|The Grandkids: Spencer, Luke, Sam, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Kyle, Ben, Tyler, Cole and Josh on the silo behind the barn|
I stopped by my parents’ house last week and was hanging out in the driveway shooting baskets when my Mom came walking from around the front of the house. “Mom,” I shouted, “let’s play H-O-R-S-E.”
“I can’t,” she said. “Maybe when I’m done.” She was puttering around in one of her flower gardens. She has a lot of flower gardens. Last year she put a decorative brick border around the pine trees in front. Last week she planted some new flowers down near the barn but had to dig them up and move them when the faucet in the barn broke. There is a little area behind the garage, off the driveway, that looks like a garden at the Smithsonian. It’s made up of flower upon flower, mixed in with some bushes and decorative laurel, none of which I know by name. My Mom makes sure the yard looks nice, but it actually looks fantastic. She likes that stuff. When we would drive by the house we lived in in Rush, many years after we had left and moved to the farm, she would spy the bushes she planted along the house. “How are my bushes doing?” she wondered aloud. She has a nurturing essence that has made her a good landscaper and a great mother and grandmother.
When my brother and sisters and I were in high school, and college, and junior high - and really, ever since - my Mom took our appearance seriously. I would often hear comments like “What the hell are you doing without shoes on?!" or "You look like a vagrant!” directed at me. My appearance has been a point of contention since we moved to Lima and I stopped wearing shoes. In the summer the soles of my feet would become black with dirt and grass stains and she would make me scrub them night after night. They would be clean and white when I was done but by noon the next day they would be back to their altered state. In fairness to my Mom, I often looked like a vagrant, especially when I had long hair and a penchant for wrinkled shirts. It was only, I believe, my youth, my innocent face and my ability to play dumb that kept me out of any serious trouble with the authorities, but that didn't fool my Mom.
She doesn’t like looking at photos of herself but on her wedding day she looked like Audrey Hepburn if Audrey Hepburn lived next door and wore cat glasses. Her and my Dad are young and handsome and happy in those photos, with everything in front of them. Last year I was in the church where they got married, St. Joseph’s in Rush, and I crept up in the balcony and thought about them and the day they got married. After they married they lived on West Rush Road. My parents fixed up the first house, sold it, and then moved to my grandmother's old place across from the golf course in town. They were barely in their thirties when we left Rush and moved to the farm in Lima. Their place sure didn’t look like it does now. There are some buildings that no longer stand, having been buried years ago now, but that’s not the real difference. The place was rough when they bought it. It might be a family legend, but I believe that the former owners had chickens in the house. I know that I moved into a house that was clean and had new carpets (I still love the new carpet smell), a new kitchen, a new bathroom, pretty much new everything, and I got to pick the color of my room (I liked purple). I spent a lot of time making forts from couch cushions or throwing blankets over radiators to make a hot house (we trapped the warm air until we were sweating) or playing with hot wheels in my Dad's office. Kids spend a lot of time in the nooks and crannies of a house, time that makes a house a home. The bathroom was always clean, the dishes were always done, and the clothes always washed and folded. As a little kid, a clean house is a cozy house, and our house was always clean.
My Dad was at Kodak every day, then home at five, and then on the tractor or in the shop until dark. We spent a lot of time with him because he was fun to be around and because there was always work to be done. He was like the Godfather - he was the head of the network. My Mom was more like Sonny Corleone. She ran the day-to-day operation from the front lines. She made the doctor and dentist and orthodontist appointments, took us shopping for school clothes, bought the food we liked and didn’t like, took us to our friends' house, paid the bills, cleaned the bathroom, and set the standards. Not only did she drive us to the orthodontist appointments, but she was also the one who decided that we were getting braces. We were her domain.
When we fell short of her expectations she let us know it. How many times did I get whacked in the back of the head when I was walking out the door? Her rants were like a mad lib. “Now you get your ass (“out there” or “in there”) and you (insert task - clean your room, take out the garbage), or I’m gonna (insert threat - i.e. “tan your behind”),” she’d say, and then she’d position herself strategically so she could smack you in the back of the head on your way by. It also irritated her when we dragged our feet. She would tell me that "you are slower than molasses in January," and "you take forever and a day to do anything." If you had screwed up enough for her to say, “Just wait ‘til your father gets home,” then you had won the battle but lost the war. The mention of my father was the big stick. My Mom got results. We were polite and well-behaved in public (and most other places) like it was second nature. We didn't know any other way to be and for that I have to thank my Mom. Of course, beneath my Mom's intolerance for foolery was a Mom whose heart was as big as the outdoors, who always thought the best of her kids, always wanted the best for her kids, and always did her best for her kids. She was the Mom who was on point against every fever, every crooked tooth, every smear of dirt, and every teardrop.
My friends kind of laugh now when I talk about growing up on the farm and they say, "Geez Bean, when are they gonna rename your parents' street 'Bean Road? There's enough Bean's on there." My brother and my sisters live on the road and there is a path that runs from my Mom's to my older sister's house. We are close enough that we compare the situation to Everybody Loves Raymond (most of the time in a humorous way). Everyone comes and goes. I can stop in at any time to find both my sister's talking to my Mom in the driveway, or my nephews in the shop with my Dad, or my brother picking someone up or dropping someone off. There's a kind of randomness and ease that doesn't require a formal occasion for any number of our family to find themselves together talking. I like to joke that my Mom never took me to the circus and that's why I turned out the way I did, and of course I'm being sarcastic. I turned out the way I did because of my Mom and while the jury may still be out on me, I don't know many families that are still so connected even into adulthood that they would want to have a day-to-day interaction with the rest of their family. For that I have to thank my Mom, and my Dad, but my Mom is the center, the coordinator, the default babysitter and the quality control specialist.
It’s really neat to see my Mom with the grandkids. My Dad is pretty cool but the little kids think that Grandma is where it’s at. She paints and colors and draws with them, they sit in her chair and watch movies on her tiny dvd player, and she always has candy. Whenever I babysit the kids for my sister, I ask seven year-old Cole what he wants to do. “I want to go to Grandma’s.” And that would be that. Watching her with the grandkids, I can see how she raised us. My Dad noticed it too and one day mentioned how great my Mom was with them. I always thought that my perpetual optimism and happiness was something that was hardwired inside me, that I was just born that way, but I was mistaken. Somehow, someway, my Mom made me a happy person. How many people can say that?
When she got done hauling brush from her gardens, she took off her work gloves and we played a game of H-O-R-S-E. My Mom, at seventy years old, was leading by a letter when we quit. She is still taking me to school.