Saturday, April 28, 2007


There’s a story my mom liked to tell, that I think revealed more about her than she ever realized.

It was when Little Charlene was in first grade. It was time to pick the new readers, those books with the basic poems and stories to teach reading skills. The kids were allowed to choose between two different books; they would take a few minutes to look over each one, and then they would vote. For purposes of this story, let’s call them the blue book and the red book.

There was one particular story in the red book that intrigued her, but she didn’t have time to finish reading it before it was time to vote. The class was told to stand up, and those who wanted the red book stand on one side, while the blue book voters stand on the opposite side.

It became immediately clear that more kids wanted the blue book, by a pretty wide margin. But--and here’s the part that really got to her—when the other kids in the red book group saw that they were outvoted, they all went to the blue side, leaving her all alone, one little girl against her peers.

Her bitterness against her classmates was surpassed only by her bitterness against her teacher, who never took the time to find out why Charlene was so adamant about the red book. “So I was outvoted,” she would say, not realizing how much she would be shaking at this point in her narrative, “she could have at least offered to let me read it on my own.”

I tell a lie when I say she was most bitter against her teacher. I think she reserved her greatest anger for herself. Her natural instincts would almost invariably be the opposite of those around her, leading to that moment where everyone would be staring at her, wondering what the hell’s wrong with Charlene.

There was a similar story from around the same time. For PE, her class was going to be playing softball for the first time. Understand, this was the early 40s, before TV, so it was entirely possible for a little girl at that time to have no idea of how baseball works, which happened to be the case with Charlene. Watching the other kids in confusion, she tried to figure out this strange game that she had only heard about; okay, when they throw the ball to you, hit it with the bat and run to the base. She could manage that much, she figured, and puzzle out the rest as she went along.

Unfortunately, since her last name started with C, she was one of the first kids up to bat. Gamely but awkwardly she swung at the ball, missing once, twice, three times. She wouldn’t give up, though, and waited for the next throw. She had no concept of “three strikes, you’re out,” no matter how many times the other kids screamed it at her. She merely stood at home plate, holding the bat and waiting for someone to explain to her what she did wrong.

These were the moments that would stay with her. I didn’t hear much about good times, and honestly, I don’t think there were that many.

This is all stuff I would get in drips and drabs over the years; It wasn’t until the months leading up to her death that I started to get a clear picture of how my Mom became the woman I knew. I had heard the story of how she met my Dad; by 16, her family was living in Alaska, where she went to a USO dance and got hit on by a cocky young airman with the so-lame-it’s-almost-cool pickup line “you’re drinking Pepsi?” Once I started putting all the pieces together, it actually makes perfect sense to drop out of high school and get married at 16. I actually have to wonder about the timing of my oldest brother’s conception and birth. I wonder if she went to that USO dance looking for an escape.

Unfortunately, by the time I started putting those pieces together, the damage had already been done.

More to come, maybe.

*hugs* I know this is hard...but it is a good thing.
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