After this late Valentine’s Day post, here is the next in the series of badly timed holiday writing – published with my mom’s consent.
The week before Mother’s day in fourth grade, my teacher suggested that we make the day special for our moms by preparing a nice breakfast for them. I loved to cook and bake, in fact, I was planning to be a dessert chef when I grew up, so I naturally pounced on this idea. I also enjoyed directing my two younger siblings in various activities, and preparing Mother’s day brunch as a team provided an excellent opportunity to do so. I was not a person to engage in half-hearted efforts, either: breakfast wouldn’t be toast and jam and tea, no, it would involve all three of us children getting up at 3:30am, baking fresh brioche, making a fruit salad, an egg dish, a charcuterie tray and fresh squeezed juice.
The kitchen was adjacent to my parents’ bedroom, and I wonder at what point our stealthy movements woke them – at any rate, they graciously stayed in bed until we called them to the table. Cleaning up the kitchen was an activity I was much less interested in than baking, and my teacher had failed to point out that it should be included as part of the gesture. My poor mom probably had a fair amount of work to do that afternoon. I, however, considered the meal a great success. My parents, careful not to hurt our feelings, thanked us warmly. My grandparents, who lived next door and hence were neither woken in the dead of the night nor had to do dishes for the rest of the day, were genuinely delighted. I decided that brunch would become our Mother’s day tradition for the indefinite future, and it did, at least for the following few years.
Cleanliness in general was not one of my top virtues as a child. My room was not unlike a large dumpster, in appearance and smell alike. When I was about ten, I started hoarding chocolate in the name of delayed gratification. The gratification was so delayed that one day my mom found a big fat worm crawling out of my wardrobe, and discovered several years’ stash stuffed under my clothes. She and I fought constantly over the state of my living quarters. There were a few days a year when I was required to clean up properly: mainly Christmas and Easter. I would grudgingly do so, but procrastinate until the last possible moment and do the minimum amount of work required to pass. I didn’t understand the point of vacuuming the carpet: I thought it looked exactly the same afterwards, and deduced that cleaning tools were invented specifically to make my life miserable. I held that view until years later my boyfriend and I discovered that the vacuum was perfectly suited to control the severe fruit fly infestations which resulted from us washing dishes roughly every three months.
When I was about fifteen, my mom had the brilliant idea to add Mother’s day to the list of days I had to clean. She told me the week before that this was her Mother’s day wish. I probably said “Ok”, and probably thought “Groan, that is so unfair. What’s next, your birthday?! Where will it all end!” Since I resented the request, I procrastinated an extra long while, all the way to the night before Mother’s day. I believe I would have delivered on my promise, I was not a flake, but my mom couldn’t keep her cool. She stomped into my room on Saturday night, holding some books and notebooks that I had left scattered about the living room: since my desk was taken up by a mountain of junk, I had taken to doing my homework on shared family territory, where the fairies would pick up after me. My mom looked at my shelf: covered in a thick layer of dust and various odds and ends. She shoved my school items in there, knocking everything else over, and expressed some bitter sentiment about me not keeping my promise.
I took great pride in knowing where to find anything in my chaos, and my mom ruining the sacred structure of mess on my bookshelf offended me deeply. So did the fact that she called me a liar, when in fact I still had four hours to go before I would become one. I yelled something back, probably “You had no right to ruin the order on my shelf, and how dare you say I’m not keeping my promise when it’s not Mother’s day yet! Sure, if you think I’m a liar then I’ll be one, I’ll never clean for Mother’s day! Get out of my room!”, or something to that effect. I was a delightful teenager to parent. My mom then declared that she wanted nothing to do with the next day’s brunch.
Early the next morning, my brother, sister and I all got up as planned and made breakfast. I had not cleaned my room. I did not have the guts to face my mom, so I sent a message through my dad that she was welcome to join if she were so inclined. My dad wanted no part of the situation, so he didn’t deliver the invitation. My grandparents came over, and my mom went outside to sulkily garden while we ate. I made sure to have a fabulous time in protest to the great injustice that had befallen me.
On Sunday afternoons after an early dinner, my dad would tutor my brother in Latin, so they left the table together on that dark Mothers’ day. There was a bench in our dining room, and to get up from there you had to move the table or climb over it; this is where my sister and I sat, facing our mom. She stood up briefly and walked over to the medicine cabinet, and got out the entire box of pills. She brought it to the table and sat it down. She popped her head into the room where my dad sat with my brother and said “Just so you know, I’m killing myself.” My dad responded, in his usual laconic style “Sweetie, I have work to do here, leave me out of this silliness.” My mom then came to the table, where my sister and I sat trapped on the bench, slowly sat down, and started taking pills one by one, as she explained how nobody in the family loved her. It was horrifying, certainly amongst the top three most traumatic moments of my childhood.
Realistically, nothing in that box would have seriously hurt her, given that it contained little beyond aspirin and vitamin C, but my sister and I were 11 and 15, we weren’t sure exactly how much aspirin would kill a person. My mom must have known that she was at no risk of dying, but at the same time she was visibly and genuinely distressed, not merely playing mind games to teach me a lesson. Eventually one of us kids – probably my sister – found it in ourselves to say the right kinds of things and my mom stopped. I probably cleaned up my room after that.
I know what you’re thinking: that it is inadvisable to make your child watch you try to commit suicide, however un-seriously, even if said child is a horrible slob and a pain in the butt. Some of you might even think you would never do that to your kid. But hold on for a moment, there is one hard lesson I have already learnt after merely a year and a half of parenting, and it’s this: never say ‘never’.
The next year, as Mother’s day was approaching, my siblings and I entered a certain state of paralysis. It didn’t quite dawn on me that the one sure-fire way to avoid a disaster was to … *drumroll* … clean my damned room. I probably knew it in my heart of hearts, but I was too resistant to the idea for it to break the surface of my consciousness. It was clear though that brunch was not going to happen, and we couldn’t come up with anything else worth doing. The morning of Mothers’ day came, and we didn’t have a plan. The hours ticked by, quiet as the moments before a storm. We sat in the living room, waiting for the day to finally end, one way or another. When dusk started settling on the backyard, my mom told us to go and wish our grandmother happy Mother’s day. When we got back, my dad praised us on a “nice, quiet Mother’s day”, and for a brief moment I thought we were off the hook. But then my mom added, bitterly: “there was no Mother’s day this year”. I left it at that and retreated to my bed.
On Monday morning my mom was not talking to me. She looked right through me as if I were air. I asked what was wrong with her, and she said “I had made it clear that the only thing I wanted for Mothers’ day is for you to clean your room. You can’t even do that much for me, once a year.” And I thought “What!? That wasn’t clear at all! I could have done that!” That afternoon I tidied up my mess, thew out my garbage, wiped my shelves and my desk, and vacuumed the carpet. Once I had my mind set on getting it done, it all took less than two hours. My mom saw the result and told me that she appreciated it, although it would have meant a lot more had I made the effort two days earlier.
I lived with my parents for only three or four years after that, and I’m pretty sure I cleaned up for each Mothers’ day. I didn’t truly come to like the holiday again, my favourite part was going to bed knowing that the day didn’t blow up in some dramatic disaster. But in the fifteen years since I moved out of her house, I have developed a lot of sympathy for my mom: it happened in stages, baby steps that brought me closer to understanding her actions and point of view.
For example, I have always found fallen hair icky, but lately that aversion has become more pronounced. Hair accumulates in corners and along the sides of the living room floor, and I sweep these places compulsively… I’ll probably be super neurotic when I’m old. I dislike when Pink accidentally uses my towel, because I can only tolerate my own strands of hair accidentally sticking to my wet skin. They get extra repulsive when wet!
Carpets collect hair like no other surface does. I can’t imagine how I could have gone months without vacuuming the carpet in my room – and both my sister and I had long hair. If I had a choice now, I would probably live in a house with just hardwood everywhere… or I might choose to own carpets when I’m rich enough to pay someone else to clean them weekly. But our current place is all stone tiles which are cold and hard, so we have a carpet for Pixie and I vacuum it. Or – more often – I ask Pink to do so.
As a ‘grownup’ I enjoy when our house is tidy and clean. I feel frazzled when I’m surrounded by clutter, and dirty kitchens and bathrooms are gross. I take pleasure in making my home look nice, and being a slob is no longer an integral part of my identity, and certainly not a source of pride. I can see that living with teenage me must have been aggravating.
But now that I have Pixie in my life, I understand something much more important: that being a parent is crazy hard. Kids are not reasonable people; if an adult treated you like your child does, you’d steer well clear of them. Pixie will say “Wee! Wee!”, which means “Water! Water!” in Pixese, and if I don’t bring him water immediately he will start screaming at an ear-splitting pitch. Often, when I give him the sippy cup, instead of drinking he will slam it hard against the floor, so that water splashes everywhere. I’m painfully aware of how it makes the fallen hair on the floor wet… He pulls his little cheeks into a smug grin, and then says “Wee! WEE!” meaning “Pick it up so I can do that again!”. If I don’t, the ear-splitting screams start up. If I do, he’ll slam it on the floor again and say “No no wee!” with a satisfied smile. But then he’ll hug me and make the sweetest kissy face. It’s basically emotional abuse, except that they love you so much in their little rudimentary way. And they improve, but very slowly and not linearly.
So yes, my mom deserved the clean house for Mother’s day. In addition to Christmas and Easter. And she would have deserved it for her birthday too. She lost her patience with me, which is a thing that happens to humans when they are constantly being kicked and punched (figuratively speaking) by the child they have been caring for for a very exhausting 15 years. She went a little overboard with the pills, but I can’t honestly say I would never, ever, under any circumstance, do that. Like, in 15 or so years if I have a child with long hair who refuses to vacuum their carpet…
Mother’s day stories – lovely or horrific, or both – are welcome in the comments.