Thursday, May 09, 2013

My Early Childhood Memories of my Mother.

Mom and I horseback riding
during my early adult years.
When one undertakes to write down memories of their mother, most often they begin in the early teen years. I suppose this stems from the idea that this is when a mother becomes a resource in solving many of the mysteries that come with adolescence and the transition from childhood into adulthood. I am an exception to this rule.

My younger brother arrived when I was 9, and at that point, my mother’s attention was split between him and I afterwards, if indeed it didn't favor him most of the time. No doubt, this is why my fondest, and clearest, memories of my mother are actually from those years prior to my brother’s arrival, when I was 3 to 8 years old.

Let me make one thing clear. I grew up poor. Now don’t misunderstand me, I never went hungry ( I practically lived on Bean-and-Bacon soup and peanut butter sandwiches during those years). But, by comparison to my peers, I was poor. Things did steadily improve after my brother arrived, but until then, Mom became very good at juggling expenses and stretching dollars.

The year I got my Fisher-Price
and a Big-Wheel.
Mom loved extravagant
Christmases and birthdays.
Check out the Christmas morning
bed head!
But one thing remained true. During special occasions, like Christmas and birthdays, Mom loved to splurge on me and my brother, much to Dad’s chagrin. Even during Halloween, she loved dressing us up best she could. I think it was her way of apologizing for not being able to buy me everything that caught my fancy. I soon learned not to request toys during the “off season”, and learned to keep a running list in my head so I could pick what I really wanted when the special occasions became imminent.

In spite of being financially challenged during those years, one thing my mother never denied me was a request for a book. Literally, as soon as I could read, she showered me with children’s magazines like Highlights for Children and Sesame Street Magazines. I never requested them. They just showed up our mailbox every month, and I was more than happy enough to devour them. When the scholastic flyers came around in school, she would always let me buy one book. Even then, I wouldn't press it, and I would often let the flyer come and go without buying a book. I was probably more aware of the burdens of parents than a child should be during that time, and I adapted accordingly. I knew the pain in a parent who has to tell their child, “No.”, so I saved my parents the struggle most of the time. And even though I had an idea that she would scrap until she could get me the book, the very act of scraping tainted the book, and therefore it was very often that I would defer my requests until the next time the flyer was released.

Taking a nap in my toy box.
(which I still have, and yes, that
is a doll.)
I never understood why Mom was so willing to buy books for me, but not toys. Although she would occasionally read to me before I could read myself, she was not a particularly bookish person herself. She had a few books, most of them unread. She read the Bible quite often; although I never got from her that she had a deep theological interest. She did read it intensely, I recall, for hours on end, as if she was attempting to solve a mystery or engaging in some research where she was just one fact away from a life-changing epiphany. I never questioned her about this.

Summers were spent at home during those ages of 3 to 8, which would have spanned the late 70’s and into the early 80’s. I never was bored at home. We had family nearby, including a cousin my own age. There were typically enough neighborhood kids to have a game of football, softball or basketball in the evenings. We were surrounded by woodlands and farmlands, with endless streams, sinkholes, and caves to explore. My cousin and I, with shorts, no shirts, and wore-out shoes, were regular Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns.

Mom and I, getting
ready to go to town.
Mom was at home most of these years. In the summer months, it was a normal occurrence on Friday to go “Yard-Sale-ing”. What that meant was that early on Friday morning, Mom and I would pile into our old Plymouth and head to her mother’s, my grandmother’s, house in Morristown to eat breakfast. From there, we would leave to patrol the neighborhoods of Morristown, and sometimes Bean Station, looking for yard sales.

These excursions were beyond boring for me. But keep in mind, a young boy with endless energy, cooped up in the back seat of an old car while Mom drives around looking for sales. I am amazed at the details of those years that are embedded in my memory. I have poor recall. I seldom can tell you what I had for dinner yesterday. Yet, I can vividly remember those days. The wind blowing throw my hair through the car window. The smell of the car's hot vinyl. Mom complaining at red lights. Even the nuances of my mother's driving habits.

Many times my grandmother would go with us. This made the trips much better. Grandmothers tend to be generous with their grandchildren, and I sometimes asked her to buy me things I wouldn't dare ask Mom to buy.

It was during these excursions that most of my clothing was purchased. I embarrassed my mom to pieces once at my pediatrician’s office. He complimented my shirt, at which point I retorted, quite nonchalant and matter-of-fact, that Mom bought it for me at the “rummage sale”.

Often, our pilgrimages would lead us into some of Morristown’s more affluent neighborhoods, at that time. It always amazed Mom at how much broken down old junk was being proffered to the public, in exchange for much more money that most items were worth, at these ostentatious homes. I always found this observation to be counter-intuitive. One would think that the rich would replace their junk before it was completely unusable, and sell it at a fair price. But, as it turns out, it is the poor and middle-class that is more likely to do this. She always viewed the rich as a different breed. At the time, I didn't care. I was just wanting Mom to hurry up and get hungry so we’d stop by McDonald’s for lunch and I could get a Happy Meal.

As we drove through the labyrinths of far-too-complex architectural structures in these affluent neighborhoods, she would always turn to me and say, “Some people get their mansion on Earth. Some get their mansion in Heaven.”

In spite of my young age, the implication of what she was saying was not lost on me. Seldom, if ever, do people get mansions in both places. Although I never took Mom for a theologian, this precept does seem to have the sanction of Scripture (Luke 18:24). I don’t know if this was even an original thought Mom had, or something she heard someone else say.

Sometimes, these excursions yielded little fruit, and Mom would then turn to some of the department stores that were around back then. Anyone reading this who is my age (39) or older will remember long gone department stores like Roses, Knox-Williams, Big-K (when it was in what is now HealthStar), and Sky City. Times when we would go to these stores had its redeeming factors for me, for although the toys couldn't be purchased, I could still walk through and look at them. It was a means of staying on top of what was currently popular, along with the wish-books my mother received in the mail from various department stores.

Mom had a knack for going into a trance in a store, walking in circles, sometimes looking at the same rack two or three times. This often freed me up to roam the store alone, which I whole-heartedly did. I almost always gravitated to the toys or sports section, with longings and wishes. Afterwards, I would end up in trouble, because Mom would not buy a stitch of clothing for me unless it was tried on, and I couldn't try it on if I was absent.

Dad kept me on
motorcycles, even
when I was in diapers.
This was taken by Mom
at the house I spent the first
two years of life in.
Ironically, the house
across the street
(the one in the photo)
is the house I live in today.
These excursions usually ended with meeting up with Dad at the end of his work shift, and either going grocery shopping before going home, or sometimes meeting family at the campground. We camped a lot back then, and would camp from Friday night all weekend long. Other times, we would visit my grandmother on Dad’s side, and often I would spend the night with her. Sometimes, they would end with us going out for supper, but never at a sit-down restaurant. That was very rare during those years. I remember Mom and Dad once decided to try one of the nicer restaurants in Morristown at the time. One look at the prices on the menu, and we quietly, nonchalantly, walked out. Don't worry, I was too young to be embarrassed.

As I said earlier, Halloween was a interesting time when I was young. Mom was very fond of dressing me up. Sometimes, the costumes were in very poor taste, and if pictures of them were ever made public, I could forget ever becoming president. But it was her opportunity to let her imagination run completely wild. I never missed a year's "trick-or-treating", and often would be involved in whatever school activity was going on during Halloween. This awkward tradition was passed on to my brother when he arrived, and he caught the brunt of mom's imaginative costumes after that. I was released from that dreadful duty, for although I did enjoy the candy, I was never actually fond of the costumes or trick-or-treating.

Although times were tough back then, I can say that I remember Mom smiling more back then than any other time in her life after I came along. I would dare-say it had to do with her being young. She was quite jovial and light-hearted back then, before she entered into middle-age.

Mom loved dressing me up
at Halloween. This was the year
of the clown costume, which was
completely homemade.
So, yes, I can definitely say that my fondest memories of my mother were those times when she actually had the least to give in material things. That is likely another counter-intuitive point to some, perhaps most, modern parents. For parents these days are prone to give their child every little gizmo and gadget and doo-dad coming and going, all in the name of “giving them what I never had”, and leaving their children to be entertained and essentially babysat by whatever gadget they have been given. To be honest, although my mother indeed splurged on my brother and me during Christmases and birthdays, I struggle to remember any of those times, especially during my teen years. But the time spent with her as a younger child come quickly to my mind with startling clarity. It was the time spent with her that made the lasting impression, and it was time spent at a stage of life when one feels they are not making impressions. I wonder if she had any inkling how much I'd remember those years when once I reached middle-age. If she had known, I wonder what she'd done differently.

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