Thursday, April 02, 2009


In Which I Remember Every Word...

As a child, I was always in awe of my mother's great presence of mind. She never seemed to be caught flat-footed, never lacked for just the right thing to say in any verbal confrontation, especially when she was standing up for someone she loved. But if I thought my awe of her could get no stronger, I was dead wrong. I discovered this when I became a parent, in particular, when Thomas got old enough to get in trouble himself.

Readers may recall that my son had an unfortunate incident of his own in second grade (which, in looking back through the archives, I'm astonished to discover happened almost exactly three years ago this week), when a self-styled "dean of discipline" gave my little guy detention (for a second-grader!), and all because my boy had stuck up for a fellow classmate.

I told the story in some detail at the time. What I didn't tell you then was how much I sweated over every phone call I made to that dean of discipline, the hours I spent sitting up in bed, not sleeping, going in over in my mind every possible permutation of my anticipated encounter with the man who had it in for my son. I wasn't worried about letting my boy down, see--I didn't want to let my mom down. I wanted to be every inch the staunch and articulate defender she had been for me and my brother when we were kids. I wanted to make sure I had just the right words to say, the proper tone, the appropriate response.

When that incident was all over, Thomas came out on top, but not because I had managed to turn the tables on the guy--in the end, it was my son's friends who ultimately came to his rescue. That unexpected outcome was so exciting, it was a few days before I got around to beating myself up for my lackluster performance, but I did beat myself up. For a little while anyway. But in the end, you know, I had to let myself off the hook. Because my mom had a rare and special gift that few parents could hope to match.

Or so it certainly seemed to me, especially on that late afternoon in 1978 in the hated Mr. F's classroom, when my mom had engaged in her very best Waiting in an effort to get this teacher to apologize to me for his terrible bullying, yelling, sausage-fingery poking of my person, and all-around comportment as a first-class asshole.

But Mr. F had out-Waited her, it seemed. I should have known--there was no way this guy was going to apologize to me, even though he had been SO in the wrong. And when my mom broke off her Waiting gaze and turned to face me, I felt for a second like something had broken in my chest. It was a feeling ten times worse than the humiliation I'd felt that morning under Mr. F's bullying, harrying glare.

And then, she winked at me.

And she said, "Now remember this, MM. Remember how small it makes you look, to be wrong, and to be too proud to admit it. Especially when everyone else knows it."

In that moment, I understood that she was trying to tell me something important, something to remember. But all I could really process was the excited fizzy feeling that instantly welled up behind my eyes, seeped through my brains, out my ears.

She had totally got Mr. F!!

He certainly thought so. He literally rocked back on his heels as though struck. And now he was shouting. "You don't talk about me this way, not to a student!" He spluttered, utterly unmanned in the moment.

My mom didn't even turn to look at him. She just kept hitting him with her back as she grabbed my elbow and in one smooth move, spun me in front of her and ushered me out the door, Mr. F still gibbering behind us. "You come back here! I have not--did not--there IS no apology owed to--"

But all of a sudden, his booming voice seemed diminished to me. In the time it had taken my mom to turn on one heel, this man had ceased to matter.

That incident stayed with me a long time, not just as a moment of composure to emulate someday if or when my own kids got in trouble, but just because I never admired anyone so much as my mother when she bearded Mr. F in his den.

And it was a moment, as you might expect, that I would need to call on. We never again had anything quite like the confrontation that we'd had that morning--I liked to think Mr. F had decided on a line that he would not cross, lest he hear the clack of my mother's sensible shoes on his linoleum again. But for the next two years, Mr. F almost never gave up in his attempts to make my life miserable (or at least more challenging than they needed to be). Long-time readers may recall that he tried to trip me up in my efforts to win the district Spelling Bee, for example. I really could have done without him, to be perfectly honest. Kids have a hard enough time growing up, negotiating school. They get plenty of crap from their own peer group; they certainly don't need to be bullied by a grown man in an authority position.

But there was another moment that stayed with me longer, and it occurred about a minute and 40 seconds later, when we were out in the parking lot, in our car. Mom was about to start the engine--it was a little nippy out--but she thought the better of it. She reached over, rifled through her purse and handed me my book.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

I nodded silently, staring only at the cover of my book. I thought I could see the greasy indentations of Mr. F's sausage fingers on my Story Book.

"Look at me," she intoned, and I did. My mom's brown eyes were no longer aflame, but they were intent.

"You have a special talent, and talent will always have enemies. Do you understand what I mean?"

I nodded.

"There will always be people like Mr. F--and you will find them everywhere in your life--who are afraid of talent. Who are threatened by it, and who will do anything then can to squash it. For no other reason than one sad, pathetic fact: Because they can't do what you can do. I'm sorry you had to find this out now. But it's just as well, because the sooner you understand something, the better."

"Understand what?" I asked.

She grabbed me by my arm. "That you will always have to fight these people. That if you are not always vigilant, eventually they will get to you. And if you aren't careful, you will start doing their job for them. You will start to doubt your talent. And if you do that, then you will lose it." She shook my arm, and for a moment I was almost in tears again. And here was the thing: so was she. "Don't you ever let anyone do that to you, do you hear me? I won't have it!" she hissed.

"Okay! Okay! Jeez!" I cried.

My mom let go of me then and started the car up. "Now, don't go getting a swollen head about this. I would never have said this to you at your age if it hadn't been for that...that...ass!"

My mom said this last with her Boston accent coming on strong and thick, so the word came out "ahhhhhhhhssssss," which was always funny to me, and I snorted. Then she cracked a smile and I knew we were out of the woods.

I hesitated to tell you about this conversation, although for me it was easily the most important part of the whole story. I hesitated because it sounds so self-serving, to repeat all those wonderful things my mom said to me, said about me (and you better believe I remembered every word). It was quite heady stuff for anyone to hear, and it did give me a bit of an inflated head. On the other hand, I guess Mom figured that, given the kind of opposition I was attracting, maybe I needed to be built up a little. And while she was maybe not so big on babying her sons with mushy sentiment and general coddling, building us up was definitely one area of motherhood at which my mom excelled.

I said earlier that I really wished I could call my mom about now, tell her what's been going on, but she obviously knew what she was doing when she raised me. She did such a good job that now, coming up fast on two years after her death, I can hear her just fine.

So I can hardly complain about my sad life, lament my coming up empty-handed on freelance and academic jobs. That would just lead me to moan about how worried I am that my skills and talents are bleeding away. And the moment I hear those words start to form in my head, I almost laugh at myself. Because I know it isn't true. And I only know that because she knew it wasn't true.

If that sounds self-serving, well, I apologize.

But my mother wouldn't have had it any other way.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Excellent story! Good teaching on the part of your Mom there too. More parents should take at least a very similar tact with their kids and who knows what other evils could be conquered along the way.
I ALWAYS enjoy your posts -sometimes they make me laugh, at times you've also made me cry. But always, you've put your point across is such a great manner -ok, words escape me to say exactly how I feel but whoever has a chance to hire you and passes you by, has just passed up a very good and golden opportunity to have a damned good writer and very respectable, ethical individual join their respective establishment -be that academia or the "real world of work!" Hang in there and don't despair -something bigger and better has to be around the corner waiting for you!
I'm very glad that you didn't wait a long time before completing this story. I was waiting with bated breath...
(well, I DO have a life, so I wasn't hanging around the computer hitting 'refresh' every 10 seconds, but I WAS wondering how your Mum got out of that one. )

I teach at the same school my 4 boys go to, and having to confront a colleague is one thing I truly dread. So far, it hasn't come up. Your mother did an amazing job, but of course you know that already.

By the way, speaking as an English teacher: anyone who writes as well as you do will always find employment. I read a lot of blogs, but I rarely find myself wondering about what happens next like I was today...
I had almost forgotten what a pleasure it is to be able to read fresh installments from you for a few days running. Almost, but excellence isn't easily forgotten.

Tremendous story, MM, and delivered with your usual panache. Your Mom... just tremendous. Lucky boy, you were.

God bless.
I had already realized that Mr. F was jealous of your ability to spin stories that captured the attention of your classmates.

I cannot create. I can analyze and see patterns and solve problems but I can not create. I envy you for that ability but I certainly wouldn't want to crush you for it.
I like your mom.
Seriously, MM. My bosses worry about me when I cry not once, but twice (for your story and for Thomas's) at my desk when I'm supposed to be doing my work! :)

Awesome story, I hope you really take it to heart because I LOVE reading you and you are talented!

Also, you should realize that when you tell these stories of your childhood, your mom and dad live on in all of our pleasure of reading about them. That is a true legacy to have...someone like you to carry their lives on for them.
Great story, MM. You were fortunate to have your mother in your corner, growing up...but she gave you some good advice on how to deal with all the F's a person encounters through their life.
Great stuff, MM. I'm a school principal, and as such I'm on the other side of the desk in such confrontations. But two things I always remember when dealing with students: 1. Always listen first. 2. No matter the situation, make sure the student leaves my office with dignity.

Thanks for sharing this with us.
Your mom was the best, MM. My dad is like that and every time a conflict comes up with my kids, I strive to do something that would make him proud.

Hang in..don't give up.
MM, I want you to look at something. Look at the subtitle to your blog. That is what we come here for. And you shouldn't feel the need to apologize when you give it to us. And I was going to try to be funny and point out that aggrandizement is spelled wrong but says it can be spelled your way.

Oh, and Mr. F = crud-bum of the highest caliber. A pox of ass-strep upon him and all others like him. And of course your mom = CLASS ACT (in this instance, anyway).
Loved this story, MM. Everyone should have such staunch allies in their parents. And the last bit didn't seem self-serving to me, just a reminder to yourself and your readers.
She knew. She knew what we know. You are talent, through and through.

God bless her. I can almost hear her words as well, given how she comes through to me in your writing.

This story is a keeper. Carry it always.
What a great ending to this story! I'm glad you decided to share it. I had no idea how your mom was going to win, but boy, she really did know the exactly right thing to say...
Brought me to tears. All so true, and so lovingly and beautifully told.
It is coming up on two years...I remember this because my mom died from cancer just about a week before your parents. It's hard when all you have left are the memories, but oh what memories we have! Treasure them, MM, because memories like these are going to help ground you and get you through this rough patch. We're with ya, and let us know when the book is coming out!
After reading that, I miss your mom!
This is absolutely beautiful...thank you.
MM - Who do we all need to email to get you a book deal?
Holy shit, MM! Would have been self-serving if you kept those words to yourself. I think your mom gave you the one piece of wisdom every human should receive during their childhood. You will be challenged. Rise up to it...otherwise you will become Mr. F. Too many Mr. F's in the world.
You are one masterful storyteller. Thank goodness your mother stood up for you then so you could share your gift with us.
Great story. I hope I can be the kind of mother your mother was to you.
thank God for great moms. and thanks for finishing the story in a way that exceeded my expectations--with tears. echoing Jen in the previous comment: I hope I can be like your mom and encourage/build up my son.
I cannot think of a comment that doesn't include 'big balls' in reference to your Mother, and there is an AC DC song ringing in my ears. She was and is a remarkable woman. Your Mom ROCKS.

Do you think she never agonized over her words? Or thought of "what she could have said" after the fact? You are your Mother's son, you have, and will continue to impart the same love & wisdom to the Mansion's offspring.

If I have been a quarter of the Mother your Mother was to you, I will be happy.
I have read and re-read every post of yours--enjoying the stories, marveling (that's such a dumb word but a better fails me at the moment) at the incredible gift you have to tell a story, craft a sentence, turn a word just so---it awes me, inspires me, entertains me and always leaves me hungry for more. Whether or not anyone ever again recognizes your God given talent you are a master writer and you should never listen to any voice that says differently. I'm sitting here with tears clouding the computer screen at the blessed gift your mother gave you and wondering if I ever even came close to that with my own. Oh I hope so. An earlier commenter hit it on the head - through your stories and through your parenting your mother lives on. Those words introduce a woman to us that we'll all be the better for knowing and meeting. While that is not the comfort a child longs for when they just need to hear their parent's voice again on the other end of the line, please do find solace in knowing your mother lives on in you and in your children and in the lives of all those people she touched. I know there is all this stress of having to have a job and support your family and all those annoying little details of life on planet earth but I certainly hope that this unasked for "vacation" provides you with the time and the desire to share more with us - your closet followers who've been blessed but never de-lurked to tell you that.
Hey MM!
Talk about irony of ironies... I was just thinking about you and how you were doing and found your blog in my e-mail while looking for your other address.

Hearing about your recent few months and what you're working on, drop me an e-mail (you know the one) and let's touch base... maybe I can help, sir! (Now that I'm a little more used to Daddydom!)

Your partner on the guide!
The other MM
and you should always listen to your mother. She always has your best interests at heart :)

Whenever I run of juice on how to write, I come here and just basically randomly pick one of your articles to read.

The easy manner in which you string ideas together helps me phrase my own wordings.

Hope you get the job you are vying for.
Was thinking of your parents this weekend too and realizing that two years had passed since their death. It was great that you have such great memories of them and that is what one must hold onto. They sure would have loved to have seen Brownie in her first communion dress. She os beautiful
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