May is so special for mothers – Mother’s Day is nestled among its days, and May is Mama Mary’s month. We traditionally celebrate the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles and the Commemoration of the Visitation in May. Very special for mothers, too, is writer Erma Bombeck (1927-1996), who published countless newspapers articles and 15 books, mostly on suburbia and motherhood, all of them humorous and moving. One of my favorites is Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (McGraw-Hill, 1983), and, nestled among its pages, is a very special piece essaying a mother’s love. I’d like to share it, dedicating it not just to mothers, but to fathers too, pairing it up with a quote from the dearly departed Ms Bombeck herself: “A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.”
Had Julie not been deceased, it was a funeral she would have loved.
The minister, in his desperate struggle for an analogy of comfort, said to her three sons sitting rigid in the front row, “Think of your mother as the spirit leaving the body. The shell is here, but the nut is gone.”
The organist forgot the music and the only song she knew by heart was “Days of Wine and Roses.”
And her middle son, Steve, flew in from school with only the shoes on his feet . . .a pair of red, white and blue Adidas with stars that glowed in the dark, which he wore with a three-piece brown suit.
It was hard to believe Julie was dead at forty eight, the victim of a “kind” of cancer that acts quickly and with accuracy.
Chuck, the eldest, had been in his apartment when his grandmother called with the news. All he had been told until then was that his mother had been “a little tired lately.” She had been so proud of her son, “the television mogul.” Actually, he was a propman for a sitcom, but his degree had been in cinema and he knew the language. Every time they were together he couldn’t resist showing off. “What movies have you been to lately, Mom?”
Julie: “’The Seduction of Miss Marple’ and I loved it…
Chuck: “It missed making a statement.”
Julie: “Up to a point. Of course, the one I really liked was ‘Trilogy: Blood, Sex and Violence.’ It was breathtakingly…”
Chuck: “Stargins had a concept. But it just didn’t work.”
Julie: “Dull. You’re absolutely right. I thought ‘Slime’ was really gross…”
Chuck: “Beautiful, sensitive film.”
Julie: “… grossed a million and worth every penny.”
How could he have been such a superior jerk? Now it was too late to say he was sorry. He had had no right to put her down. He fingered the letter in his pocket addressed to him in his mother’s hand and opened it slowly. It was her last message to him. He unfolded the pages carefully as if to savor them.
Since this letter is for no one’s eyes but yours, I can tell you that I always loved you best.
Maybe it was because you were the first miracle to stir inside me. The first hint of my immortality.
You were a part of the lean years for your father and me… the part that brought laughter to poverty, warmth to cold, success to failures.
You were the original model. There would be others who would come after you who might blow bigger air bubbles, burp louder, talk earlier, walk faster or “go potty” sooner, but you did it first.
You may have suffered a bit from our inexperience with open pins, clumsy baths, and overprotection, but you got something better. You got our patience, our stamina, and our youth.
You got the part of us that was the best we had to give. Our struggle and our triumph over it. You were Hamburger Helper. You were redeeming bottles for movies. You were fresh grandparents who woke you up when you were asleep to rock you to sleep. You were six volumes of baby pictures and a set of encyclopedias. You were house calls for gas pains. You were strained lamb. You were the beginning. You were wanted and you were loved.
Chuck folded the letter quickly as Steve slid in beside him.
“Did you get a penknife with those?” he snapped, nodding towards the red, white and blue jogging shoes.
“No, a Frisbee.”
Steve took a deep breath and tried to focus anywhere but on his brothers. He hadn’t been able to look at Chuck since he had read the letter his mother had sent him. He had never known she felt that way about him or even why.
Steve had worked on being a maverick. Every time he screwed up, his mom always took him aside and said they understood, but they didn’t. Not really. A couple of years ago they took his other brother Tim to visit Chuck at school for a weekend and left him in charge of the house.
Why couldn’t she have blown up like any other mother would have? Instead, the night they returned, she said, “Want to tell me what happened?”
“What makes you think anything happened?” he asked.
“The thirty neighbors standing around in their nightclothes watching three police cruisers parked on our front lawn and the dog that is wearing my underwear. A lucky guess.”
“I had a party.”
“According to the police you had a 746.”
“What’s a 746?”
“I’ll read it to you. ‘Blocking off street for a parade without permission, illegal parking of two Porta-Johns on a carport, holding an assistant principal against his will, an unlawful assembly of 150 people in a house built as a single-family dwelling.”
Why had he been so stupid? All he had to say was “I’m sorry” and she’d have forgiven him, but he couldn’t say it. Now he’d never get the chance. He felt the letter. It was still there. How could she have known him so well?
You must have suspected, but I will say it anyway. I have always loved you best.
You drew such a stupid spot in the family and instead of caving in you became all the stronger for it. How I did admire your fire, your independence, and your impatience. You may have worn faded, played with chipped toys, and never in your life did anything first, but you rose above it.
You are the child we relaxed with and enjoyed. The one who made us realize that a dog could kiss you in the mouth and you wouldn’t die from it. If you missed a nap you wouldn’t get sick. If you sucked on a pacifier until age two, your teeth wouldn’t grow in a circle.
You were a part of our busy, ambitious years. The time when priorities and values can get so mixed up. But you reminded us of what we were all about and put us back on course when we strayed.
You were the sibling that unseated the only child. You were spaghetti and meatballs at eight months. You were checking accounts written down to twenty-seven cents. You were shared birthdays. You were arguments over bills. You were the new house we couldn’t afford. You were staying home on Saturday nights. You took us away from tedium, rescued us from boredom, and stimulated us with your zest for life.
You were the constancy and were loved.
Tim stared at his brothers sitting with him in the pew. His suit was tight. At fourteen, it didn’t take him long to outgrow anything.
He felt sorry for his brothers. They had missed a part of their mother that only he knew. When they lived at home, she gave and they took. For the last year Tim gave and she was helpless to do anything but accept. Thank goodness he had had that year to make up for all the grief he had given her.
He had hated being the “baby.” He had hated the comparisons, the loneliness, the protectiveness. He lived in a house where all his parents did was diet and watch animal documentaries. The only time he saw sugar was when his brothers came home for a visit. Then there was a lot of talk about “being a family again.” What did they think he was? A computer?
His brothers had had it all. A father who played touch football after dinner.
A grandma who bought them digital watches for their 10th birthdays before she got “practical.” A mother who had been too busy to alphabetize their baseball cards and put them in files.
Over the past year, they had talked out all the resentment inside him. The letter his mother had left said it all.
A mother is not supposed to have favorites, but I have always loved you best.
Just when your father and I thought youth had left our lives, you came along to remind us that we had something left to give. You darkened our hair, quickened our steps, squared our shoulders, restored our vision, revived our humor.
You were our second chance to enjoy a miracle from God.
You grew so fast in such a short time – or maybe it was that we didn’t want to think about time. You fell heir to broken baseball bats, trains that wouldn’t run, a refrigerator full of yogurt, midlife crisis, and a baby book with nothing on it but a recipe for Apple Brown Betty.
You also fell heir to the one thing we never counted on: our mortality.
With you, we discarded the rules and experienced what a baby is all about. It was like seeing one for the very first time. It’s a love one cannot describe.
I have loved you for your thirty-five-year-old patience, your ninety-year-old compassion, and your fifty-year-old practicality, but mostly, I love the fourteen-year-old boy who wore them awkwardly, but proudly.
You were the culmination and were loved.
As the last strains of “Days of Wine and Roses” faded, two women left from the back of the church.
“Didn’t it just tear your heart out to see those young boys of hers with no mother?”
The other woman leaned closer and whispered, “I heard the medical bills took all they had. She didn’t leave those boys a thing.”