I dreaded our forth grade assembly. All the kids scampered around the classroom asking each other, “Is your mommy coming?” Without waiting for a response, they’d finish with; “MY mommy’s coming!”
Over and over, the same thing would bounce out of every kid’s mouth but mine. I answered by nodding yes and praying to myself, “Sweet Jesus, please don’t let my mommy come to the assembly.”
At School 9 the assemblies were held in the auditorium. It was really an indoor basketball court with a stage. Folding chairs were set up for the audience. The students from all the other grades attended and the parents of the students performing were all invited. Because the assemblies were held during the day it was usually only mommies who showed up.
Our performance began as planned. Throughout the performance I was tormented by the thought that at any moment my mother would show up while I was on stage. It wasn’t until we were halfway through that I began to feel relief, thinking to myself, "Maybe my mom’s not going to make it after all!"
Then there was a loud “Ka-Chun-Ka!” sound that came from back of the auditorium. It was the loud sound of those, “Ka-Chun-Ka!” bars, the long brass bar handles on the doors to the auditorium that you have to press down hard to open, and when you do they make a loud, “Ka-Chun-Ka!” noise.
The doors flew open and the entire audience abruptly spun around toward the back of the auditorium. Silence. Everything stopped. It felt like I was dreaming while standing in shock.
There she was, my mommy, drunk out of her mind standing slightly off balance in the doorway with her frosted hair all banged up, a purse dangling off her left arm, wearing a tight sweater, Capri pants and heels. Oblivious to the fact that the entire audience was twisted around in their seats and staring at her in shock, she pointed at the stage and proudly shouted, “My baby!”
All at once everyone swung back around in their seats curious to see who her “baby” was. Frozen on stage, I convinced myself, as my face heated up like the coils in a toaster oven and turned just as red, that maybe they’d think it’s one of the other kids; after all, there are four of us standing on the stage. But as soon as she blasted out, “Daaaaa-rell!” it was all over. I just wanted to fall on my cardboard sword and end it all.
Walking home from school humiliated I couldn’t imagine anything worse, until I heard Brazil 66's, "Mas Que Nada,"
blasting from the open windows of our house. When I stepped inside my mom grabbed me by my hand, pulled me into the living room began leading me around as she danced with a drink one hand and holding mine with the other.
“Come on Darrell, dance with mommy. Maybe if you moved your ass a little more we wouldn't have to shop in the 'husky' department.”
Seeing your mother drunk is one thing, but being forced to dance with your drunken mother is discomfort like no other. Even though no one was there to witness this, except for my younger brother, Eric, (who pretended to be a cat so he wouldn’t have to dance with her), the pain of humiliation was excruciating.
At the stroke of five o'clock my dad walked in the back door and mommy made a beeline for the kitchen. The crash of the silverware drawer hitting the floor was followed by my father's shout,
“Billie, will you put down the knife!”
From past experience I knew she didn’t really intend to stab my dad; she just wanted to get his attention. But this time she really wanted to teach him a lesson. While my dad tried to convince her out of killing someone with the knife. She began to strip until she was standing in the kitchen completely naked. Then she threw down the knife and ran out the back door.
“God damn it! Darrell, Eric get out here!” my father yelled, “Your mother just ran out of the house. Naked!”
When my father caught a glimpse of me his impatience grew to outrage, “What the hell are you doing putting shoes on for? Your mother’s not wearing any! Come on we’re gonna lose her. We got to go get her!”
So there I was with my little brother, Eric, chasing our naked mother through the neighborhood and it wasn’t easy keeping up with her, she was jumping hedges like a wild gazelle! It was like and episode of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."
Then our neighbor’s porch lights started popping on like flash bulbs on cameras. It wasn’t until we were halfway down the block that my father was able to tackle her. Unfortunately, it was on Rhonda Mangels’ front yard. We were in the same class. I can still see her standing there behind her screen door with her parents just staring at us. I had a crush on Rhonda, but now it was clear my chance of ever winning her over was shot. From then on Rhonda Mangels was like kryptonite
, anytime I'd see her what little self-confidence I had evaporated on the spot, nothing remained but inadequacy and the urge to hide or die. Oh, and all my friends who lived in the neighborhood and walked to school with us were now coming outside to see what all the commotion was. They watched as my dad, heading in the direction our house with my mom, struggled to keep her wrapped in the terry cloth robe he tackled her with. Eric and I followed behind.
It wasn’t long after this episode that my parents divorced and our mom moved out. I thought having her out of our lives would change how inadequate I felt. It didn’t. I still felt like a turd compared to all the other kids on the School 9 playground. I knew I needed something special to transform myself from what I believed everyone thought of me, into someone they would admire.
That day came when I discovered where my dad hid his card playing money. I knew with money I could impress the other kids. I had a plan, if I only took the change, and not the bills, my father would never notice. Our dad worked during the day, so each day I walked home for lunch; I’d steal a roll of quarters. This was 1972 when a ten dollar roll of quarters was worth like, ten grand! So, I was able to buy massive bags of Starburst fruit chews
. I didn’t even like Starburst fruit chews, but the cool kids like Wayne Giambatista did. It worked like magic. As soon as I’d arrive at the playground at lunch recess all the kids would crowd around me and I’d throw out Starburst fruit chews to the group. It was like throwing herring to hungry sea lions. The kids went wild for these fruit chews. It was incredible, like being a Rock Star with groping fans. I had arrived, I was famous.
This went on for weeks seemingly unnoticed until the owner of Carousel, the local candy shop, asked me where I was getting all the loot. I told him it was from allowance and shining shoes. This lie made me feel uncomfortable but not enough to stop. Then while skipping home for lunch to snatch another roll of quarters I noticed my dad’s car in the driveway. Because of his job he was never home at lunchtime. I panicked; “He knows!” There was no way out, if I don’t show up for lunch it would confirm my guilt and if I do, I faced severe punishment and possibly death. I decided, since running away wasn’t an option for a cowardly ten year old, that I’d take my chances with trying to deny it. I continued toward our house working out the most plausible lie, or excuse, if the evidence he had was too great to surmount.
Before I got up the front steps my dad swung open the screen door and looking down at me he began, “Darrell I want to talk to you. Someone’s been taking rolls of quarters from my card money.”
Bracing myself as he continued.
He asked, “Have you seen your mother around here, lately?”
I stood in shock and slowly nodded, “Yes.”
Can you believe it? Only ten years old and I threw my mother under the bus.
The years following this incident flew by without our mother around. Her leaving us became my great excuse, for all sorts of irresponsibility and bad behavior, especially when I got caught. When I was eighteen our father died. Without direction or a rudder I was lost. Failing miserably at life I was full of self-pity, quick to blame it all my problems on our mother’s leaving us.
At twenty-four years old, unable to lower my standards as fast as my behavior I finally hit a wall. It took a military Court Martial for me to realize that my problems were of my own making, no one else was to blame. The only alternatives left were either change or die. Thank God for the U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant who made that painfully clear to me.
It was during this time, motivated to change, that I reached out to renew a relationship with my mother. It had been many years since I had been in touch with her. When I contacted her she was very happy to hear from me, but because she left when I was so young, the best way to describe how I felt would be, ambivalence. Over the years I continued to keep in touch with her, with letters, postcards, and phone calls telling her I loved her, but I was doing this mostly because I felt I ought to.
A picture I took of my mom on one of her visits with us after she moved out.
Then about seven years ago, out of nowhere, guilt over stealing those damn quarters began to resurface. Should I say something to my mother and admit what I did and apologize?
It went back and forth in my mind, “I should apologize to her for that.” to “Why should I bring that up? It wasn’t a big deal. I was only a kid. It happened so long ago, besides, she left us. She’s lucky I’m talking to her at all.”
But every time I thought of my mother I’d remember the quarters and wrestle with why I should or should not apologize. The agony of the back and forth kept on. It's true; avoidance is a full time job. So, I threw in the towel, asked God for the courage and called her. The conversation went like this:
“Mom, remember when I was little and you got blamed for stealing the quarters from daddy’s card playing money? I lied to daddy; I was stealing them and blamed you. I feel really bad about doing that. I’m sorry.”
She responded kindly, “Isn’t it funny the silly things we do when we are young?” and then after a pause, her voice quivered, “Darrell, I don’t want to go to my grave with you and Eric thinking that I didn’t love you both.” She began to cry as she continued, “The hardest thing I ever did was to leave you boys, and it kills me to think how much I loved you both and that you both probably think I didn’t.”
A warm feeling grew in my chest; wonderful moments began to bubble up to the surface of my heart. Memories of my mom teaching me how to tie my shoes, how she’d never get frustrated and praised me continuously for the slightest improvement. I remembered her teaching me how to color in the lines of the coloring book and her sharing her secret on how to make the image pop by applying more pressure to the crayon along the outline of the drawing. All of a sudden I was struck hard by the clear recollection that while I was a small boy she always told me how special I was and that I would do amazing things when I grew up. I felt compelled to let her know that I remembered how wonderful she was; it came out simply, “We know you loved us. I love you, Mommy.” It said it all.
Funny, how this all came about by admitting my faults, rather than demanding she acknowledge hers. Looking back, was my mother really that rotten? Did my mom really set out to humiliate me by pointing me out at the assembly or wanting me to dance with her? No, I can believe she really was proud of me and was just trying to include me in the wonderful moments when she was drunk and temporarily free from her anxieties. In any case, if it weren’t for my mom being exactly the way she was, my life would have turned out differently and I would have missed out on the wonderful life I have today. So as far as I'm concerned she turned out to be the perfect mother, for me.
So, thank you mom. To all the other moms out there, good luck. Have fun and regardless of any mistakes you make along the way, eventually your kids will realize how fortunate they have been to have had a mom exactly like you.
My mom with her husband, Joseph, and my brother Eric in more recent years.