All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable. Fran Lebowitz
“He is in a phase”, she signed absent mindedly as she mixed ground beef, eggs and spinach into an any time of the day “feed a family” concoction she called “Joe’s Special”. The phase was a term my mother used as an intellectual shield – an emotional whistling in the dark that reassured her and others that the highly anti-social behavior being exhibited by one of her sons was in fact, temporary. “Phase, my ass. “ My father would hiss. “I’ll phase him.” My father would always threaten to retaliate using whatever last word had rubbed him in the wrong fashion. If a child were to curse his brother calling him a “dwebe”, my father would snarl that if we did not stop fighting he would “dwebe” us. He was, in fact, a paper tiger and his comments often actually made no sense. His admonishment would only serve to confuse us as he mixed misunderstood teen epithets into a knee-jerk Molotov cocktail of threats. My mother would sigh – trapped in this endless rut of testosterone and male thoughtlessness. Life was not as she had expected. She had come to understand that little boys really were made from snails and puppy-dog tails.
She longed for a daughter but in a time before selective reduction and high-tech pregnancies, the risk of having a fifth boy was greater than her desire to enter a room perfumed with pigtails and Barbie dolls. She instead dwelt in a land of dirty underwear, GI Joes, wet beds and savage tribal fighting. Barely thirty with four boys was tantamount to a life of hard labor. It was a physical world of daredevils whose sense of adventure was only eclipsed by a total disregard for personal safety. Life was a succession of sudden earth quakes and flash floods that ripped across her domestic suburban life and hardened her into a clever cartographer who would come to master the bizarre topography of the adolescent mind.
It was not atypical to have a child in crisis – a tiny mind struggling to adapt to the greater oceans of maturity. On this particular day, my older brother was in the throes of some undiagnosed adolescent angst which manifested itself in a constant need to urinate. He could not actually pee with any person watching or standing within a twenty-foot radius. This created a range of insurmountable issues for a family that lived in a four bedroom, two-bath home where the urinal was shared by four children. While we gathered outside the locked bathroom door jumping with a full-bladdered frenetic wiggle, my brother would stand for minutes, a frozen Flomax poster child three decades before his time. As we pounded on the door, he would swear at us and threaten to relieve himself on us. We quickly realized his condition made this threat virtually impossible.
We tormented him mercilessly with nicknames like “pee-wee” and “peanut bladder”. We took advantage of any opportunity to distract him during a potty run. We were immediately chastised by my mother and informed that his condition was brought on by nerves. It would only be a modest inconvenience. This proved highly inaccurate for over the course of one weekend we waited a half hour at a restaurant, twenty minutes at a movie theatre and a grand 45 minutes outside of a gas station rest room while he concentrated – clearing his mind of any thought other than an empty night sky and a great porcelain moon. The slightest distraction was a setback – a knock on the door, a shout, a honking horn or the flush of a nearby urinal would return him to lock-down mode. A week later, the doctor found nothing physical wrong with him and suggested that perhaps the frenetic rush of our testosterone filled home was overwhelming his nervous system. “He’ll grow out of it”, the pediatrician reassured her.
My mother improvised purchasing a knit ski cap and encouraged him to pull it down over his eyes each time he used the toilet. “Imagine you are alone in the desert. It’s night. No one can see you.” He immediately questioned her.
“What if there is a scorpion or a sidewinder?” Nearby, my father narrowed his eyes like a reptile as he peered above his Wall Street Journal.
“Listen, you numskull. There are no god damn reptiles or scorpions in Mom’s desert. “
My brother had a very high IQ and was not buying it. “Which desert? The Mojave? The Sahara? There are Gila monsters, coral snakes…”
“Enough! Why can’t he be on the moon for God’s sake?”
My savant sibling rolled his eyes at my father’s obvious ignorance and asserted very empirically,” There is no gravity or oxygen in space. It is 100 degrees below zero and my pee would freeze.”
My father uttered a guttural growl and shifted from the room. In time, my mother and brother agreed on a biofeedback loop that relaxed his bladder and allowed him to return to the land of the continent. Her pragmatism was legendary with boys. Yet, she longed for a girl to share secrets and dabs of perfume. The secret society of boys was a dirty sock drawer of half-thoughts and grunts. Yet, she would be denied entry to the world of girls and get drawn into a deeper season of young men. She developed a keen antenna as sensitive as any mother in the animal kingdom. She would innovate, investigate, interrogate and if necessary, incarcerate. She had to make adjustments for every conceivable circumstance. “Life is what happens while your busy making plans.” She would quote John Lennon. When the unexpected came scratching at our door, she would accept life’s unannounced intrusions with a resigned sardonic greeting from Steinbeck, “Ah yes, the best laid plans of mice and men ….”
Her life as a mother of young men was an anthem to family anthropology, tolerance and comical dysfunction. A mother first learns acceptance and then comes to understand that it is perfectly normal not to be normal. It is the human condition to err and it is a mother’s job to ameliorate the suffering that accompanies accidents, mishaps and comical collisions. Now in her twilight years, she rests in a chair and remembers fondly the comical journey of her boys.
She loves to retell the story of a certain January Saturday night. I still wince in pain at the stinging memory. She was readying for a rare evening out – a chance to disappear into the lace and tinkling cocktail glasses of an adult dinner party. The teenaged baby sitter has just arrived. My mother’s perfume permeated the upstairs hallway as she prepared for a long-awaited evening away from her feral boys. Her low-cut evening gown and pearl necklace were accentuated by crimson lip stick so red that it could knock a man into Sunday.
In the chaos of the adults changing to go out and the babysitter’s arrival, my brother and I shut our bedroom door, turned down the lights and began to play with his new Christmas present, a desk lamp with a high-powered light bulb. We had discovered that if one turned the lamp upside down, it would project images on to the ceiling of the darkened room. We laughed hysterically at the silhouettes of our hands as they produced dogs, rabbits and eventually more bizarre and inappropriate shadows. This led to my brother putting his finger beside his shorts and making an even more obscene gesture. More hysterical laughter followed. Another brother joined the exhibition.
It was at this point, as is so often the case that a devil lighted on my brother’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we projected our private parts on to the ceiling?” At 5 years old, I quickly agreed. After all, we were boys and boys did gross things for a cheap laugh. Soon something that resembled the Hindenburg was floating across the white sky. The gigantic shadow was met with howls of laughter. We quickly discerned that the closer the light was to the object being projected, the more pronounced the projection. No one seemed too concerned that the bulb of the desk lamp was now heated to over 500 degrees. As I volunteered to take another turn, my brother got a mischievous look in his eye. To this day, he swears he did not intend to burn my “twig and berries” with the lamp.
My unearthly howl of pain seemed to rise out of the depths of Hades. It was at this precise moment that my mother realized that a life with four boys would be a perpetual blind-folded rollercoaster ride. If she could not have a little girl, perhaps, the best she could do was to make sure that the “little girl” inside of her survived this deviant siege from her feckless pirate progeny.
Moments later, I ran out of the bedroom and down the stairs naked – shrieking that my franks and beans were on fire. The baby sitter was visibly unnerved by my nudity and hysteria. She was now having second thoughts about her evening assignment. My father sensed this and immediately moved to reassure her as my mother tried to corral me as I contorted in naked pain. I distinctly recall her laughter and tears as she developed an ice pack fashioned out of my father’s underwear and a Saran Wrap. She smiled surveying the boy who literally and figuratively had been burned for bearing it all.
There would be decades of monumental blunders, incidents and a lifetime full of pea-brained male mistakes. Yet the girl became the woman, the nurse, the confessor, the educator, the ombudsman, the partner and the warden. She grew up but never stopped softening our world, leaving in her wake a scent of love and understanding. If you ask her today if she regrets not having a girl, she laughs. “Oh, I don’t think a girl would have survived in this prehistoric clan. There was only room for one girl and God clearly wanted that person –to be me.”