It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 years old or 90, the things that happen early in life define you and how you see the world. Whenever I smell Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion, I think of Ocean City, Maryland—my absolute favorite childhood place. Every time I hear an electric can opener, I think of Jason, the beloved cat I found in my Christmas stocking when I was nine, who became conditioned to its nightly churning sounds as the mini-machine broke the seals on his tin-canned morsels—and to my mom singing, “Here kitty, kitty” along with it as he swished around in the kitchen corner in anticipation of his favorite moment of the day. And when I am in church on Christmas Eve and the organist plays “Silent Night,” I think of my mom and all the Christmas Eves spent sitting next to her, hearing that song and watching unexplainable tears stream down her cheeks.
As a little girl, this baffled me. Mom rarely cried. Is she crying because she’s happy? I’d think to myself, grabbing her hand and feeling a little scared. “I can’t help it,” she would say every time, “This song always reminds me of my mom because it was her favorite Christmas hymn.”
I’m not sure her answer made much sense to me. My grandma died before I was born, so I’d never met her, and I was probably otherwise preoccupied with the important decision of whether to leave Santa sugar or chocolate chip cookies that night. But two things are certain some 50-plus years later: I have never forgotten that my grandmom’s favorite Christmas song is “Silent Night,” and I mightily dread the day when I will talk about my own mother in the past tense.
You see, I was blessed to have a mom who loved Christmas and her family above all other things. But lest you think she was a sweet June Cleaver-type of maternal figure, that’s not the whole story. She was June on the outside, well-coiffed and buttoned-up, but inside her was a quirkiness Mrs. Cleaver would never have considered, not even in the name of good housekeeping.
Take my memories of fall, for instance. Sure, at my house, there was the aroma of baking apple pie and the cozy smell of wood-fire smoke from the fireplace. But to this day, the arrival of crisp autumn air also brings flashbacks of second-story windows being flung open as family bedclothes were tented out of them like parachutes. Dog-walking neighbors would stare as pillowcases and sheets flapped in the wind, and my mother didn’t care. It was her weekly fall ritual to “de-germ” the house. Though I will forever hold dear the scent of holiday sugar cookies, the sweet memories of Christmas gatherings will always be entangled with the shrill sound of my mother screaming, “Run the water when you pee! No one wants to hear that!”
My mom always marched to her own drumbeat, which included a zesty outspokenness and bluntness that could be a bit sharp and often quite funny, especially to my friends. I remember the time during the ’70s gas crisis that I pressed her to take my buddy and me on an excursion when gas was scarce and prices were through the roof. June Cleaver would have calmly explained why it was not feasible, but my mom responded a tad more robustly with, “Whaddaya want me to do, suck it out of the ground, you nut?” At times, my mother still has that spark and sharpness, but as she ages, her expression has taken new and different forms, along with some colorful sprinklings of swear words.
I should clarify that I did not grow up in a house full of profanity. In fact, on the rare occasions when Mom cursed, it was usually because she was exhausted from a long day’s work, and then the cat had pooped on the rug. But that “f-word,” as she still refers to it today, had no place in our home. Truth be told, she described anyone she knew who used it as “someone who uses the f-word,” and she’d add, “I don’t like that f-word. It is uncalled for.”
On the very rare occasions a random curse word would pop out of my mother’s mouth, she would say, “Shit—” then pause one second, then another, before saying, “—ger.” That was her curse word: Shit-ger. According to Mom, a modified curse word didn’t count.
As for me, I never used curse words growing up. Even as an adult in my early 30s, if anyone heard me utter a curse word, they would invariably say, “That’s not like you. You never say that. Did that come out of your mouth?” But then, something happened: I moved to Long Island, New York. In the midst of figuring out how to survive in a highly stressful, chaotic environment, I learned that absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, better relieves stress than the f-word. Sorry, Mom—I love you, but in New York, cursing is sometimes called for.
Which brings us to where Mom and I are now. We are both hanging in there. At 90, she not only hangs in there; she lets a lot of things hang out now, too. Old age has raised her quirkiness to a whole new level. These days, her filter, if she ever had one, malfunctions a little more frequently. My mom laughs a lot at things others may find inappropriate . And when I get a bit embarrassed, she always responds by rolling her eyes, aggressively waving her hand at me and loudly pooh-poohing, “Ohhhhhhhhhh, that’s nothin’ to say.” Whenever I try to have serious conversations about her questionable remarks, she tells me (in various ways), “There’s nothing wrong with what I say. You know what your problem is? You take everything so seriously.” Looking me directly in the eyes, she’ll continue, “I used to be like you, but now I don’t give a shit. Who cares what people think? I’m telling you, you’re gonna be dead someday, so have fun now.” I don’t think June Cleaver ever said that to her kids.
Recently, I had an epiphany about my mother’s loosening communication style, which is, unbeknownst to her, a bullhorn through which she emphasizes valuable life lessons. Sometimes, her crazy stories and remarks are like subtitles to a foreign film. Her delivery may be loud and confusing, but when you understand the translation, you realize everything she says is tied to her core beliefs and upbringing, and the higher meaning is revealed—despite the profanities and all. This “ah-ha” realization has helped my brother and me keep our shit together as we struggle to care for a parent we dearly love, even though her resistance to accepting help and insistence on going out of this world her way often have us throwing our arms up in frustration.
Watching your parents age is, well, so many things. The best word to truly describe how this feels is “sucky”—actually, sucky plus. As her children, my brother and I have landed in this odd place of taking care of the person who has always taken care of us. My brother is my only sibling and nine years older than I am. He still recalls the day I came home as a newborn from the hospital. That day, Miss Fisher, his fourth-grade teacher at Hazelwood Elementary School in Baltimore, who later became my favorite teacher, let him leave five minutes before the end-of-day dismissal bell rang, so he could get a head start on running the mile home to meet his baby sister for the first time as I waited in our mother’s arms. We’ve always been close, but we now find ourselves in a real spot of uncomfortable strain, like we are in a maze we can’t navigate, each playing cheerleader for the other on our respective bad days of “I can’t do this anymore.” Yet on this grueling journey down what I call “The Proverbial Rabbit Hole of No Way Out,” Mom’s covert lessons, camouflaged as bizarre, off-color blurbs, are giving us quite a few laughs, head-scratches and “Holy shit, she was right!” moments. We’ve realized that you can’t fight crazy, and that is okay. The older my mother gets, the more I see that the line between sanity and absurdity is, in reality, pretty blurry.
These days, Mom is more than eager to share the vivid details of her childhood. When she does, her insights are often prefaced with, “You should have lived in my day,” or, “You should have experienced what I did.” I understand what she really means is that the increasingly complex world we find ourselves in today is not necessarily better than the one she grew up in. Her stories are a direct invitation for anyone listening to fall back with her, to a time and place where, as seen through her eyes, things were easier and simpler. And as Mom lets loose her wisdom, those same eyes knowingly glisten at her audience’s jaw-dropping disbelief.