August 18, 2015

The Only Nice Thing My Mother Said to Me When I was Growing Up.



“Where do you think you’re going?” my mother challenged. How can you just leave like that when there’s so much work to do around here?

That old familiar guilt fell on me like a boulder.

“I’m sorry mother, I said. “I forgot to get my uniform from the cleaners yesterday. I have to go see if I can get it. I don’t want to get suspended from school for being out of uniform.”

“That school of yours will just have to understand,” my mother seethed.

That “school of mine” was an all-girl Catholic high school that my parents could barely afford to send me to. In fact, I had to work part-time in the office to help pay tuition and, as much as my mother had agreed to my going, she always managed to say things in such a way as to put the blame on me for the extra money it cost—money she didn’t feel we had.

I flew through the screen door calling out behind me that I would finish the vacuuming when I got back.

“Yeah? Who’s gonna pay for you getting that uniform cleaned again?” she shouted out behind me.

I just kept running, not wanting to answer her.

When it came to getting to and from school on the bus or scraping enough money together for lunches or for getting my uniform from the cleaners I had been pretty much on my own, but it seemed that the constant cleaning of my uniform was one of the biggest expenses. Our uniforms were navy blue wool and had to be dry cleaned, not washed and ironed, and the nuns were very strict about all the students being in uniform every day. Because of that, everyone was expected to have two uniforms, one to wear while one was at the cleaners.

Needless to say, I didn’t have two uniforms. I had one—and that one we would buy second-hand at the end of the school year from a graduating senior and get it cleaned over and over again.

Which put me out of uniform at school a lot.

That particular time however, I had waited until we had a Friday off and brought my uniform to the dry cleaners the night before arranging to get it back the following Saturday afternoon.

But Saturday came and I forgot to get it and when I remembered my heart dropped into my stomach. I was in the last semester of my senior year and I was not going to be suspended in the last semester of my senior year because I didn’t have a uniform!

“What are you gonna do when you get there?” my mother called from the porch. “Break in? They aren’t open on Sundays?”

I turned to look at her over my shoulder. She looked mean. Almost as if she would be happy if she were right and I couldn’t get my uniform. Almost as if she would be happy if I had to pay the price—but pay the price for what?

For how her life turned out? For the fact that she just had another baby? For what? I never really knew. I only knew it was a debt that I just kept getting deeper and deeper into.

I skidded to a stop when I rounded the corner and saw the truck backed up to the front door of the cleaners. I could see the words “Arbor Vitae Cleaners” painted on its side in big brown letters and, yes, the man loading it was the owner and, yes, he maybe could help me out.

How could he not? I was out of breath. I was 16. I was crying.

I practically walked on air all the way back home carrying my one-and-only clean uniform over my shoulder, tears still streaming down my face—but for a different reason. The guy wouldn’t take any money for it.

“Nah,” he’d said. “The cash register ain’t even open. It’s on me this time,” and got in his truck and drove away.

“What happened?” my mother said.

“I got my uniform,” I told her.

“Yeah, but what happened? On a Sunday? They’re closed on Sundays and if you got it why are you crying?”

Why was I crying? Oh, how I wanted to tell her why I was crying. I was crying because I hated it that I only had one uniform and that I hated it even more that my parents couldn’t afford two uniforms and that it was somehow my fault. I was crying because I was sorry, so sorry for having forgotten my uniform and for not having done all the housework before I remembered it and for not really wanting to do the housework in the first place. I was crying because—well, because when the man who owned the cleaners said what he said to me, “Nah, it’s on me,” I felt his kindness and his tenderness and his understanding and, oh, how I wanted that from him—from anybody, but most especially from her.

That was why I was crying.

But I didn’t tell her all that. And when she asked me how much it cost, I simply told her the man gave it to me, that he didn’t charge me for it and that “it was on him this time” and that I felt grateful.

And that was when something happened that had never happened between my mother and me before. That was when she said something that I never, ever expected her to say. Instead of accusing me of “worming it out of him” like she always said I did, or telling me that I had somehow done the wrong thing and I would have to pay for it someday or telling me that I didn’t deserve him to be so nice to me, she said something else entirely.

She walked into the kitchen, stopped at the stove where she had been making meatballs, turned to me and said:

“Melanie, you have an angel on your shoulder, Never forget it.”

After years of examining the nature of my relationship with my mother and trying to understand the woman she was, I would come to realize that the source of her hateful and mean-spirited remarks to me, while extremely damaging and hurtful at the time, were not really an expression of how she felt about me. Instead, they were an expression of her own deep-seated, lifelong depression and a reflection of how she felt about herself.

That day I forgot my uniform was different, however. That day was a day in which she reached deep down inside herself and gave me a blessing. For surely, if she was going to say only one nice thing to me—there couldn’t have been any better.

More than 50 years later, I would be sitting in a restaurant in Toronto, Canada when the man who I am married to today and I were having a conversation about our future together.

With all confidence, I turned to him and said, “Stick with me, baby. I have an angel on my shoulder.”

“Really,” he said. “How do you know?”

“Because my mother saw it one day,” I said. “It’s right there,” turning my head and pointing to my left shoulder.

“She told me never to forget it  And I never have.”




The Good Mother.


Author: Carmelene Siani

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Michelle B.



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