Sunday, June 29, 2008
Mumps, Mother Love and "Catlow"
Mumps, Mother Love and Catlow
I grew up understanding that I was not my mother’s favorite child. She loved me, but it was an exasperated love, distracted, what was leftover at the end of every exhausting day.
I learned early not to ask for much, to eat hominy and beef liver without a fuss, to play quietly on the floor on her side of my parents’ bed while she lay reading, one of her hands straying occasionally to stroke my hair. “You had so much hair when you were born," she would say. "You were so small. Thirteen inches. I could hold you in one hand. You were so dark with a great big head the size of a grapefruit. But you were beautiful. Just perfect. Your hands. You wouldn’t uncurl those toes. I looked at your little face and I couldn’t give you away.”
It was okay. I took what I could get.
When I was in second grade, I caught the mumps from a girl down the street whose father used to kiss her on the lips. I came in complaining of a sore neck and my mother took one look at me and said, “Oh, shit. You have the mumps.” She was so angry, that I thought I’d done something wrong, but her hand was cool and soft when she laid it against my swollen jaw. She made my little brother sleep in the bed with me that night in the hopes that he would be infected and quickly get his bout over with. It didn’t work--at least not the way she hoped. He came home with a swollen face a week later, setting the pattern for my other siblings, each falling ill, one after the other, one week after the last was declared well enough to return to school.
I didn’t mind the mumps. It didn’t hurt after the first day and I got to have cream of wheat for dinner. Even better, I had my mother to myself for several days. She fed me soup and baby aspirin and held hot, folded washcloths to my jaw while we watched Japanese soap operas. We visited the library and went to the park. She read a book at a concrete picnic table and I lay spread-eagled in the tall, wind whipped grass, staring at the blue and white sky, imagining that I could feel the Earth spin beneath me.
One morning we drove to the naval base to look at the ships. My mother wore white pedal pushers, a lime-colored sleeveless top and a shoulder-length wig that parted down the middle and flipped up at the ends. She held my hand and laughed at the sailors from behind her large, round sunglasses. We raced home and cooked chili for dinner like we’d been there all day.
On my last day home, my mother sat at the table reading the newspaper. I could already feel her pulling away from me and I clenched my jaw against the ache in my heart. I felt a twinge in the glands beneath my ears.
Just then, my mother looked up from the paper and grinned. “A movie with Yul Brenner and Leonard Nimoy. My favorites,” she said. “And it’s a western, too. We’ll go to the matinee.”
We stopped at the Base Exchange on the way to buy a Baby Ruth for her and a Butterfinger for me. I don’t remember much about the movie other than how menacing Nimoy’s character was and how my mother and I giggled and peeked through our fingers at the naked fight scene.
I do remember, that as the lights went down, my mother squeezed my hand and kissed each of my knuckles with a loud smacking sound. I laughed and shivered with glee. She smiled and took another bite from her Baby Ruth.