***Note: This post is in honor of my extraordinary mother’s 70’s birthday. Thanks for making everything that’s good in my life possible. ***
I really should hate my mother.
She screwed up any chance I might’ve had of becoming an important writer by giving me what can only be described as a normal childhood. Such. A. Jerk.
My favorite memory of her is from when I was four years old and my family was living in Shaker Heights Ohio in a 1925 colonial that had been completely 1975’d. It had gold shag carpet throughout and a kitchen in shades of bright orange, avocado green and “have a nice day” yellow. It was in this house that she and my father had these epic dinner parties that started with casseroles and cocktails in the dining room and ended at 4 a.m. with people strewn around the living room in plaid polyester hiphuggers and varying states of consciousness.
The parties always seemed to start after my bedtime, so my memories of them are only what I could hear…a combination of music and conversation punctuated at fairly regular intervals by my mother’s laughter. It was a full-on, throw-your-head-back joyous cackle that sometimes began with a little scream. There was almost a rhythm to them….chatter, chatter, chatter, cackle, dull roar, cackle, shush, whisper-yell, “Shut up, Tom,” and it would start all over again.
Essentially what happened during those years is that my mother’s laughter became my lullaby. It would hitch a ride upstairs with the smoke from her Virginia Slim Lights and get caught up in the slats of my canopy bed. The combination proved intoxicating, and maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain, but eventually, I would fall happily off to sleep.
After four years in Ohio, we moved to Aurora, Colorado, to a house right behind the tennis courts in a glamorous new subdivision, “The Dam West.” In the summertime, mom and all the neighborhood tennis ladies would whip up a batch of peach daquiries and go to what they called “the hang.”
There, still in tennis dresses from their earlier matches, they’d reserve the next day’s court and catch up on the latest divorces. From our house at the other end of the court, the women sounded like a gaggle of snark-infested geese. My mother’s giggles would always rise above the cacophonous fray, echo across the court and come through our screen door. It was, I think, the first version of Mommy GPS
Because my brother and I adored her, my mother’s laughter became a commodity in our house. Scott, older and wiser than me by two years, could elicit laughter from her with stunning precision. I was too young to really understand all the nuances of his comedy – that, and the fact that I never mastered the art of making fart sounds with my armpit was a definite source of frustration.
I wanted to be the one making her laugh. And eventually, I just wanted to be her.
For a stay-at-home, do-everything-for-us-but-wipe-our-asses mother, our mom had become really glamorous. She’d traded her wire-rim glasses for contact lenses and her long, salt-and-pepper hair for a blonde, remarkably accurate Farrah Fawcett ‘do. She wore shiny Nik Nik disco shirts and Candies slides exactly like the ones Olivia Newton-John wore at the end of Grease. She was, in the vernacular of the day, a Stone Cold Fox.
So I wanted to grow up to look just like her, but it turned out that growing up was exactly the problem. She was 5’ 2” and 100 pounds, so by sixth grade I was already taller than her. And in eighth grade when I had to buy a pair of size 14 knickers, (which, by the way, looked really sharp with my argyle socks and jauntily-askew newsboy cap), I knew I hadn’t inherited her looks.
But, I thought, there’s a lot of ways you can be just like a person without looking like them. Maybe I got her meticulous housekeeping skills. As I gnawed on the half-Snickers bar I found on my bedroom floor under my mud-encrusted soccer cleats, this theory seemed less-than-likely. When she went back to school and turned in her Greek Lit paper two weeks early while I finished my past-due English paper on the bus, I checked “proactive pre-planning-type” off the list. And as I watched her flit through life, easily making friends wherever my father’s military duty took us while I snuck my lunch into the library and a had a permanent commuter pass on the train to Moodyville, I decided I wasn’t destined to have her sunny disposition either.
In middle school, perhaps in an attempt to find some way to prove I was my mother’s daughter, I joined the tennis team. I was a decent player, but my persistent belief that nothing would ever really work out in the end somehow kept me out of the winner’s circle. On one hot September afternoon, I was on the bleachers after being bounced from a tournament due to severe heat wussiness. I sat with my friends and giggled rudely while the other played finished their matches.
I heard my mother laugh and turned to see that she’d arrived to pick me up and was chatting with some of the other mothers. As I gathered my gear, I saw my tennis coach approach her and offer her his hand.
“You must be Courtenay’s mother,” he said.
She shook his hand.
“Yes,” she said. “How’d you know that?”
He smiled. “You kidding? She has your laugh. I mean, exactly.”
I’d never noticed it before, but there it was. The thing I got. And he was right – it sounded exactly the same, and was, in fact, the only thing about the two of us that matched.
And when you think about it, what sort of moody eighth grader has a laugh like that? It was the laugh of an un-self-consciously joyful and self-possessed person. That wasn’t me. Except that it was. At least in short, happy bursts.
My mother and I and our laugh lived mostly harmoniously with the rest of the family until I was ready to leave for college. That’s when I learned that my father had been struggling with a pretty severe case of manic depression since he was a Junior at West Point, well before he met my mother. He saw his disease as a weakness, which made him avoid treatment and ask my mother to keep his secret – even from her closest friends.
So for all those years, while she was hosting dinner parties and covering everything in our house in red gingham and glitter at Christmastime (including the dog), she was also covering for him. She managed to explain away the manic phases where he would play the piano at 3 a.m., or suddenly imagine himself a Bluegrass star even though he’d never picked up a guitar. And she somehow hid the darkness, too – it was probably somewhere under the glitter or the piles of clean laundry or the mountains of baked goods she would produce for every occasion. (I think we all know how effective baked goods are at hiding sadness.)
When I think about it now, I realize it wasn’t just the sound of the laugh she’d given me, but the very existence of it. In the face of ridiculously difficult odds, she’d given me a normal childhood – better than that, really, she’d given me a happy childhood, and I’ll probably never know what that cost her.
Her laugh has served me well through my life – comedians love me, and my friends can always find me at a crowded bar. And now I have this job on the radio, and my mother is in the audience every single show, laughing louder than anyone in the theater. A friend says her laugh sounds like “sunshine gargling rainbows.” If you listen to the show on the radio, you can actually hear her. Every show. And you can hear me, too. Laughing.