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14 May 2006

Wear a paper dress

And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see—or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” – Alice Walker

MamaFirst, let me just say on this Mother’s Day that I appreciate my mother for so very many things—the whole giving birth to me piece; always telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be; never failing to give me the last mini chocolate éclair, even if she really wanted it; allowing me to plaster my bedroom walls with Tiger Beat magazine posters of Bobby Sherman; forgiving me for setting the house on fire (twice, but the second time really wasn’t my fault); letting me go by myself to live in Sri Lanka as a exchange student when I was 16, even though she was scared to death at the thought of her baby 12,000 miles away in a country she’d never heard of and living with a family she would never meet; accompanying me to my post-Sri Lanka Big Speech and Slide Show at the Civitan Club Monthly Luncheon and never flinching but just smiling sweetly with her head cocked slightly to one side from the head table as I showed full-color slides of the toilets in my village, indicating in not-so-subtle terms why you always eat with your right and not your left hand there; writing little notes and tucking them into all of my clothes so they’d fall out when I unpacked at camp; always taking my Girl Scout cookie order forms to the bank where she worked and evidently blackmailing all her coworkers to buy massive amounts of Thin Mints so I could always win the “most cookies sold” award; knitting me all those gorgeous handmade sweaters; hanging that really big and somewhat garish painting I did of a monarch butterfly over the fireplace for years and not taking it down even when company was coming; saving all my baby teeth and locks of hair and baby shoes and pretty near every piece of paper I’ve ever written anything on, and much, much more.

She’s always the first person I call when I have good news or bad news, and I imagine that even when I’m 80 years old, she’ll still remind me to call her when I get home from a trip so she can rest easy and not worry that I had lost control of the car, driven off the highway down a steep incline, flipped upside down into a vast abyss so overgrown with poison ivy that people wouldn’t find me for months unless she knew I was missing. [Shall we just say that she has a vivid imagination for tragedy?]

Oh_lord_that_hair_1There’s so much to be thankful to Mama for—so please don’t get me wrong when I say that I will Never, Ever, Ever, Ever forgive her for letting me go out of the house with this hairdo (if you can even call it that) and those eyeglasses, which she picked out for me at an actual Optical Shoppe even though they look like they were salvaged from the Rotary Club’s Eyeglasses Drive for Unfortunate Nearsightedness.  What on earth is up with those bangs and ear covers, I ask you?

Enough said, I think.

It really is the small things in life that we remember, isn’t it? Either those daily micro-abrasions that scar us (see hairdo) or those clear moments of joy that resonate through us like a silver fork on fine crystal, the kind of tone that gets into your bone and thrills you, a lasting one, like that time that Mama, Daddy, my brother and I went to see a movie together at the Mimosa Theater while it was still daylight out! The year was 1966; I was seven years old. We sat midway down on the left side of the theater, near where I sat years later as a teenager and watched “Tora, Tora, Tora.”

Swiss_family_robinsonThe occasion for this family outing? The “Swiss Family Robinson,” a story of Father and Mother Robinson and their three precious sons—Fritz, Francis and Ernst—as they fled Napoleon and looked for a place to live in the South Seas. Of course, they are chased by pirates and their ship is pounded mercilessly by the angry sea. After the ship's crew deserts the sinking vessel, the Robinsons crash on a rocky shore and emerge to find a tropical island Eden. Since the ship is filled with food and gear and is only half submerged (how lucky!), they prepare to settle in. The movie was released in 1960; evidently it took six years to make it to my small hometown, or perhaps this was the Swissapalooza Tour, Fritz and the gang serving as backstory to an after-school favorite, “Gilligan’s Island.”

To this day, I remember the watering hole that those boys swung over on vines, the ostrich races, and that terrifying moment when little Fritz flailed desperately in the water, fighting the huge man-eating Anaconda snake.

Paper_dressesMore importantly, I remember (and loved) the fact that Mama came to the movie straight from work, wearing her cat-eye glasses (notice a trend?) and a paper dress decorated all over with bright orange pictures of MasterCharge (now MasterCard) credit cards. Turns out that the bank where she worked had launched MasterCharge that day and all the women had to wear paper dresses—let’s hope they were made of Tyvek—to advertise the new service. Hmmm…I wonder what the men had to wear? (Mama is on the far right).

Paper_dress_trudeauPaper dresses were quaint inventions of the 60s and quite fashionable since they were cheap and disposable. Given that I’ve been known to fix hems with duct tape (and, in a pinch, with a stapler, and—in one memorable moment, with a paper clip—assuming that even if people noticed, they’d be too polite to say anything), paper dresses were an attractive alternative since you could shorten them with a pair of scissors and mend them with scotch tape. Even I could do that! And let’s be honest, who among us wouldn’t want to wear an oversized photo of Pierre Trudeau to the Food Lion? In 1967, Time magazine said, “Paper clothing apparently is here to stay.” Well, that was evidently before they realized that flammability might be a wee bit of an issue. A small price for beauty, that whole spontaneous combustion thing.

Mama_and_daddy_in_car_croppedBecause he was such a “catch,” Mama has always says she didn’t know how she snagged Daddy. Everyone at Calvary Baptist Church was after him, it turns out. I think she caught him with her sense of humor, that sly grin and ready laugh that matched his, the way she told stories, that sweet naivete; I’m sure her flaming red hair and freckles might have had something to do with it, too.

Daddy died when Mama was just 47, a birthday I’ll reach in a few months myself. When I studied in Munich two years later, I invited Mama to join me for the final two weeks of the semester; to be honest (but don’t tell her), I never thought she would come. After all, she had never even been in an airplane before; there was little chance she’d fly to New York by herself, change not only airplanes but whole airports on her own, fly all night alone, get through customs in Dusseldorf, and land in Munich in a massive snowstorm, was there? I went to the airport to pick her up, half believing she wouldn’t be there, but there she was—a testament to the strong part of her that has emerged all through her life and mine when it needed to.

Patti_and_mama_in_europeWe traveled all over Europe by train in those two weeks, using my room in Munich above the Otto Stuben restaurant at 24 Gabelsburger Strasse as our home base. I took charge, arranging our travel to accomplish her Big Dream: Going on the Sound of Music tour. The glass gazebo where they sang “I am 17, going on 18”—or was it 16, going on 17?—we saw that gazebo—we even stood in it! The cathedral where Maria and What’s His Name got married? We were there.  While my college friends investigated rumors of hash markets and Red Light Districts in Amsterdam, I escorted Mama around Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and—finally—Amsterdam, proud to show off my cultural negotiation skills.

Mama’s friends had told her that she just HAD to try the Swiss fondue, so one icy evening after I had won a side of beef playing Bingo in the small Inn where we were staying (no, I’m not competitive in the least), we ventured out for fondue. As we ate, I could taste the wine in the cheese; my mother—a Southern Baptist (read: doesn’t drink)—widened her significant eyeballs and said, “My, it’s getting awfully warm in here!” in her Southern drawl as the tiny amount of cooked wine took effect. Afterwards, we ventured out in a blizzard, Mama slipping and sliding her way back to Bingo, with me holding her up and both of us laughing to the point of tears.

Mama_crying_after_being_thrown_from_the_My cultural and linguistic skills were really only challenged once when, after a shouting match in bad German with a Very Large Soldier in a floor-length gray wool caped uniform looking like the Lord of Doom, we were unceremoniously thrown off the train in a tiny village in the Alps, outside Interlaken.  It seems we were trying to use Eurorail passes on a verboten private railway; they even made an unscheduled stop to throw us out in the middle of the snow drifts, our transgression was so grievous. We did the only thing we could do under the circumstances: make photographs of each other Fake-Crying under the sign for the closet-sized bus station where they abandoned us. If we never got back home, we hoped the film would eventually be developed and lead rescuers to us; in the meantime, we’d be slopping down some of that famous fondue.

When I was a little orange-haired demon, I don’t think Mama had any idea of the creative spark she handed to me, the seed of what flower she had planted in the world, just as I can’t quite imagine the flowers my girls will become. Could she see it in my eyes, or was it like a sealed letter she could not plainly read, as she watched me sleep?

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama, with thanks for all the strength, all the laughs, all those Brownstone Front cakes for my birthday (by the way, it's coming up in a few months, get ready), that creative spark. For just this one day, I’m going to forgive you for That Hairdo and Those Glasses. Come tomorrow, though, I need some explanations or, at the very least, cash compensation for the trauma I experienced walking in the world looking like that. And while you’re at it, you might also try to make up for that dalmation dress you made me wear when I was 10.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

WildflowersThe last time he visited, my fabulous friend Tony from South Africa said “Make a memory today!” to Emma every morning when she left for school. What great advice, how little taken.

I think it’s hard to predict what those memories will be—which ones will stick and which won’t. I think it’s just as likely to be a small moment, a paper dress and a mid-day movie, a bit of fondue and a shared laugh, a Brownstone Front cake, as it is to be a Great Big Moment where the expectation is too great and the pressure too much and we’re trying too hard.

Wear a paper dress, make a memory today, even a teeny tiny one, a Swiss Family Robinson one, perhaps a surprising one, one that will result in lasting laughs, one that will open that sealed letter just a tad. What seeds will be sown, those seeds whose flowers we may never see?


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I love Mom stories. You have a wonderful collection of them.

Though, I think you're right about the need for compensation...

Patti, wonderful story... Unfortunately, you're not the only one with glasses like that but maybe with the number of photos I have seen, you can get a class action suit together!

Hey - I had glasses like that...all the way through high school. I suppose that explains a lot.

My mom was the "creative spark" for me. She was not afraid to say "don't listen to them" as she encouraged me to go my own creative way.

Thank you as always for extending a conversation the goes beyond "nice" and lands in "meaningful and healing".

Wish I could source myself one of those PE Trudeau paper dresses. The trends I missed!

You've certainly had a rich positive relationship with your mother.

patti--- i'm 45 and when i go on a trip, i call my mother when i arrive at my destination to let her know i got there OK. then i call her again when i am safely back home. i hope my children will do the same for me. i really loved the story of your mom traveling to munich to be with you. i can see myself doing that. but how did she manage to let you go to sri lanka at 16?

Ach. Why do you always make me cry?

My joke about my mom is- if I had told her that I wanted to be a prostitute, she would have said, "Well. Then you go out there and you become the best crack whore that you can be."

thanks to all of you for comments that made me think, smile, and laugh straight out loud! i've emailed you all individually, but wanted to post a public thank you for engaging in this little 37days journey! and now, i must get to work on that Bad Glasses and Unspeakable Hair Class Action Suit...! (smile)

I loved the story about your mother and her importance to you and who you became. My mum and I still travel together. Not always the easiest of trips but we sure do laugh alot. I only wish my brothers -- both of whom seem to believe they were hatched rather than raised by parents -- might read your story and reflect on their relationship with our mum. Neither bothered to acknowledge her on Mother's Day.

I wanted to comment, however, on the photo of you and your brother. The hair and glasses speak to the enormous and unpredictable shifts in fashion. I have a number of undergraduate students who have adopted both the haircut and glasses to evidence their "progressiveness". You might have difficulty proving your case.

jasper - thanks so much for your note. i'm awfully sorry to hear about your brothers - it appears that you are the clear winner in that equation; I'm sorry if your mom feels pain as a result of their selfishness.

your note about the photo made me laugh...and cry. Laugh because I too have seen those students (and in fact now wear a pair of glasses myself that look suspiciously like the ones in the photo...except in leopard print!) and cry because, well, there goes any chance for my Class Action Suit...

This is a really, really beautiful post.

That is a wonderful post and made me cry. I hope and pray that someday I get to feel the joy of taking "fake crying" pictures in funny circumstances and eating wine laced fondue in the Swiss Alps with my girls. You are a beautiful writer.

How very much I appreciate this story about your mother. My mother did not start traveling until she was 55, after my father died of lung cancer when I was 19. From that point on, it was one journey after another until she reached the age of 98, when she took her final journey to the great beyond. Her mind remained clear until the very end, and she and all her family reminisced about her many adventures. Our "Gypsy Granny" has finally gone home to be with Grandpa Wayne.

another moving post. specially since mothers tends to be a vulnerable topic for most. specially women. its always complex and intense in its own sweet way.
oh i loved this post patti. the words. the stories. the photographs. specially the photographs. they told a story all of their own.

This is such a beautiful entry. I'm going to go call my mother right now!

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