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'My Mum' - A Commentary

By Stephen Whitley, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – My Mom accuses my sister and me of only remembering the mistakes she made when we were growing up. It's a family tradition to tell the story of Mom accidentally substituting garlic butter for regular butter one morning when she made us pancakes, then saying, "Oh, go ahead and eat them, it can't be that bad," or the time she substituted liver for round steak in our favorite dinner and didn't tell us about it, thinking we wouldn't know the difference. There are also the stories of the sacrifices she made for...oh, who am I kidding? The stories of her trying to hoodwink us are much more entertaining.

My mother had a morbid preoccupation with vermin. She was forever telling us that something we were eating like cake batter, raw potatoes, or cookie dough was going to give us worms. My Mom would try to spare our delicate feelings at times, usually with mixed results. I told her one night that I wanted to be a model and in her infinite kindness she said, "Honey, they usually like people that are beautiful to be models." I've been through countless hours of therapy behind that comment. After she told me my dog Ruff ran away from home, I thought for years that she ran away because I was a bad master. Come to find out my dad ran over her and Mom thought it would be easier for me to think she was on the lam.

We love to talk about the ill-fated trip we took to Florida one year. Nothing seemed to turn out the way it was supposed to. My sister's horse died the day before we left, and she cried all the way through Louisiana and into Mississippi. At the Vicksburg Civil War site, my dad sped past the monuments so fast we scarcely had time to see them. "There goes Texas!" we would shout as he sped through the park, barely slowing down long enough for us to snap a blurry photo. Instead of having a nice dinner out somewhere, my sister and I wanted to eat at Wendy's. Things got worse in Alabama when a swarm of gnats descended on our outdoor picnic, and when we finally got to Florida there was algae in the normally pristine blue water and the Tiki House would have been more aptly named the Tacky House. The photos we took on the last day show my Mom with her teeth gritted and an angry look on her face. I look back at that trip and understand why women can leave their families and never look back.

I thought my Mom was much more interesting and glamorous when she and my father went to the country club or to parties most Saturday nights. When she quit drinking and started going to church more, part of me missed the glamour of her slipping into my room smelling of perfume and cigarette smoke and kissing me goodnight. At an early age I learned what a jigger was, why it was better to drink bourbon and water rather than bourbon and Coke (fewer bubbles and calories), and how to properly mix incense and scented candles to remove the smell of cigarettes from the house when you're trying to keep your husband from knowing you've started back smoking. Those are life lessons a child never forgets.

Despite my best efforts, I've come to realize I'm becoming more and more like my mother. Aside from the preoccupation we both share with our weight and our hair color, I find myself saying things like "No one without a job should have a $200 cell phone," which I recently said to a 22-year-old friend. But I've decided that if I'm going to be like anyone, I'd rather be like my Mum, who can look a seeming catastrophe like a swarm of gnats in the eye and say, "Oh, go ahead and eat that sandwich, there are probably not that many bugs in it."

Stephen Whitley is a writer from Dallas.