Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mama's Birthday

I know I'm not alone in recognizing that mothers are our first teachers. In honor of my mother, who will be 81 on October 25th, here is a true story of her birthday from three years ago:

Mama’s Birthday

I often realize that in a room full of women, I am the one with the most makeup on. I also realize that I always have makeup on…from two minutes after I step out of the shower in the morning until two seconds before I jump into bed at night. When my daughter was born, my obstetrician told me he had never walked into a room during morning rounds and found a new mother sitting in a hospital bed with a full face of makeup. But that’s how he found me. Many boyfriends of my past, including one who became a husband – the first one – complained that they like the natural look better. All those complaints fell on deaf ears, strategically positioned behind a cheek full of blush – Clinique Pink to be exact.

Many have questioned my excessive use of face paint. Am I attempting to cover some horrific flaws, some ask? Maybe I’ve never shared the reason until now. But it’s quite simple. During my elementary school years, my mother was, in fact, the Avon Lady. Yep, as in “Ding Dong, Avon calling.” I spent hours upon hours playing in her sample bag as a child. I can still feel the texture of the bag, the blue burlap feeling ridged and uneven under my small fingertips. My favorite items in the bag were the little white lipstick samples. They were perfectly pointed, shiny pieces of color that served as lipstick for me, lipstick for my cats, blush for my baby dolls, and crayons for my color books. Sometimes even now at flea markets and antique stores, I see the bottles from different types of Avon scents. My mother’s bag smelled of them: Skin So Soft, Somewhere, Occur, Topaz, and others – names that mean nothing to most folks today – but names that have the ability to pick me up where I am and throw me back into second grade.

My mother hasn’t sold Avon in over forty years. This was a job she could do with my sister and me in tow when we were little; we would sit in customers’ homes and try to remain quiet. If we were lucky, there would be children there, which meant toys, or there would be a dog or a cat, and we would be entertained. But after we reached middle school age, my mother went to work in a real estate office, and that’s where she’s remained, until her retirement this month.

Retirement has been a big adjustment for her. We knew it would be. Still reeling from Daddy’s death a little over a year ago, and with no job to occupy her time, my mother has become a little depressed. I have encouraged her to hop on a little old lady bus to Branson, Missouri, or somewhere comparable, but it has been really difficult to get her off of her couch for the past few weeks. A couple of times I’ve stopped by to visit late in the afternoon, only to find her still in her pajamas.

So today my sister, our husbands, and I visited my mother’s house to participate in what we always call a “work day.” There are so many adventures at my mother’s house that require physical exertion. Last week, a huge tree limb, which could have been mistaken for the entire tree because of its size, fell and landed just in front of the porch. That needed to be taken care of. Also, her refrigerator light burned out, almost simultaneously with her microwave oven light and her dryer light. But my mother’s most urgent request was that we help her clean under her kitchen sink and up in her highest cabinets. With her seventy-eighth birthday approaching, she knew that she would be unable to do the bending, kneeling, and climbing necessary to do the cleaning. So the only birthday present she wanted was for us to assist in her post-retirement fall chores.

We immediately knew what we had gotten ourselves into when we peered under the sink. One thing we have forgotten: my father was alone in the house, while my mother worked, for the entire six years that he was sick. We know that he had an interesting storage system as we have found many of his treasures boxed here and there and wrapped in old newspapers held together with black electrical tape. We didn’t know that he was seemingly collecting various types of cleaning fluids: the lack of storage room under my mother’s kitchen sink was mostly due to the fact that there were multiple bottles of Windex, Fantastic, and Comet accumulating there. We tossed, we arranged, and we rearranged. Finishing that chore, we moved on to the cabinets.

The higher ones have always been a problem; it’s just impossible to reach them from the floor. Without hesitating, I hoisted myself up to walk on the counter, just as I always did as a child. I immediately noticed that my knees didn’t seem quite as interested in pushing me up there as they did when I was sixteen, but I made it, and I turned to see what adventure waited. We hadn’t looked at those top shelves in years.

What I saw took a while to process. While it seems that I felt puzzled for several minutes; at the same time my brain said one word to me – “Daddy.”

His handiwork lay before me, I knew, but what I was looking at eluded me. Lying on top of, and around, a couple of random bowls and mugs were twenty or so “packages” of various shapes. Some were wrapped in aluminum foil, and some were wrapped in plastic wrap. Some of the plastic wrap was clear, and some of it was pink. It was a bizarre spectacle, a contemporary art project gone wrong, one of those sculptures made of trash that some famous artist gets thousands of dollars for, while we normal people think I could’ve made that.

I said, “Guys, I’m not sure what’s up here, but I’m sure I know who’s responsible.” My mother and my sister spoke together, “Daddy.” That word means so much when we discover things…

I began handing my sister the wrapped objects one by one. My mother got up from her chair and came to join us.

“What’s in those?” she asked.

My sister began unwrapping the foil, slowly….somehow we were all thinking, If he wrapped them, maybe we shouldn’t unwrap…he’s not here…maybe we should just leave them.

As the first one was unwrapped, we knew what he had done. He had tried to preserve history and safeguard pieces of our beginnings; he had taken precious items, items that people now sell for profit, and placed them in the only wrappings available to a homebound cancer patient. One by one, as I handed, my sister pulled wrappings off of forty-year-old Avon bottles. The actual bottles were not that much of a surprise. What was surprising was my mother’s reaction. She was smiling, laughing, almost childlike in her response to each separate surprise.

“Oh, that’s Cotillion,” she squealed. “That’s Here’s My Heart.”

I watched her smiling for the first time in days and thought that maybe this was her birthday present. Once again, my Daddy had figured out a way to send a message, to show us that he’s not really gone. I stood on that counter, unable to move, and watched my sister open the last one. I tried to memorize the moment, to spin between picturing my sick father pulling off bits of aluminum foil and wrapping them around these treasures and this moment when my mother looked almost like the mother I remember, the mother who carried the blue Avon bag. When the wrapping fell off, I gasped silently and said nothing as I looked at the bottle that held the perfume. This one, like many others, had a name that included only one word, but this word was the most meaningful of them all – an old Avon fragrance called Unforgettable.

I made my way to the last cabinet and found one aluminum wrapped gift sitting in the middle of some spices. I lifted it out and handed it to my sister. She opened it, laughed, and showed it to me - a box of birthday candles.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Happy Birthday, Mama.

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