August 8th 1939, three quarters of a century ago today to be exact, my mother Joanie came into this world. Born the third daughter of a baker and a shipyard worker who would go on to have three more children. My mother and her family of eight managed in a two-bedroom shack, hand-built by her father, a man who spent much of his life shooting pool and racing pigeons while her mother did what was expected of mothers back then- tended children, cooked and cleaned.
My mother endured much of her childhood being taunted and teased by classmates who pointed out the holes in her shoes and the old hand-me-downs she was forced to wear from her two older sisters Dot and Lou Lou. She longed for the finer things, the brand new fancy dresses she remembers her sisters wearing.
Fast forward a couple of decades, having divorced and raised three children as a single mother, my mother was left with only me at home. Me, the result of a short-lived second marriage with a smooth talking, blue-eyed, Texan who swept her off her feet.
My mother tried her best to make it up to me, tried to overcompensate for her less than stellar selection in the husband and father department. Sometimes she’d wake me in the middle of the night to drive hours to the beach where we’d spend the day walking the boardwalk, eating cotton candy and snowcones, and riding rides.
In her younger years, my mother was an artist. She’d show me her paintings, of oceans and mountains, of far away places she dreamt of going some day when things were different. In her next life.
But she gave them all away- her dreams and her paintings.
Growing up, we moved often. My mother worked a lot. At her day job with a government defense contractor, at night as a bartender, sometimes vice versa. Once I became old enough by legal standards, I cared for myself. When it came time to move, she’d allow me to choose our next house. I’d get the newspaper, circle the ads and we’d be off to find our next home. Many in our budget, only had one bedroom. But she never considered that and would be fine with the living room sofa. My father never paid child support, and she never pursued it.
As a kid, I was embarrassed by the way she dressed. Normal mothers didn’t wear high heels and jeans to the store, did they? I wanted my mother to look like my friend’s mothers, short hair, khakis, and sensible shoes. Instead my mother wore her dark hair to her waist, her lips and long nails always painted a dark shade of red. She wore gold hoops in her ears with bracelets dangling from her wrists. People stared, men whistled. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide.
When we grocery shopped, I’d casually wander away from my mother, scouring the aisles looking for a more appropriate version of a mother for myself. I’d carefully select the plainest, dullest looking woman I could find. I’d imagine myself coming home to her after school, the normal stay-at-home mother, knitting needles in hand, fresh baked cookies on the counter. My fantasy would quickly shatter once my real mother realized she couldn’t find me. I’d hear her yelling my name, both first and middle, just to let me know how mad she was. I’d dodge her, ducking down the aisles as long as I could until I’d hear the panic in her voice. We did this dance, she and I, until she began stepping up to the customer service counter and having me paged over the loudspeaker, forever putting an end to my supermarket-new-mother-finding-fantasy-days.
As a child whenever I felt lonely, I’d guilt my mother into letting me buy a new pet. I had quite the menagerie- Finches, hamsters, lizards, guinea pigs and cats. Always two, just to make sure I could witness the miracle of birth.
My mother never said no.
In the 80’s, when I had to have $50 jeans in an assortment of designer brands, she never once said she couldn’t afford them, even though on a single mother’s salary, she couldn’t.
She knew my love of travel even back then and although she couldn’t afford to take me, whenever I was invited to the ocean or the mountains by friend’s families, my mother would always manage to get enough money together for me to go. She knew she’d never get to the places she placed with brushstrokes on canvas, but she wanted me to see them.
Growing up, I somehow never considered the sacrifices she made for me. How she did everything to ensure I’d never wear hand-me-downs or have holes in my shoes. Regrettably, I punished her for not being there, for having to work all the time, for not having my father in my life. I took advantage of her inability to ever utter the word NO to me.
She tried to give me the moon.
When she retired, this crazy mother of mine should have been set for life. Her “ship had finally come in,” as she liked to say, but instead she took a six-figure cash settlement, gave much of it away to those in need, then promptly spent the next two years “living it up.” She drank back then and didn’t make the best choices. Since then, most of the cards she sends to family have comical drawings of half-sunken ships inside.
“Oh well, you can’t take it with you,” she’d say and “boy was it fun spending all that money.” One of her favorite things in her short-lived “rich” phase was to pass out twenty-dollar bills to the bathroom attendants at the beach, just to see them smile.
In her seventies, as a grandma times eight, one might think she’d settle down and start dressing a little more appropriately. The shoes at least, have become slightly more sensible; high-top Converse sneakers have replaced her 3” pumps and I’ve had more than one argument about whether or not the shirt she is wearing qualifies as a dress. She insists if it covers her behind, it’s a dress. And at seventy-five years old, I’ve finally convinced her that leggings aren’t actually meant to be worn alone, as pants. I cannot however convince her not to buy clothes with words splayed across her behind, or chest. People constantly stop her, she says, to complement her outfits. Her leggings with random people’s faces all over them are definitely crowd-pleasers, she tells me.
A few years back, she paraded around proudly in her collection of “senior week” shirts, she even booked the “special” week at the beach, furious to find it was with the wrong kind of “seniors.” She left mad as hell, the high-school-graduating teenage “seniors” made too much noise, disturbing her seven pm bedtime.
Imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when I stumbled across her, my mother, on a website- The People of Walmart. Even though the shot was from behind, there was no mistaking her. Her waist-length hair now streaked with gray, gathered high in a ponytail with a baseball cap, hot pink argyle knee highs, her Converse high tops and best of all, knee length aqua shorts with the words “beach bum” across the butt. When I called her to tell her, she was thrilled to know she was famous, and was now an Internet celebrity. There was no getting through to her that being on the People of Walmart website wasn’t actually a good thing. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends at the flea market where she’s been going for the past few years to buy and sell costume jewelry, something she looks forward to more than anything else. Her flea market friends shared her enthusiasm at her newly-found fame.
It’s taken me long into my adulthood to realize what a prize my mother is and how lucky I am to have been raised by such an independent and eccentric woman. I never realized how my friends viewed their own “normal” mothers as being boring, their lives as monotonous. My life was constantly changing, having a mother like I did.
As the years pass, I realize how precious she is, how her time on earth is running short, and that one day she won’t be there when I pick up the phone to call her. I realize her gift to me, her sacrifice, her dreams of going places, of seeing the world, how she was only ever able to realize them on canvas with a brush in her hand. I know that she lives vicariously through me, through my travels to faraway places. She soaks up every word, descriptions of the towns I pass through, of the colorful people I meet. I only wish she had been able to do the same.