I’m trying to remember the first time I realized my mother was crazy.
It should be easy, but every time I think I’ve finally amassed all the wacky memories into one little compartment in my mind, another one flies at me like a flaming meteor. That’s the thing about my mother — she can always surprise me. Just when I think I’ve experienced her deepest level of crazy I discover a whole new, untouched cellar. And then a hidden hallway. And then a trap door.
I drop my keys on the way to my car. I am trying to balance presents, homemade cookies, fruit cake (yes, people still eat fruit cake), and an absurdly large poinsettia that is probably too big for her house anyway with all the other flowers that will surely be there. I pick up my keys and arrange my holiday bounty in the backseat, wedging a thermos of fresh cranberry sangria (her all-time favorite) between brightly decorated boxes so that it will not tip over and leak.
* * *
I love Christmas Eve now, but I did not always feel this way. I remember when I was little, watching my mother go a little crazy every Christmas. She spent days converting our tiny little farmhouse into a glittering winter wonderland. But not in that fabulous, silver-and-gold-sparkly-magnificent kind of way that Macy’s perfected, and not in the Christmas-window-life-like-ice-skaters-that-actually-spin-around kind of splendor that you might imagine. No, it was more like that gaudy, eccentric-neighbor-to-whom-you-nod-politely-and-make-pleasant-small-talk-when-she-dances-barefoot-in-the-rain-in-her-front-yard-looking-stoned kind of way. Many of the decorations were from her own childhood, most of which were worn and shabby. She had treasured ornaments to commemorate every occasion — red and green decorations of all sorts, plastic Santa’s stuck on each window, gaudy reindeer statues in the front yard, and miles and miles of ratty silver garland. It looked as if the Spirit of Christmas Past had thrown up all over our house.
The madness began precisely the same way each season. Bribing us with homemade cranberry tea and nibbles of crusty popcorn balls that ripped our gums to shreds, she coerced us into helping her unpack each ornament, one by one, while listening to her explain the detailed history of where it came from, who made it, or what major significance it held in her life. We were then instructed to place each ornament in the exact right spot on the tree. The exact. Right. Spot.
The ornaments must not be too close together, nor too far apart. They must be arranged by size, shape, color, and significance. It was imperative that they be arranged so that they could be admired perfectly from every possible angle from which one could possibly view the tree, including from the street outside. When my brother and I were finished hanging everything exactly where she had instructed, she would walk around the tree again and again, moving and rearranging the ornaments. I can still hear her whispering under her breath . . . a place for everything and everything in its place.
Once the tree was balanced to her satisfaction, she would prop the old angel on top . . . an angel that was probably beautiful once, with a halo and ethereal, lacey wings, but now resembled a homeless woman plucked from the streets of Calcutta. To my mother, however, she was eternally beautiful. Inevitably, while balancing on the “step ladder from hell” (nothing good ever came from bringing out that step ladder), she would knock down some of the ornaments and they would shatter shards of brightly colored glass in every direction. She would shout at us not to take a single step while she ran to find the broom, which was never in the closet where it was supposed to be.
In all the years that happened, though, it never seemed to occur to her to put the angel on top before we hung the ornaments. That’s just not the order in which it was supposed to be done. No matter, the broken ornaments would be carefully glued back together and treasured again the following year like they were gifts from the baby Jesus himself.
And then came the tinsel. The final step of my mother’s Christmas decorating madness was always the tinsel. It sounds fun and sparkly, but in the mind of my mother, tinsel took on an otherworldly meaning. After a painstakingly long evening of listening to our entire family history unfold with each and every ornament, (seriously, a tattered paper cut-out snowflake from when I was in kindergarten?), it was finally time for the pièce de résistance . . . thin shreds of shiny silver that somehow, to my mother, symbolized some unearthly law of destiny.
She would open the flat little cardboard box, separate the tinsel into three equal sections, and then she, my brother, and I would each take a section. We would stand a uniform distance from one another so that we had the tree surrounded. No escape for you now, tree! On the count of three, we would throw our fistful of tinsel onto our designated section of the tree. It must be done in that precise way, she explained, because of the divine laws of destiny . . . the way the tinsel fell was the way the universe wanted it to be. It was just that simple.
While my mother was able to make her tinsel fall like the sparkling snow it was meant to represent, mine often ended up in one big clump dangling from the edge of a sap-coated, sticky branch. And there it would remain until the tree came down, which was usually around my birthday in February. Usually. It is truly a wonder that our house never burned to the ground from the bone-dry pine needles or the seventeen thousand flashing lights that she insisted on using every year. Very important, apparently, that the tree could be seen from outer space. Which is where I was sure my mother was from.
Birthdays, now that I think about it, were not much saner. She had a thing about making my brother and me our “favorite” dinner each year on our birthdays. There was not always money for presents, and the “best birthday dinner ever” often consisted of whatever she could conjure up from what grew in her beloved garden or some sort of “casserole surprise.”
Surprise was right. Surprise! Your birthday sucks!
Thinking back on it now, though, it was worth choking down the casserole surprise to get to the birthday cake. She piled so much pink frosting on top of the cake that it would begin to collapse under the weight. It was the one crazy thing she did that I remember appreciating at the time. I loved those cakes . . . I still do.
Times were not always so tough. When my parents were still married, my father worked, my mother stayed home, and we had a nice, normal family. Or so I thought.
One day, I was in the kitchen performing an experiment with my two favorite drinks — milk and orange juice. I loved them both so much that I decided the only thing better than drinking them separately would be to mix them together. As I was vomiting in the kitchen sink, I heard my mother enter the house through the back door, followed closely by my father. I scrambled to wash the outcome of my experiment down the drain before my parents noticed, but they were not paying attention to me at all.
My father was clearly angry and my mother was arguing with him. She was going on and on about wanting to attend a “women’s lib” rally, and my dad was telling her how ridiculous it was and how embarrassed he would be if anyone they knew saw her there. I turned around from the sink to see my mother sporting a big, fluffy head of newly-permed, reddish curls, a make-up free face, and a light blue t-shirt that read, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” bearing the image of a scaly fish riding a bicycle with a huge front tire.
I could be wrong about this next part, but I don’t think she was wearing a bra.
After my parents divorced, things got both harder and stranger for us kids. I understood why Daddy thought she was nuts. She really was. I think having my father around cushioned us from the craziness that was my mother, but after he left all bets were off.
She worked two jobs, both at social service women’s organizations. Suffice it to say, they paid very little and we struggled desperately to make ends meet. But she would not give up either job, telling us how important her work was and how many women relied on those clinics. She was crazy though, working those long hours. My brother and I were in about third or fourth grade at that time and were often home alone and completely unsupervised after school. Sometimes she would not come home until late in the evening, when she would drag herself in, exhausted, and collapse onto the couch puffing away on one Lark cigarette after another. (It was the 70s — I don’t think smoking was bad for you back then.)
I remember one night in particular when she came home very late. My brother and I were hungry and had been fighting all afternoon with no referee. We had phoned her at work numerous times to have her choose a side, but after her final threat of death we stopped pestering her. When she got home, she was M—A—D! She tossed her purse onto the kitchen counter, and just as she was about to carry out her death threat against us, she happened to glance up and see a strip of fly paper covered with dead bugs hanging above her head. For whatever reason, she decided that was the exact moment it was time to tear it down.
Still in her suit, she hauled “the step ladder from hell” out of the closet and dragged it across the stained linoleum floor. Teetering on her high heels, she wobbled up the ladder to the highest step trying to reach the fly paper as my brother and I stood motionless, savoring our last precious moments of life. We could already tell that this was not going to end well, but for some reason, our mother couldn’t see it.
Even on top step of the ladder the fly paper was still a bit too high for her to reach so she told my brother to climb up onto the counter and pull it down. The fly paper was a ghastly, yellow sticker about a foot long crammed with dead flies and bugs of all sorts. My brother vehemently refused to touch it, as did I, when upon his refusal she subsequently demanded that I retrieve it.
She grew angrier and angrier by the second, and we were certain that our short lives were about to come to an abrupt and painful ending. Re-ascending to the tippy- top of the hell ladder (where we have all been warned to never stand) she was finally able to grasp a tiny corner of the fly paper. She tugged, and the base ripped free from the ceiling and promptly fell down and stuck to the length of her arm.
She scrambled down from the step ladder and began screaming for one of us to tear the disgusting sticker from her arm. The more she tried to shake it off, the more it stuck to her, until both arms were completely coated with fly paper, glue, and dead bugs. I don’t recollect how she finally tore free from it. I think she may have run her arms under the sink or something, but by then she was beyond furious, and my brother and I were beyond scared. She was so angry, in fact, that she would not even speak to us, which was actually a relief. She wouldn’t even look at us. This was no normal breakdown . . . this was nuclear. I could see her hands shaking. My brother and I stood in the kitchen doorway, frozen in silent terror, watching her like a creature from some horror movie that we could not switch off.
It had grown very late by then and none of us had eaten dinner. Still ignoring us (thankfully), she opened the pantry to get some potatoes and discovered that her twenty-pound, economy sack of potatoes was completely infested with maggots. They were swarming everywhere. There must have been thousands of them. Maybe millions. That vision still haunts me to this day. Her golden silence was broken as she shrieked at us to come help her clean up, but there was no way we were going near those maggots.
I remember her face at that exact moment — a look of complete and total defeat— before she collapsed into a heap on the kitchen floor and began sobbing. I think she sobbed for three straight years.
Then she started going to therapy.
There is nothing worse than a crazy mother, except a crazy mother in therapy. Or a crazy mother who actually studies to become a therapist (I’m not kidding) and then uses her newfound enlightenment in an attempt to help her kids become better people. Or maybe it was “freer” people. Yes, that was it. Freer. At the apparently jaded, cynical ages of nine and ten, she wanted us to free our minds.
She took us to meditation classes, forced us to recite mantras and sit with our legs crossed, hands resting on our knees, face-up in the “Om” position. Ridiculous. We studied transcendental meditation where we were supposed to learn how to float up and out of our bodies. Really mom? She bought us hippie clothing from god-only-knows-where and began to wear bandanas and cut-off jean shorts. Humiliating. She took us to Amish markets and made us drink kefir and eat granola. We were the most un-cool kids in the neighborhood, and had we any friends, they undoubtedly would have attested to that fact.
During the height of her hippydom, she began making a dish called “dahl.” It consisted of brown rice smothered with cooked lentils then topped with a mixture of nuts, raisins, coconut flakes, fruit, or whatever was either ripe in her garden or on sale. When I tell you that there was nothing that could have been more repulsive to my ten-year old self than this green sludge, I am not exaggerating. And believe me, I’d had milk-and-orange-juice so I knew revolting. In a stand of rare defiance, I flat out refused to eat it.
So I took to eating oatmeal, which was the only option she would allow me. Unlike the catered-to children of today, back then if you didn’t like what your mother made, you didn’t eat. Period. I was probably lucky to have been given the oatmeal alternative.
The problem was that it took forever to cook the raw oats, so to save time she began making the oatmeal in huge quantities and then just leaving it on the stove. Whenever I wanted some, she would simply heat up the old black pot with the same oatmeal that had been sitting there sometimes for days, morphing slowly into thick, gray goo.
And no sugar. During this particular epoch of insanity, we were not, under any circumstances, allowed to have sugar. Just thick, pasty, flavorless oatmeal. Oh, and raisins . . . I could have those if I wanted. I would rather have been eaten by the potato maggots. To this day I will not eat raisins, their gritty texture reminding me of the bugs that seemed to permeate my childhood. Eventually, as always, she won, and I ate the stupid dahl. Sans raisins.
* * *
The traffic light changes three times before I can squeeze through. Tomorrow is Christmas and traffic is always exceptionally heavy on Christmas Eve. I don’t really mind the delay, though, because I am completely lost in thought. I’m glad I left early enough that I don’t have to rush.
My mind floods with memories, struggling to settle on the perfect one — some clever anecdote that will have everyone there tonight both laughing and crying. I put on my right blinker and turn carefully down her street. I see a woman standing on the corner with her head down. The man next to her is yelling at her. Another memory slowly emerges as I recall a particularly bizarre evening when I was about ten or eleven years old.
* * *
Once again, my mother was home from work very late. She was making dahl or some other god-forsaken horror when the phone rang. When I attempted to answer it, she flew across the room like a wild, shrieking pterodactyl shouting, “Do not pick up that phone! It’s after eight! Do not pick up that phone!” In all fairness, she had probably told me six million times not to answer the phone after eight o’clock, but what harm could it do?
She and I reached for the phone at the exact same second and she snatched it from my hand. Her attention quickly turned from her aggravation with me to her phone call as she frantically waved my brother and me out of the room. We were slow to leave at first, but her increasing frenzy suggested not-so-subtly that this time we’d better get out quickly. Had we learned nothing from the fly paper incident?
We scampered to our respective bedrooms, and after she hung up the phone she shouted up the stairs for us to stay in our rooms for the rest of the evening and not go back downstairs for any reason. We obliged, feeling more grateful for the reprieve from her volatile behavior than from any semblance of obediency.
Long after I should have been asleep, I found myself restless from a grumbling stomach, having been banished from the kitchen before dinner. I made my way back down the stairs, padding quietly across the carpeted living room.
When I got to the kitchen I saw a woman sitting on a chair at the table next to my mother. There were two very young children sitting quietly on the floor in the corner of the room with their arms wrapped around each other. The woman was badly bruised and clearly injured. Her face was black and blue and her lip was split open and red with dry, crusty blood. One eye was swollen and she had raw cuts on her forearms. I stood in the kitchen doorway, unable to comprehend the scene. Both the woman and my mother noticed me at the same moment. The woman quickly turned away, and my mother asked me, very gently, to please go back to bed. I did so immediately and without question.
The following Saturday when my father came to pick us up for the weekend I told him about the incident. When he dropped us back home after our visit, I heard him arguing with my mother about having “those kinds” of people in our house. He said that he did not care if my mother worked for a battered women’s shelter or not, she should not allow her home to be used as an emergency safe house when she had children of her own to worry about.
I didn’t understand then what my parents were arguing about, but I never saw that woman or her kids again, and I never picked up the phone after eight.
* * *
I turn into the parking lot and steer into a snowy spot near the front of my mother’s apartment. I balance the piles of boxes, bags, and sangria in my arms and head toward the front door, which thankfully, opens just as I am approaching. The air from inside instantly warms my face and blankets me from the bitter outdoor wind.
My brother, who saw me parking from the window, steps out onto the porch to greet me. He gives me a quick peck on the cheek and takes the boxes and sangria from the top of my towering pile. I set down the other bags and run back to the car to grab the poinsettia and the rest of the presents (mostly framed pictures of my mother) that I brought for relatives whom I rarely see.
As I enter the house, I find the sheer number of people milling about shocking. I don’t know many of them. I look around the room at the preposterous amount of lights strung about. There are so many Christmas decorations that people can barely find spots to set their drinks. Behind the television, there is a new collage of pictures taped to the wall. I walk over to examine it. Some pictures are of me and my brother, but many are pictures of my mother with people I do not recognize — camping, dancing, at the beach, in restaurants, at parties. Some of these people are probably here right now, unrecognizable from age.
I realize, maybe for the first time in my life, that my mother is also a woman. She is not just my mother or my father’s ex-wife, but a woman. She has friends and a life of memories that I know nothing about. She never stops surprising me, and I never stop getting to know her. I wonder who made this collage, and I feel a slight pang of jealously in the pit of my stomach at the thought that someone else may know her better than I.
There is a picture of my grandmother in the collage. I am surprised it was included because she always told me that her mother was nuts, and I know they had a strained relationship.
* * *
I remember when her mother died. It was 1976 and I was ten years old. We had to drive to Buffalo for the funeral, so we stopped in Niagara Falls to break up the trip. We checked into a dumpy little hotel and then headed out excitedly to see the falls (. . . since we were there anyways, she reasoned. Why would God take grandma so nearby Niagara Falls if he didn’t want us to see them?)
The falls were as majestic as my mother had promised! I remember a recorded voice on the overhead speaker regaling stories of people soaring over the falls in wooden barrels and living to tell about it.
There were no railings back then, and the thrill of the stories suddenly compelled me to jump in and fly over the falls into history. I would be famous — the first girl to go over the falls without a barrel and live to tell about it! They would announce my name on the overhead speaker and people would be in awe of my bravery!
As I sidled toward the edge of the falls, water swirling and whooshing just inches in front of me — infamy within my very reach —my mother grabbed my hand, yanked me back, and scolded me for creeping to close. As much as I tried to wriggle away from her, she would not let go of my hand again. No fame or fortune for me. Gee, thanks, mom.
After the falls, she took us to the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. It was incredible. The front window had a giant faucet that was hanging free, attached to nothing. It just seemed to float in air, but water poured out of it by the gallon. There were all sorts of oddities in the museum, but what struck me the most was the story about a man who fell asleep on his feather bed. I think it was in Kansas or Oklahoma. A twister came and picked him up, bed and all, carried him two miles from his house, and then set him down gently in a field. He never even woke up. I decided then and there that I would sleep outside the next time I heard a tornado warning. Hopefully my mom wouldn’t try to ruin that, too.
After the museum we went back to our hotel. It was after dark, and we all changed clothes and crawled into one bed in the dimly lit room. After the lights were out, my mother kept saying that she could hear something. She asked my brother and me if we heard it too, but we did not. We all tried to sleep, but she kept complaining that the dull sound was driving her crazy. She finally flicked the light on the nightstand, and to our collective horror we saw cockroaches — tons of cockroaches — swarming the floor, walls, our suitcases, everywhere.
To say my mother freaked out would be a gross understatement. Still in our pajamas, we grabbed our cockroach-infested luggage and ran outside to our car. My mother was crying hysterically by then, and the next morning she put my brother and me on a Greyhound bus back home while she attended my grandmother’s funeral alone. We were secretly grateful to not have to go, but we didn’t tell her that.
Her best friend picked us up at the terminal, took us to her house, and made us lunch. Apparently she had not received the “no sugar” memo and gave us each a HoHo. Heaven! She carelessly left the box sitting on the counter, however, and when she left the room, I unwrapped every single tin-foiled HoHo and ate it, relishing every mouthwatering bite. I was willing to take my punishment, whatever it may be. It was worth it.
The only other vacation (if you consider the trip to my grandmother’s funeral a vacation) that we had together was when my brother and I were much older. I booked the three of us a beautiful oceanfront suite in Hawaii, thrilled to be able to take my mother and brother somewhere nice. The timing was bad however, because I had broken my leg just before we left and was in a wheelchair with a cast from my hip to my ankle. No refunds means no refunds. I get it. So we went anyway.
The second day of our trip my mother and I went to the botanical gardens, which was something we thought would work well within the limitations of my wheelchair. My brother had gone diving so it was just the two of us. She rolled me from the parking lot to the gift shop where we paid and received our map. We exited the back of the gift shop onto the garden grounds. There were numerous paths that could be taken around the gardens, but my mother wanted to see the bonsai trees first. The bonsai’s were to the left, which was down a short but steep path. To the right was a level path that would take us the long way around to the bonsai trees then back up a gentle incline back to the gift shop. I suggested the path to the right, but my mother, excited about the bonsai trees and now eyeing a wall of flowing bougainvillea, turned my wheelchair left and began down the short, steep decline.
Before I could protest, the weight of the wheelchair ripped her hands from the grips and I went racing down the concrete path. I heard my mother scream (or maybe it was me?) when my wheelchair spiraled off the paved walkway, tumbled on its side, and spilled me into the grass like a ragdoll.
I lifted my head to see my mother laughing hysterically at the top of the little hill about twenty-five yards away. I think she was trying to ask if I was okay and apologize at the same time, but her words were indecipherable. She was sitting on the ground, legs crossed, shaking with laughter. She hollered something about not being able to come down to get me because she was going to pee herself.
By that time, unhurt, I was laughing as hard as she was. A nearby family rushed over to help me but they could not get me up because I was laughing so hard. The more they tried, the harder my mother and I laughed and the harder it became for them to lift me. Eventually, they just rolled their eyes and walked away, leaving me laughing in the grass next to my toppled wheelchair. I am certain to this day that they think we were escaped mental patients.
* * *
I gaze upon the Christmas tree, dripping in familiar decorations dating back to forever. I lean in and notice an old paper clip dog that I made when I was three. As I reach out to touch a shabby felt snowman, my aunt suddenly notices me and almost spills her drink in surprise. She fumbles to hug me, and within a few moments I am being pounced on by every relative I have ever known and many people I have never met. I exchange brief pleasantries with a few of them and then excuse myself to go check on my brother in the kitchen.
That’s a lie. The truth is that I am overwhelmed by the sudden attention and need a minute of peace, so I escape to hide out with the only sane person I know. My brother is cutting up fruit cake and drinking a glass of the cranberry sangria. I cannot tell if he has been laughing or crying. He pours me a glass and we toast, in private, to our crazy mother.
“It’s time,” he says softly, after we have polished off the entire thermos of sangria. I peek past the kitchen door and see the guests assembled on perfectly straight rows of folding chairs stretched across the length of the small living room. Near the front of the room stands a small podium next to an enormous picture of my mother propped up on an easel.
She is about thirty-eight in the picture and is at the beach. Although it is a black and white photo, I can tell it was a sunny day. Her hair is wet and slicked back from her face. She is wearing a light-colored swimsuit adorned with big, bold flowers. I can see the froth on the waves breaking in the background. Her mouth is open and her head is tossed back in full, joyous laugher. I have never seen this picture before and it takes my breath away.
I freeze for a moment, mesmerized by the sparkle in her eyes.
I hear her laughing.
As I walk toward the podium, I am astounded by the sea of people who have chosen to spend this Christmas Eve at my mother’s house, crammed close together, laughing and crying. My mind races thorough the myriad of memories, still trying to decide which is right for tonight, but I struggle to choose the perfect one.
I take a deep breath and look again at the photograph of the beautiful, kindhearted, enlightened, sentimental, magnificent-in-every-way woman sitting next to it in a brightly colored, ornate urn and begin to speak.
“I’m trying to remember the first time I realized my mother was amazing . . .”