I sat in my puddle of teenaged angst staring at my mother as she ate her usual breakfast of toast, tea and an orange my dad had thoughtfully peeled and sectioned before he left for work so Mom’s fingers wouldn’t smell of orange rind all day. Mom, unaware, read her Time magazine turning thin, slippery pages. No one knows why she did it and still does it – not even Mom herself is aware of the reason; her unconscious mind simply takes over - gently driving her hand to bounce each orange section several times before lifting it to her lips. Like an orchestra’s maestro, Mom has bounced out the opening measures to countless Overtures and Opuses over the years. Unable to look away, I always steel myself for the “crescendo moment” when the last orange slice disappears in slurpy-glorious triumph.
Now a mother myself, I actually look forward to the bouncing orange ritual as Mom and I eat breakfast together on vacations and weekend visits. It’s the one thing I can count on as the stock market tumbles, as my body changes in unrecognizable ways, and as my teenager morphs into a different being. Like the comforting tick of a clock, my mother’s once-annoying habits now make me feel safe. Instantly, I can relax in something constant.
I remind my daughter Emily of this as we move into our own mother-daughter-teenaged relationship. We’ve discussed strategies she can employ for dealing with my annoying habits of inhaling and exhaling – ways to get through it without rudely asking me not to breath because it is bothering her. I’ve warned Emily that in the coming months, as the teenageness takes hold, she will come to hate the way I sneeze, the way I say “Mmm bye” as I hang up the phone, and the jingle my belt buckle makes as I walk around the house with it undone after a big meal. I predict however, that one day she will come to cherish these annoying habits as I later dodder about - jingling through the doorway of Emily’s own dining room, my loose belt buckle the audible signal of a meal well done.
Since those blissful moments are many years away, it’s good to equip Emily with hard-won strategies my sister and I perfected as we drove cross-country on vacations with our parents. From the back seat of our Rambler station wagon, we toyed with my mother, drawing her from one song into another in a game Jen and I called Musical Whiplash. We’d ever-so-softly whistle or hum a bar from a popular tune and leave it to take root in Mom’s fertile mind. She never knew we were subversively planting songs - taking her from “How Great Thou Art” one minute to Ethel Mermon’s “New York New York.” The trouble we ran into was never how to get her started, but how to get her stopped. There’s nothing more embarrassing than having your mother humming “I’m a Little Teapot” while she waits in line at the gas station bathroom. I wanted to share with my daughter the technique we developed for the safe handling of a hummer. Whether it’s show tunes or even worse – no real tune at all, you can instantly silence the offending individual by asking a question. In order to answer the question, the hummer must stop humming. Mission accomplished.
One afternoon as I was fixing supper and Emily was sitting at the kitchen table doing homework, she asked me when Memorial Day was. I answered, “It’s sometime late in May. I think it’s May 28th this year.” The next day as I was wiping down the kitchen counters she asked again, “Mom, when’s Memorial Day?” I rumpled my eyebrows a bit concerned since I had just told her yesterday, but went into a short speech about the difference between Labor Day and Memorial Day and ways to keep them straight. A week or two later I was driving Emily to a friend’s house and out of the silence, she once again posed the fateful question, “Mom, When’s Memorial Day?” I was growing concerned. Had she experienced head trauma? Was she losing her mind? And then I thought to ask, “Emily, was I just humming?” Her bashful nod told me all I needed to know and we laughed heartily over my fears for her mental health and my drawn out explanations on correct calendar placement of holidays. Now when one of us is snapping our gum or jingling coins in a pocket, we politely interject with the simple question “When’s Memorial Day?”