Monday, September 25, 2006

80s Flashback

Red vacuumed every day to Motown on the record player. Sometimes she'd get up on the coffee table, belting out "I Will Survive" to the subtle static of steel on vinyl. Her three children ran through the living room, unaffected, in a circuit that took them from bedroom to kitchen to sun porch to muddy yard, and back again. Their tracked-in dirt disappeared in a quick sweep of the Electrolux. Nothing was dirty or disorganized if it was within her control.

I was the stray, the "summer sister." Red's middle daughter was my best friend. My mother dropped me off at the beginning of summer vacation and I stayed there for weeks, until a doctor's appointment or a trip to Lake George reuinited me with my given family. I never missed home.

Each day at Red's was structured by mealtimes. We ate cereal for breakfast, each child dumping leftover Os or flakes down the toilet. There were never any remnants in my bowl, though. I was a plate cleaner. Red loved that about me. She was effusive in her praise of my appetite. The funny thing was that I never saw her eat.

Between then and lunch we played Barbies, dress-up or pageant. Sometimes we'd play band. Once I ended the day with a black and blue five inches in diameter from hours of hitting the tambourine against my leg like Michelle Philips in a clueless California dream.

Lunch was tuna fish and celery that I crunched in contentment. Sometimes it was hot dogs with mac and cheese. I ate it all. Red patted my back.

Then there was more of the same play, or a dip in the pool. One summer when we were around ten, we orchestrated mini-triathalons that ended in their round, above-ground pool. I noticed after one such race that my everpresent ankh ring was missing from my right ring finger.

"SHIT!" I screamed, with all the force of discovery. My best friend's eyes were huge as she looked at me. Then she giggled. The shrug of my shoulders swallowed my neck as I bit down on my lip and waited.

"Girls!" Red yelled back from inside the house, where she talked in hushed tones to a neighbor. It was just a reminder that she was listening.

A huge pot of meatballs joined pounds of spaghetti at the dinner table. Us kids sat at the table while Red talked on the phone in the corner. Our voices carried conversations about Scott Grimes, Madonna, the hairy guy next door, and plans to ride our bikes to Friendly's for ice cream. I washed my seconds down with a tall glass of milk. Red nodded at me encouragingly, the phone bobbing against her ear. Her focus was everywhere. It's getting worse, I heard her say to the person on the other line. I don't think I can take it anymore.

My own mother never danced on the coffee table to anthemic oldies, which is why I was giggling and awkward in my admiration whenever Red did it. At Red's house, there was no sweeping things under the rug. Instead, the constant sucking of the vacuum cleaner was its own soundtrack as she made straight lines in the carpet that erased all the detritus of organized chaos. You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die? She sang it out to the four of us, like she was asking.

I shook my head no. I watched Red and it was clear to me, even as a child, that a mother has no choice but to be strong.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This brings back so many flashes of memory to me of the things I heard and saw in the houses of my friends as I grew up. My life was idyllic and I know that beyond doubt now in my retrospective comparisons to what I saw elsewhere. Moms who slept all day, Moms who drank from little thermoses at the pool and got louder and sillier as the afternoon wore on, moms who chased us out of the house when the cute teenage boy from down the street came by to help her "organize".

And yet, and yet, dinners were cooked, houses were clean, kids were dressed nicely and fathers played golf and came home to hot meals and we played until the street lights came on. I do think that most mothers have an energy reserve to tap into that is immeasurable. And an emotional resource to rival it.

One of my friends from college was 5 when her father died. She had a three year old brother and an infant sister. No career, no life insurance. People asked her mother how she did it and she said "What choice did I have? I had three kids to feed."

Mrs. Chicky said...

Wonderful. I can almost picture her on the phone with the twisted cord in her hands.

lynsalyns said...

"... a mother has no choice but to be strong." Yes, yes indeed. And I remember so clearly when my own mother was not. And after my father's death she crumbled. I was 33, and still I wanted her to be my mother.

I hope I can find the core of strength I have inside whenever Emmie needs it.

Beautiful. I could see, taste, hear and smell this post.

How's that novel coming? I heard a story that has my wheels turning right now. Dare I try fiction? I dunno ....

toyfoto said...

This reminds me so much of my summers with a friend's family. Although, there was no dancing on tables and I NEVER cleaned my plate.

Brilliantly told.

Karen said...

If you can believe it, I want to be Red when I am a grown up.

Sigh.

T. said...

Wonderfully written post. I had my own Red. Her name is Melody. And she sounds alot like your Red. With out her, my summers would have been so sad.

Beautiful.

Amy said...

wow, I love reading your blog.

mothergoosemouse said...

a mother has no choice but to be strong.

That right there is what gets me through the drudgery. And like Red, I might as well have clean carpets and good music.

And it's up to us as parents to do what we can to shield our children - and their summer sisters and brothers - from adult burdens. It sounds like Red did that quite well.