s not about you. It’s about who I am.”
I smiled, hugged him, and said, “Be a good Marine.” Then I drove off fighting tears, wondering why I had said that. Was “a good Marine” really something I wanted him to be?
My son was a good Marine. He received the Marine of the Month award. (I did not ask him how one wins such an honor.) If I had him to raise all over again, I would not do anything differently. I got to be myself, and he got to be who he is.
When my son was two, there was a virus going around that would steal the breath from children, causing them to suffer attacks similar to asthma. Some wound up in oxygen tents, barely able to breathe. My son was one of the lucky ones. His attacks were relatively mild.
Nighttimes were the worst. My son would wake up screaming and gasping for air. Desperate to give him some relief, I would fill the bathtub with steaming hot water, climb in with him, and close the shower curtain, creating a sanctuary of water and steam. Then we would sink down into the water and lie there, chest to chest, in our own secret world. As the steam gently loosened the congestion in my son’s lungs, his body would slowly relax, and he would drop off to sleep.
We performed this ritual night after night for about a month. Then, as suddenly as they had begun, the attacks stopped.
Today my son is a six-foot-five quarryman. He doesn’t remember those nights when we lay heart to heart in a cocoon of steam and warm water. But I do.
My mother was a quiet, enigmatic, shy woman. One summer day when I was no more than twelve, I engaged her in an indoor game of roughhousing. She seldom played with me or gave me any more attention or affection than was necessary, so I was delighted by her indulgence.
I had a size and strength advantage over my mother and soon pinned her to the sofa. I was practically lying on top of her, pressing her down with my lower body and pinning her wrists with my hands. I felt powerful.
Then she looked up at me, and I felt something else, too — something strange and awful. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew something was wrong, and I let her up and moved away, oddly shaken. It had been an innocent game. I had done nothing. But my mother’s eyes had exposed to me something I didn’t want to see.
I still feel strange when I think of that incident on the sofa. That’s when I became aware of something deep and dark between my mother and me; something unspoken and unfulfilled, yet powerful enough to create a gulf between us that would never be bridged.
I sit in my car, in the shadows, across the street from the church meeting hall. The engine is off, the radio silent. I let my head fall back against the seat as I watch the men and women milling around outside the church building on a break from their Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Gradually, they finish their cigarettes and go back inside. They are middle-aged housewives who once filled the void in their existence with a golden brew in a heavy-bottomed glass; macho guys brought to their knees by a wife’s ultimatum: It’s me or the booze; and my nineteen-year-old son, whom I thought I could save from all this.
When my son was a toddler, it was easy to make his boo-boos disappear with a magic kiss and a Band-Aid. But when his father and I divorced during his teens, the wound cut to the bone, and he looked around for a stronger anesthetic. Unfortunately, he carries the genetic code of his alcoholic forefathers: of his maternal grandfather, who, after being a prisoner of war, became a prisoner of the bottle; of his paternal great-grandfather, who drowned his sorrows in the same bottomless cask.
I also remember my son — old enough to toddle toward me on wobbly legs but young enough still to want the breast — climbing onto my lap, lifting my shirt, and nuzzling until he found a nipple. Then he would lay his head on my arm, close his eyes, and suck. While he nursed, he would play with his toes or the buttons on my shirt, and I would stroke the down on the side of his face. Soon his eyelids would become heavy, and he would drift off to sleep.
Tonight my son went into his meeting alone, but a year ago, when he attended AA for the first time, he asked me to come with him. The invitation both cheered me and broke my heart. That first night, when he said his name and admitted his problem, we smiled at each other through our tears, silently acknowledging all the things that had brought us there together.
Silhouettes of men and women now emerge from the church hall as the meeting lets out. I spot my son among the group spilling onto the sidewalk: he’s walking with a middle-aged man, who pats him on the shoulder. They part with a wave, and as my son heads across the street toward my car, I hear the man call out to him, “Congratulations, kid.”
“Look, Mom,” my son says as he gets into the car. I turn on the inside light to see what he wants to show me: a white key chain that reads, ONE YEAR CLEAN AND SERENE.
I stroke the stubble on the side of his face.
My son is fourteen years old. I’ve always prided myself on being a laid-back, open-minded mom. Recently, though, my son and my lover took a theater class together at the local college, and my lover mentioned to me that he had noticed my son checking out the women during the rehearsals.
“Oh, no,” I cried. “I hope he isn’t being obnoxious about it.”
“No, he’s very subtle,” my lover replied. “But if he’s like me when I was his age, he’s having erections every five minutes.”
“No way!” I yelled. “Not my baby. He’s only having three erections in his entire life, and those will be to make my grandbabies!”
I was shocked to hear myself expressing these completely unreasonable feelings. I’d never intended to be this sort of mother.
When I was three years sober, my father died suddenly, and my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a month later. As the only unmarried child in the family, I moved back home and became my mother’s caregiver.
I was glad that she could handle her most personal hygiene by herself at first. As she began to need more and more care, however, it became clear that I would have to familiarize myself with “down there.”
One sunny afternoon, the time arrived. I held my sixty-pound mother in my left arm, her dull black hair tickling my chin, and wiped her clean. She was quietly weeping, as was I. I asked her why she cried.
“I’m embarrassed for you,” she said. Then she asked, “Why are you crying?”
I said, “I’m embarrassed for you.”
She died two months later.
I remember going to church when I was a kid and hearing about God, who was supposedly all-loving, but would send you to hell for eternity if you crossed him. It looks to me now as if the ancient Hebrews — or the Puritans, or the Methodists — had projected their own dysfunctional fathers onto God. Maybe their fathers, like mine, drank too much and were inconsistent and violent. After all, why else would the omnipotent Creator of the Universe be angered by — much less waste his time exacting revenge upon — a bunch of people just bumbling along as best they can in difficult circumstances?
Somehow, in spite of the wrathful God presented to me in church, I have always sensed that God is actually a gentle, loving presence, a voice inside me, telling me that the world is a wondrous place, that people are good at heart, that the real purpose of life is to spend time loving others, and that everything else will somehow work out for the best.
Until recently, I never thought much about the origin of that voice. Then, a few weeks ago, my wife and I watched our wedding video, and I listened again to the speech my mom had given at the service. From the time I was a tiny baby, she said, she used to talk to me in my sleep. (She joked that, when I was awake, I wasn’t especially good at listening.) I could picture her as a young mother, sitting in a rocking chair in an almost empty apartment in Oregon, feeling abandoned and sad because my dad was off riding motorcycles with his buddies, leaving her alone and penniless for days at a time in a strange place where she knew no one.
In my mind, I could hear her softly telling me — or maybe singing to me — that the world really isn’t as harsh as it sometimes seems, and that life would be better for me if I could find a way to trust in the world’s goodness. I could see her holding me in her arms, reciting these same truths over and over.
At the wedding, she said she was proud of me, because I had always acted as if I had taken to heart all the things she’d told me during those early years.
Because of her, I still feel a loving presence in the world, with a voice that sings like a mother to her child.