Son: Mama Was a Den Mother

Den Mother

A mother’s love is universal.

Doesn’t quite have the ring of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, but I went on a trip through time today. Actually, I went on a couple of them.

They say bad things come in threes. Of course, most of us know enough people, read enough news, do enough things that we can usually find three similar events to put together to give credence to the folklore. If we didn’t need our thumb to cound three fingers and our index finger to make a point while counting, maybe we’d say bad things come in fives. I don’t know.

Last week, two of my fellow employees lost one of their parents each. This week, my boss had to leave after getting an emergency call about his mother. I hope she’s all right, but I rather suspect I’ll soon be contributing a few dollars for another sympathy bouquet.

I still have both my parents but all my grand-parents are gone. A few years ago Michael Sinelnikoff, who played Professor Summerly on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, said something to me about how he felt when his parents died. “They are the last barrier between you and your own mortality, Michael”. I understand better now what he meant, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I lose one or the other, and then both will be gone.

My mother and I have had our ups and downs, but she was indisputably one of the most giving people I have ever known. She sacrificed herself in so many ways for others that I am amazed she continued to give love and care — often receiving little in return — for so many decades of her life.

As long as I can remember, my mother took in other people’s children, other families if necessary, when they needed help. There was never too little food at our house, or too few beds, or too many problems that we had to shut the doors on someone else who had nowhere else to go, or who could not open their hearts to their own families.

Mom had a temper, like so many mothers. I always knew I was in trouble, wrongly or rightly, when she used my full name. Any other time it was “Mike” or “Michael”. But if she started out with “Michael” and ended up with “Martinez”, maybe tossing in something else in-between, I generally knew it was time to hit the road or stand still and endure the storm that was coming.

However many unhappy moments there may or may not have been (most of them clearly my fault), I barely remember them any more. I recall the times I needed a mother to kiss my booboos, or sat and laughed over some ridiculous joke with close friends and family, or struggled to master the intricacies of Scrabble (my mother, grandmother, and aunts were vicious Scrabble players). I remember many trips on the road, watching mountains, forests, and cities passing by. I remember cats, dogs, puppies, kittens crying in boxes, and babies needing nurturing. Mom was there for them all.

She never felt she had a purpose in life if she didn’t have someone to take care of. She worked as a nurse, or as a lab technician, or as a book-keeper — always getting some doctor or small business through one crisis or another.

She took on the responsibilities of being a Cub Scout Den Mother when my first Den Mother had to move away. We carved soap, walked on coffee cans, built miniature soapbox racers, wove whips, cut out Indian head-dresses and loin cloths, and did a million other things that Cub Scouts do across two scouting packs and three years of meetings, projects, and screaming boys trying their best to impress the Den Mom.

She worked for two “family planning” clinics. One was actually an abortion clinic. Both advocated birth control as solutions for the problem of teenage sex. But the abortion clinic didn’t deal with the consequences of teen sex so much as it dealt with the consequences of rape and incest. She walked out one day when they put a 12-year-old girl on the table. “That could be my daughter,” she said to the doctor.

Mom liked to party. She could dance all night. She played a mean game of gin rummy, which she taught to me one year when I had trouble sleeping. I preferred regular rummy to the gin version, but even then she sometimes waited until she was ready to go out before laying down her cards. Oooh, that made me so mad.

Had it not been for my mother, I never would have had the resolve to call every bureaucrat between me and an Under-Secretary of Education one year when I was in college. I watched her take up so many causes, lodge complaints with so many authorities and radio stations and newspapers or whatever, it has always seemed natural to me to stand up for what’s right, to shout down the wrong-doers, to insist that government employees serve the public.

Not that they don’t try to do their jobs. Of course they do. But I guess Mom was just one of those people who didn’t like bureaucracy. She married a soldier and divorced a civil servant. My mother and father married and divorced each other so many times I think even they lost count.

At least they tried to keep their family together. But in retrospect I think Mom lost her feelings for Dad when she went through her last pregnancy. She had a son, my little brother, and he only lived a few minutes. The doctors came to my father and said, “We can save your son or your wife, but your wife has the best chance of surviving.”

What kind of choice is that to give a man? What husband and father wants to deprive his family of a mother or newborn child? Dad chose Mom, and I don’t think she ever forgave him. But if he had lost them both, would he have forgiven himself? Would my older brother and sister and I have forgiven him? There was just no way to make the right choice. But Mom was never quite the same after that day, though she had many nurturing, unconditionally loving years left in her.

My second time trip today occurred as I finally got home. I heard an airplane as I got out of my car. Those little single-engine propellor planes fly overhead all the time, and I hear them at all hours through the nighht. I like the sound of airplane and helicopter engines as they fly overhead. I don’t really know why, except that — like the sound of heavy construction equipment at work — I find the sounds comforting.

Today, as I looked up, I saw the little airplane fly overhead and I suddenly realized why they have never bothered me since I moved to Houston. I was taken back to south Florida, when I was a kid. In those days, we lived in some areas that were still not quite suburban in nature. Sometimes we lived in the city, and sometimes we lived on the outskirts. But there were always planes flying overhead, sometimes trailing advertisements in the sky, sometimes just passing overhead. And there were always houses under construction, tall buildings going up, and big machines moving dirt and rubble.

When I was in preschool, or I guess they called it nursery school then, Mom dressed me up in a little Air Force jumper suit. I suppose she thought I looked cute. I thought it was sort of a cool thing to wear. The other kids asked me if I was in the army. “No, this is the Air Force!” I said proudly.

I was gathered with other kids in a little church-like building at the Elliot School (I think — maybe the church place was an after-school hangout). I stood outside in the yard one day looking at airplanes as they flew overhead. One of the teachers sat beside me and she said, “If you wave your arms like this, sometimes the planes will wave their wings back at you.”

I believed her, so I stood out there and waved my arms at the airplanes as they flew overhead. After a while, one of them waved back. I guess I got lucky that day, because I am sure that 3-year-old boys are pretty hard to spot from the air. Maybe the plane was just in trouble. I don’t know, but it definitely waved its wings.

I remember the old diesel buses that had bars for windows. I used to ride them sometimes, although more modern air-conditioned buses were in widespread use by that time. But there was one route where my brother and I often went to central Miami Beach to go roller skating, or to visit a movie theater, and the buses on that route were the smelly old diesel burners. I just got used to the smell of diesel and the sound of diesel engines.

They relax me. I know when the big machines are operating that everything is all right. People are living their lives peacefully. And Mom is baking something in the kitchen, or getting ready for another birthday party, or packing the car for another trip across country.

Of course, now all the houses are built. Many of them have probably been torn down. And those fascinating new buildings are probably dilapidated old buildings in seedier parts of town. And Mom no longer has any children to mother, not her own who have grown up and moved on, nor anyone else’s. Other mothers have stepped in to take on the role of surrogate Mom, Den Mother, and Neighborhood Maven.

I hope they show their kids what unconditional love really is, because we see so little of it in the grownup world.