"People" Artist: James McNelis
by Pat Fish
My mother speaks what I call 'cliche-speak'. No matter the crime, accident or heartbreak, my mother can always be counted on to come up with the perfect cliche to soothe the wounds and heal the hearts.
My brothers, sisters, and yes, I, love to make fun of my mother. She is, the unkind would say, not very smart. The kind would say she was intellectually deprived.
Yet, by her mastery of cliche-speak, it is no mind the conversation topic or debates-- she can, at times, be perceived as the genius with thoughtful summations.
I love my mother's cliches.
Indeed, I call her at those moments when I am most in need of a cliche. She never lets me down.
"He doesn't want to be married anymore, Mom. He just doesn't want to be married," I sobbed over the phone lines.
"If he can't take the heat, he should get out of the kitchen."
"I don't know if I can ever fall in love again. How can I ever trust another man?"
"Pat, when you strike out, you just get up to bat again."
"He says he needs to 'find himself'."
"Tell him to look under his hair."
I felt better. How on earth, in a world populated with the likes of Robert Frost and James Michener, can this woman manage to wrap it all up in a verbal bow and ring me off in peace?
Then I was in a department of males and in a less enlightened time.
"Guy locked me in a high voltage cage, Ma. He thought it was funny," I complained bitterly.
"Tell him he'll think its funny when it's on '60 Minutes'."
"They rig up the reels so that I get shocked when I touch them."
"They sound like real big brave men to me."
"They tell the boss if I'm late or make a mistake."
"They want you to be 'job-scared'."
Just like that, she sends me back to the work world, madder than hell, and wondering how to contact Morey Safer.
"She drives me crazy Mom. She lies about being sick. She steals from me. She tells her grandmother than I spend her social security money on drugs," I expounded on the daughter that I had once held in my arms and cherished.
"Maybe you should write a book. Call it 'Daughter, Dearest'."
"She told five different lies to five different people. We compared notes."
"You can fool some of the people all of the time....."
"Now I don't know when she really is sick, or just faking."
"There is something going around."
And I return to the task of disciplining my errant daughter with renewed vigor. Somehow, and in just a few clauses, my mother has convinced me that my daughter IS a problem, that I am NOT crazy, and she really MIGHT be sick.
She has given birth to seven children. Three by this man, three by this man, and one that she gave up for adoption. Every one of us are healthy and have reproduced our own selves. We are even, most of us, intelligent and not unattractive. Except the adopted sister. She is extremely skinny and is a crazy Elvis fan.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now, at 70, she is handsome. She was once hired to "swoon" for Frank Sinatra during an appearance at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater. She never had a "career" of any sort, but has been employed as a waitress, a barmaid, and once was hired to model an Iron Lung.
When we argue, as mothers and children are wont to do, she will stop all debates with the following:
"Don't ever forget. I'm the one who laid down and had you."
We all readily accept her eccentricities. She refuses to ever, ever drive at night. And she will never change the route she drives, no matter how many expressways and byways they build. And if they do something stupid, like add a lane to her normal road, she will simply not visit any more.
She does , I admit, do some strange things. The unkind would call them silly. The kind would call them innovative.
There was the time she was following me to a strange destination.
"Just stay behind me, Mom. I know right where it's at."
She responded, "Let's get behind the wheel, McNeal."
And we did fine. Until the toll booth intruded.
It was a normal toll booth, the kind with several drive through areas in which to pay the tolls. During the non-rush hours, there is generally a selection of drive-throughs available, all of them empty and waiting for customers. Which was the case the day my mother drove behind me to New Jersey, only she ended up in Pennsylvania.
It was the toll booths. They confused my mother.
I had a five dollar bill, so, as common sense would dictate, I chose not to enter the "exact change only" drive-through. And there is a need to understand here that my mother had been my mother for pretty much most of my life, so I realized immediately the folly of my toll booth decision.
As I handed my bill to the collector, my eyes were glued to my rear view mirror. I kept my eyes fastened to my mother's car and willed her to pull in behind me to pay her toll.
For if she entered an alternate booth, she might pull out ahead of me and, well, my mother gets confused sometimes.
As hard as I willed my mother to follow, she did not. And I knew she wouldn't during the one split second when I swerved away from the exact change booth.
My mother had exact change.
Even as I held the bill out to the collector, I cursed all the demons in hell that my mother, please, God....don't let my mother have exact change.
Because if she did, I knew, in that manner of every child born to a mother who once buried her bathing suit in the sand that was covered by the returning tide, that she would not follow behind my automobile in an orderly fashion.
My mother would believe it mandatory that those with exact change must go through the exact change lane.
I watched in dismay as my mother pulled away from the exact change lane.
Since my collector had to count change from my five, I left the booth later than my mother. She had merely thrown her change into the bucket and pulled off.
I had to search every exit and make countless U-turns. It took me over an hour, but, thank God, I found her.
It was during a conversation about the telephone that my mother gave me the greatest gift she has ever given me. It cost her absolutely nothing.
I'm not real sure why it is that my mother goes into high hysteria when she cannot reach me immediately on the telephone.
She has many other children with whom to telephonically converse. I only know that my mother's phone messages to me should be transcribed and submitted as a comedy sketch.
"Pat, this is Mom. Listen, I really need to talk to you. Call me. Mom."
Husband reminds me for the first time that I have a message from my mother.
"Pat, please call me. Every time I call I get this answering machine. Mom."
Husband so informs of yet another pleading call. "Pat, this is Mom. Look, I don't know why you don't call me. I really need to talk to you. Mom"
Again, husband begs me to please call my mother.
"It seems like all I ever talk to is this answering machine. If I ever die, I told Ernie not to call you...just drive down and tell you your mother is dead. Call me. Mom."
Husband says I really ought to call my mother.
"Pat, look, I've got something really important to tell you. Listen, it's really, really important. Call me."
Consecutive messages this time.
"Pat, I forgot to tell you who I was in the last message. This is Mom."
Husband tells me my mother is leaving crazy messages again.
Of course, really important news, read gossip, will often prompt me to return the call. I decided to call.
"Hi, Pat," she responded. "Listen, I have a confession to make. I don't have anything important to tell you. But I knew it would make you call."
I had to laugh at this ploy, even though disappointed at the gossip deprivation.
Since I had broken down and spent the dime, I decided to have a chat with this Mom person.
I had, in my middle-aged years, decided to pursue a writing career. My mother, no great fan of the novel, thought this was wonderful. She didn't read, my Mom, at least as far as I can remember. In fact, as a child she would often punish me for reading too much. She thought this a bad trait in a child.
But she whole-heartedly supported me in my pursuit of the written word. She has yet to read a word I wrote, although she has, unbeknownst to her, been the wellspring of many of my fictional characters.
My mother listens as if enraptured by my tales of plots and protagonists and bylines. She doesn't understand any of this, but she dutifully told all of her friends that her daughter had written a book.
And I've never, ever given my mother a manuscript once; not even a short story. She'd rather I tell her the story, including the murder plots and love tales. I spend hours on the phone, telling my mother all my story plots. She laughs and cries and expresses the shock of surprise, just as if she were reading them. She's a nut, and only an author would spend the time telling someone the stories they've written.
It came to be that I was published. With this, I thought my mother would at least be pleased to actually have something I wrote that wasn't in the form of a boring manuscript.
"Birds and Blooms, Ma. You can buy it in any magazine store."
"Oh yeah. I think we have one of them. In Columbia."
"If you want, I will order one for you."
"No, that's all right. I'll get Michael...no wait..he's on vacation. No, I'll go to the magazine store....Birds and what?"
I knew it was a hopeless case. Newbie writers are not normally published in the centerfold of Redbook. To find this small specialty magazine would be beyond my mother's ken. Besides, she had no idea where the magazine store was, and this was strike two. Third strike; she would never remember the name. I sent into the publisher and ordered her a copy.
Then I must call her with the news.
"Reader's Digest, Ma. I know you got to know Reader's Digest. You don't even have to go to a magazine store. You can buy it right in the grocery store."
"I think Ernie used to subscribe to that."
On the other end of the phone line, I rolled my eyes to heaven. She "thinks" Ernie used to subscribe to it? She hasn't heard of Reader's Digest?
I knew then that my mother would never read a word of anything I would write. I must guess that she would rather hear me tell her the damn stories.
"Reader's Digest, Ma. This is an excellent opportunity. This magazine is distributed world-wide. 'Course the thing is only two sentences ...but still. I don't care what it takes Ma, I'm going to write for a living. Even if the only damn book I ever publish is a payroll manual, then so be it. But I'm going to succeed at this."
"I have no doubt at all that you will."
I stopped still with this. The phone line crackled.
"You really believe that?" I asked, for most of my "success" talk is meant mainly for me. Other humans in my surround acknowledge such comments, if at all, with only a slight nod. Now here was my mother saying, and with much confidence, that she was sure I would succeed.
The words were absolute music to my ears. My, how nice that someone would actually agree with me. And so vehemently.
"I wouldn't say that if I didn't believe it," my mother went on, "maybe I wouldn't say anything, but I wouldn't say that I know you will succeed. I say it because I believe it."
This, with no cliches! From my mother who has never read a word that I have written.
Climbing the mountain to a writing career is tough. While I would be lying to say it is no mind if I succeed or not, I can honestly say, that if I fail, I will forever have the knowledge that my mother believed in me. And she wasn't afraid to say it.
So I can't let her down.
Patricia Fish was born in 1950, and she claims that while her body has aged, she has never really moved beyond the 1960s. Pat now grows flowers in her gardens instead of wearing them in her hair. She loves to write, especially about the gardens, birds, and critters in her surround. Pat lives in a bit of paradise on a pie-shaped lot wedged into a small cove off of the Chesapeake Bay.
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