My Kind of Mother

When I was little, my parents weren’t very strict, but Mama did have two rules:

1) Don’t play with the hose without permission.

2) Don’t spend the night at a friend’s house until age 12.

My childhood coincided with the advent of the VCR, so every slumber party involved a rented movie at the end of the night. Because of Mama’s second rule, I saw only the beginnings of a lot of popular films. It never failed that just when I started to get into a story, my mother would knock on the front door to take me home. For me, Marty McFly never made it back to the future. The Goonies ended after the first truffle shuffle. E.T. never phoned home, and The NeverEnding Story had only just begun.

It wasn’t just classic ’80s movie endings that I missed. I also didn’t get to have one of those trendy little sleeping bags adorned with cartoon characters that surrounded me at these parties. I envied the other girls who rolled out their beds featuring Smurfs and Care Bears, as I sat on the floor without so much as a pillow, waiting for a movie I’d only partially be able to enjoy.

But when I was seven years old, I went to a slumber party where the host actually started the movie early. I was excited. It was just starting to get dark outside, and no one had unfurled her sleeping bag yet. Maybe this time I’d actually get to see the whole show.

I sat on the carpeted floor with the rest of the girls as the movie began. I was riveted. It was the story of a girl who had a terrifying nightmare. It was a little scary, but I could relate. I’d had many bad dreams. But when this girl woke up, she had scratches on her arm, scratches that had occurred in the dream. Her terrifying nightmare was real! I didn’t know how this movie was going to end. I hoped the girl would have a good dream next, and all the bad stuff would go away, but the more I watched, the more I felt like this wasn’t a happily-ever-after kind of story. For the first time ever, I hoped Mama would show up early.

After a particularly gory scene in which a spring of blood shot out of a bed, my friend Cherie nudged me. “Do you want to get some pizza?” she asked.

“Yes,” I whispered, barely able to talk.

We went into the dining room where pizza and soft drinks sat on the table. As we put pizza slices onto our paper plates, we heard a loud scream from all the girls in the living room. That’s when my friend Sarah appeared in the dining room with us. Her face was red, and she looked like she was about to cry. “I … I … need something to drink,” she stammered.

“Me too,” I said, wanting any excuse to stay in the dining room a little longer.

We heard another scream.

“Stop screaming,” shouted the mother who was hosting the party. “If you girls keep screaming like that, I’m going to turn off the movie.”

I secretly prayed that the girls in the living room would scream again so the movie would get turned off.

Cherie, Sarah, and I slowly started to walk back to the living room, carrying our pizza and drinks.

“Do you want to just sit behind the couch?” Cherie asked.

“Yes,” Sarah and I simultaneously answered.

So we hid behind the couch where we ate our pizza and drank our Cokes. Nightmare on Elm Street played loud enough for us to hear the gravelly voice of Freddy Kruger threatening to do things like “split you in two” or “kill you slow.”

I looked down at my pizza and was almost afraid to eat it. “My pizza looks like blood,” I said.

Cherie looked at her drink. “This Coke looks like blood,” she said.

I looked at my Coke. “Yeah, it looks like the dark blood that was shooting out of the bed!”

In the quieter moments, one of us would peer over the couch to see if the movie had gotten any better, but there was only more horror and gore.

“I want to go home,” said Sarah, and she started to sob. “I’m going to call my mom.”

“I bet my mom can give you a ride,” I said. “She should be here soon, anyway.”

I was right, and I’d never been so happy to see Mama at the door. Sarah called her mother, who said it was alright for my mom to take her home. The other kids saw Sarah grabbing her sleeping bag and one by one, they started to line up by the phone to call their parents. By the time we walked out, the movie was ending, and apparently, so was the party.

Sarah and I got into the car with Mama and told her all about what we’d seen.

“What kind of a mother would show that movie to a bunch of seven-year-olds?” Mama said.

“Not my mother,” said Sarah.

“Mine either,” I said.

Three years later, when I was only 10, Mama suspended her rule and let me spend the night at Sarah’s slumber party. I suppose it was alright because we already knew what kind of mother Sarah had.

I wished I could get a nice new sleeping bag for the occasion. Instead, I had a well-worn, pink, floral hand-me-down that had been used by all three of my older sisters before me.

At Sarah’s sleepover, one girl unveiled a pristine New Kids on the Block sleeping bag and scoffed at the girl next to her who still had Care Bears on hers. Suddenly, I was grateful for my old pink floral hand-me-down.

A few short years later, that New Kids on the Block sleeping bag would be the laughing stock of the party, and I’d still have my well-worn, comfortable, pink floral one, noticed by no one. It had been in the family for years and wasn’t going anywhere.

To this day, Mama still has that tattered old thing. Because that’s the kind of mother I have.

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Fair Play

Growing up in New Orleans, I experienced many things I didn’t realize I’d miss when I moved to Florida. I’m not talking about Mardi Gras and etouffee. What I’ve been missing lately are cherry bells, confetti eggs, and grocery booths. In other words, Catholic school fairs.

I have no childhood memory that compares to the hopeful feeling of rifling through discarded cherry bells on the ground at the end of a good school fair. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain:

Cherry bells are little sheets of cardboard with pull tabs which, once pulled, reveal a series of cherries, or bells or other classic slot machine images. If they line up appropriately with the picture at the top of the card, you can win cash. It was rare I actually purchased one of these mini lottery tickets. Instead, I liked to pick through the litter on the ground in hopes of finding one with unopened tabs, or one that was ignorantly tossed by someone who didn’t have my keen eye for spotting a winner. Ironically, I don’t ever remember winning.

To be fair (no pun intended) New Orleans Catholic school fairs don’t hold the patent on cherry bells, but I was surprised to find out that my husband, who grew up in Florida and attended public school, had never heard of them. Likewise, he’d never heard of confetti eggs, grocery booths, nickel slides or string pulls.

If that all sounds like Greek to you, you’re not alone. I mentioned confetti eggs to a couple of coworkers and they too looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. Even a woman who grew up in the Midwest, no stranger to state fairs, had never heard of such a thing. So I guess folks just have to trust me when I say that there are few greater thrills to a 10-year-old than smashing a washed out eggshell filled with confetti on the back of a friend’s head, and dashing away as that friend grabs her own confetti egg for retaliation. These eggs were sold by the carton at just about every school fair I attended as a child.

But to be honest, my favorite stop at the fair was the grocery booth. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Boxes of groceries were raffled off for a small fee, and unlike the cherry bells, chances of winning were usually pretty high. I guess most kids didn’t care about groceries, but to me, going through that box was like peering into someone else’s life. I was fascinated by the items I found. I wondered what kind of person bought Papa Dash – a low sodium salt substitute I’d never seen in the grocery store. Thanks to the grocery booth, it found its way to our kitchen, next to other exotic winnings like chunky salsa (responsible for my first experience with Mexican food.)

I’m sure there are other religious groups in other cities that I’m not aware of, hosting carnival games such as these, but to me, exploiting the vices of gambling, violence and gluttony in the name of Catholicism is uniquely New Orleans. To be fair (pun intended) it was always for a good cause.

Guilty Pleasures

Most of us have those small moments of indulgence we don’t like to admit to. Those moments might include watching Jersey Shore, reading a tabloid magazine or eating chocolate frosting straight from the can. Usually, these are private moments we know will not improve our lives in any way, and in fact, will probably make them worse. Yet, we can’t help ourselves.

We’ve come to refer to these little indulgences as guilty pleasures, and they’ve been around longer than reality TV. But in recent years, these pleasures have become less guilty. We tell others about these indulgences, and that makes us more human. If you tell a coworker you have Olivia Newton-John on your iPod, you’re suddenly more approachable. Guilty pleasures serve as a universal equalizer, because we can all relate to feelings of selfish, momentary bliss. But what about those other guilty pleasures, the ones that make us seem intellectual instead of likable?

I recently found myself engrossed in an episode of Book-TV on C-span 2 while eating a giant salad. I momentarily forgot I was hosting a houseguest that weekend, so when this guest walked in on me, I quickly changed the channel and put down my salad. Why did I do this? It’s like I was worried I’d be judged. It would’ve been more acceptable if he’d caught me eating a bowl full of bacon while watching the E! True Hollywood Story of Saved by the Bell. Why is this? What was wrong with appearing a little cultured for a moment? After all, this wasn’t junior high school. I was in my own home with a friend my husband and I trust enough to let spend the weekend with us. Would this friend have called me a nerd? Doubtful. Would he have accused me of trying to show off? Highly unlikely. As a matter of fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he probably would’ve just asked me intelligent questions about the show. And that was the problem. I wasn’t afraid of being judged. I was afraid of being challenged. What if he asked me questions I couldn’t answer? What if he had his own opinions that differed from mine? I could’ve engaged in a discussion on politics and environmental science, but I didn’t have the mental stamina to keep up with an adult conversation.

Talking about guilty pleasures is safe. We can all laugh along with the person who spent last Saturday watching a Charles In Charge marathon while wearing bunny slippers. But isn’t it time we grew up just a little bit? We don’t have to turn into intellectual drones, but every now and then, we should allow ourselves to be challenged. Go ahead and admit it if your way of relaxing is to watch CNN. It’s OK if every once in a while you want to discuss your favorite vegan foods. Don’t be ashamed of your nerdish tendencies, and more importantly, be open to the challenge that comes with discussing them. You never know; you just might learn something.

Oh, and if you spent last weekend watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in your pajamas, maybe you should keep that to yourself, just this once.

Bless Me Father, for I Have Sinned

I lied. I fought with my brother and sisters. I disobeyed my parents and I used bad language. For years, that was my standard confession. I created it in second grade when I first received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In school, we were taught to examine our conscience during the week leading up to our first confession. I couldn’t think of anything in particular I had done that would be considered a sin, but our religion textbook had a few examples. I also talked to my sisters and my brother to get ideas. So I took little bits from each. I figured I must have done all those things at some point in my 7-year existence.

My first confession was very ceremonial and not very clandestine. It was held in church on a weeknight, and all the second-graders were there with their parents (all but the one Protestant kid in our class.) We even wore nametags. There were some priests sitting in chairs up on the altar. Each priest had an additional chair sitting across from him. We kids formed a line in front of the altar, and took turns to sit in the chair across from the next available priest and confess our sins, face to face. I was a little nervous, but I was relieved when I got to Father Finn. He was a rotund balding Irishman who was always jovial. When I sat down, he looked at my nametag and said, “Oh Aileen! That’s an Irish name!” That put me at ease, and I recited what I had memorized. He told me to say a couple of prayers, and then I went back to the pew where my family was seated. After the ceremony, everyone told me congratulations, and I felt very proud.

That was the only time I ever really enjoyed confession.

In third grade, and every year after, confession was something we did twice a year, as most Catholics know, once before Christmas and once before Easter. The teacher would line us up and we’d walk over to the church where we’d stand in line once more, each taking our turns in one of the private confessional booths. There was no pomp and circumstance to the occasion anymore.

As we stood in line, we’d murmur practiced confessions and whisper to each other about which priest we might get. Some of the priests were easy to talk to, like Father Finn. Others were more intimidating, speaking in harsh tones when they handed down their penance. Most of the priests, however, were neither comforting nor intimidating. They just sounded bored. Then, like a doctor prescribing medicine, the priest would prescribe a couple of prayers to absolve the sins that ailed you.

If you’ve never entered a confessional before, you might expect the dark little room to be dank and musty, but it wasn’t. The confessional was cold, and always smelled as if it had just been cleaned, like the old commercials for Murphy’s Oil soap where the two old ladies cleaned the entire church. If it’s good enough to clean this house, imagine what it can do for yours.

Confession, I suppose, is intended to be a Murphy’s Oil Soap for the soul. The cleaning process isn’t always fun, but it can be a relief when it’s over.

Children’s Literature

My older sister Joy grabbed a book off the shelf and handed it to me. I was three years old, but I knew what to do.

Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss,” I announced. Then I opened the book and recited, “UP PUP. Pup is up.”

Joy’s friend Sherri was visiting and looked at us in disbelief.

“I told you she could read,” Joy said.

“And she’s only three?” asked Sherri.

“Yeah, she’s only three,” Joy said.

“CUP PUP,” I continued. “Pup in cup.”

“Aw, that’s so cute,” Sherri said. “She’s so smart.”

I smiled and continued to turn pages at the appropriate spots, lingering over my favorite lines, giving extra emphasis to “big words like Constantinople and Timbuktu.”

Of course, I wasn’t actually reading, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that this book gave me a sense of belonging. Normally, at that age, when we had company at the house, I hid. I didn’t know how to relate to people I wasn’t related to.  But memorizing Hop on Pop gave me the confidence to show off, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. This was the first book that changed my life.

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Over the years, there would be others, but none as powerful as those in childhood. Even as an adult, I gravitate to the children’s section when I go into a bookstore. It’s the perfect place if I’m pressed for time, and I want to find something that speaks to me in 36 pages or less.

It’s easy to dismiss children’s books as nothing more than rhyming words next to brightly colored pictures. But the good ones are so much more than that. Even Dr. Seuss books, which are known for silly pictures and simple poetry, have spoken to many people a second time around. Books such as Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? have become classic gifts for adults and teenagers who are entering into a new phase of their lives.

Children’s books with more subdued pictures and stories also speak to generations. Take The Story of Ferdinand. It’s about a gentle bull who’d rather smell the flowers than butt heads and fight with the other bulls. I discovered this book on the shelf in our den when I was about 7 years old. I sat quietly and read it alone, and for the first time in my life, I’d read a book that really got me. I also thought that no one else in the universe would understand and appreciate this book like I did. I felt a sense of intimacy I’d never experienced from any other work of art. It taught me that it was OK to be an introvert.

Clearly, I was not the only person who appreciated The Story of Ferdinand. It’s been hailed as a classic for years. But I also fell in love with lesser known books of similar themes. Mrs. Duck’s Lovely Day was the story of a duck who hated sunny days and could only thrive in the rain. Five Little Bunnies was the story of rabbit siblings who each had diverging interests, but remained connected by family ties. These stories taught me the value of celebrating individual differences while still functioning as part of a group.

As an adult, I’ve read some great literature. I’ve gained new insights into history, religion, science, and relationships. I’ve discovered original characters and fascinating cultures. But I have yet to recapture the magic that is found in quality children’s literature, that moment of discovering something about myself I didn’t know was there, or discovering a new way to relate to the world.

I have no qualifications to make me an expert on children’s literature. I don’t even have any children.  I only used to be one.