by Keith Hoffman
One of the perks of being the last-born of five kids was that I got to stay home while the others had to go to school.
Every Monday morning, even though I was sad my beloved dad headed back on the road to sell pharmaceuticals, I had the great consolation prize of having my mother all to myself. Her undivided attention for those precious hours each day was a dream come true, although I’m not quite sure how she actually felt about spending the majority of her middle-aged life with an overly dramatic, talkative five-year-old.
Every weekday as she did her housewifely duties of washing, cooking, and cleaning, I doggedly shadowed her every step. Anything and everything that popped into my head popped out of my mouth.
“How does the Wicked Witch shower if water melts her? Does she smell bad?”
“Where do squirrels go when they die?”
“Wouldn’t it be fun to have antlers?”
In later years, my mother confessed that she would often tune out my mind-numbing preschool chatter in order to keep a grasp on her sanity. Every so often she would realize I had asked her a question but would have no idea what it was. Instead of hurting my feelings, she would just guess her answer.
I have occasionally wondered if a thoughtless answer to the question “Should I like boys or girls?” set me down a nontraditional path.
When I was six, my mom began cleaning less and less and napping more and more. I was squarely against naps since they came with an irksome “NO TALKING” rule, and my mother counted “whispering in her ear” as talking.
This woman was not really the nap-taking sort. She was vital and fiery—the type that weeded the yard in her bikini (a decision she deeply regretted when she realized those weeds were actually poison ivy). She was the neighbor who the randy husbands would constantly come visit and hit on. When I asked her about this later as an adult she shrugged it off with, “I can’t help it if I have an excess of pheromones.”
And she was the wife who got in passionate fights with my father often storming out of the house while he piled his kids in our blue Buick and shadowed her down the block as we all yelled, “get in the car tubby!” out of the four windows. My vain non-tubby mother would finally give in and angrily get in the car where my rascal of a father would seductively charm her back into his good graces.
But now her passion and her pheromones seemed to be ebbing.
She began dragging me along as she went to several different doctors and made me sit in the waiting room reading Goofus and Gallant in old issues of Highlights magazine. I wasn’t worried about these doctor’s visits. Why should I be? Mothers don’t really get sick. If she wanted to submit herself to some guy who stuck things in her ear, poked her with needles, and asked a lot of questions, who was I to judge? My bigger concern was Goofus: He was bad news and I hated him, but was also strangely drawn to his anger and emotional unavailability.
My mother was finally told by one doctor to get a hobby because she was bored and suffering from “Housewife’s Syndrome.”
Although she was feeling weak and tired, she wasn’t about to accept some smug doctor’s patronizing diagnosis. I was dragged to even more doctors and waited in even more doctors’ lobbies until I had soon found every object hidden in every picture of every 1967 issue of Highlights.
Unbeknownst to me, behind one of those doors, on the other side of the waiting room, my mother, who thought she feared the worst, was being told something worse than she feared.
She had cervical cancer.
The survival rate was extremely low.
She needed to go home, pack her things and get to the hospital immediately to begin radiation treatment.
I personally would rather have my mom suffer from Housewife’s Syndrome but nobody asked me. I couldn’t quite grasp why she was leaving me. I knew she was sick but hospitalization seemed like an overreaction.
All I knew was that she wasn’t around to wake me up in the morning and make me Cream of Wheat while the familiar sound of the kitchen radio played in the background. She wasn’t around to gently steer me through the several hundred traumas, victories, and discoveries of each day of my young and curiosity filled life.
Now she was in a place where kids were not allowed.
My father had to keep making a living on the road, so he hired someone to take care of us while he was away during the week.
Alma was the first black woman I had ever come in close contact with in my middle-class Catholic life. She was tiny with deep crevices in her face and gray hair pulled tight into a bun. She seemed exotic, ancient, and mysterious to my young eyes. I had never come across a human being like her before. And for the first time in my life I became a quiet child.
I hated Alma.
When my brothers and sisters went to school every day, I was left alone with this weird and alien interloper.
I might have given kind-hearted Alma a break except for the THREE MAJOR OFFENSES she committed.
MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER ONE: I was blissfully soaking in a bubble bath using soapsuds to style a sophisticated hairdo when Alma boldly swung open the door.
“How ya doin’, sweetie pie?” she queried.
I sat in the water mortified.
“Okay,” I mumbled, hoping this answer would satisfy her without encouraging her to jump in with me.
She eyed me suspiciously, zeroing in on my Mr. Bubble feathered bob as I stared back in stunned soapy silence for what felt like the remainder of my childhood. I didn’t know about her family or if she even had one, but my family certainly did not walk in on each other in the bathroom.
Finally, Alma smiled awkwardly and left with a “don’t ya stay in there too long! You’ll turn into a prune!” before shutting the bathroom door behind her.
She needn’t have worried. I wasn’t going to give her another chance to crash my hairdo party. I put on my pajamas, wrapped my head in a turban, and marched to my bedroom with as much grace and dignity as I could possibly muster.
MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER TWO: As I trudged down the stairs for breakfast one morning and curtly ordered my Quisp cereal with strawberry milk, Alma loomed over me with something obviously on her mind. Just as I was about to scream “What?! Out with it old woman!” she purposefully sat down next to me.
“Honey, have you been changing your underpants every day?”
I couldn’t believe these words had just tumbled out of her mouth.
“I’ve been counting the underpants when I do the laundry and I don’t think you’re changing yours every day.”
This woman was sick. Who counts dirty underpants in the laundry? So what if I kept mine on three, four, maybe five days a week? Didn’t I still live in a free America? I was very busy with a lot on my mind and just couldn’t be bothered with the daily underpants changing that so obviously obsessed this woman.
I calmly put a spoonful of cereal in my mouth and coldly replied, “I’ll make a note of that. Thank you for your concern.”
Alma’s eyes narrowed as she tried to figure me out. Was I bluffing? Would the underpants count spike after our little talk? I glared slowly and deliberately, chewing my cereal but saying nothing.
Finally, she got up and walked over to the stove muttering to herself. “That child’s an odd one.”
MAJOR OFFENSE NUMBER THREE: Alma was not my mother.
Since I spent the major part of my everyday life with my mother, the sudden loss and loneliness confused and devastated me.
My only reprieve would be when my father would arrive home and load us into the Buick and drive us over to the hospital. Since the younger kids weren’t allowed inside the giant building, he’d drive us to the parking lot outside. Although there were what seemed like millions of windows, by my second visit I could spot her room instantly.
Far above me in the sky, I would see my mother’s face looking down as she smiled and waved. She didn’t look sick. She looked wonderful to my hungry eyes as I gazed upwards. I wanted to scream “get in the car, Tubby!” with all the might my five-year-old lungs could muster. Instead I looked up at the magic window and waved frantically.
My dad would eventually gather us back in the car and we’d start the sad drive home without her. I would stare out the back of the car still waving until that NO KIDS ALLOWED building my mother was trapped in got smaller and smaller.
The upside of my mother’s cervical cancer was that I loved making her homemade cards, and now I didn’t have to wait until her birthday.
I made several cards a day and spent hours on them—each one being a variation on the theme of me and my dog Tiger, drawn on folded construction paper, with little balloon dialogue bubble saying “Get Well!” or “Come Home Soon!”
Each day I focused my energy on making more and more “Come Home Soon!” cards until finally my mother took my suggestion and was coming home soon.
She had been away for such a long time but I still had no clue that some people thought this day might never happen.
When Alma told me she was leaving our house for good, I was so overjoyed I wanted to invite her to hop in the bathtub with me and count underpants.
My arts and crafts skills with construction paper and magic markers were put to the test as I filled our house with “Welcome Home” signs. My sister stopped by as I worked diligently amidst the cornucopia of construction paper and magic markers and informed me that I had spelled beautiful twelve different ways and none of them were right. Since I had a beautiful theme running through each card, this was definitely a setback. But I was not to be deterred. Soon every inch of wall space was covered with colored paper and stick figures. And when the big day finally arrived, I waited for my mother to burst into the door and scoop me into her arms.
It was the slowest morning of my life as all of us kids waited impatiently.
I heard the familiar sound of our Buick’s motor in the driveway. I ran to the window and peeked out to see my father picking my mother up from the passenger side of the car.
As I watched her approach in his arms, she looked weak and small.
My brain took a moment to absorb this image, as if it were flipping through pages of a dictionary looking for this new definition of Mother.
They walked the door and everyone cheered.
I hung back shyly near the corner, uncertain if this new frail mother in his arms would still want to be bothered with me.
After hugs and tears from the rest of the family, my mother, still in my father’s arms, surveyed the bountiful decorations, paused for a moment, and looked into my eyes.
“Keith!” she exclaimed. “These are beautiful!”
Beautiful! B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L. Beautiful.
The sentence wasn’t out of her mouth before I buried myself in the familiar comfort of her touch, smell, and voice.
As I spent the next weeks taking care of her, I pretended to be a feisty English scullery maid who lived off the kitchen and brought tea and crumpets—otherwise known as Tab and ice cream—to the bed of the sickly lady of the house. My mom didn’t seem to mind and even weakly smiled as I banged into the bedroom shouting, “Here ya go, m’lady!” or “Careful, deary, it’s ’ot!” in a bad Cockney accent.
My mother was back and I was blissfully and naively unaware of the bullet I had dodged.