I’m walking a very fine, hair-thin line as a mother of three boys.
There’s a cautious, Mom-version of me that perches on my right shoulder and whispers: “Hover, helicopter and hawk over them as though they’re weaker-sex field mice with no common sense.” While at the same moment, on my left, a Mom-Me shaped like “Apocalypse Now” Marlon Brando chews a cigar and sputters into my ear: “How will they learn if they don’t climb a tree and fall down and fracture multiple bones? How will they know they coulda been a contender?”
I want to raise men, but they must have compassion. They will respect women and also kill spiders. Books are important but how ‘bout dem Yankees?
In an attempt to influence the literate side of their development, before bed I read chapter books to my younger boys as they snuggle into their bunks. I dab essential oils on their wrists encouraging relaxation, then hand them stuffed dolls shaped like NFL linebackers.
My dad recently gifted my boys a few books from the Hardy Boys series, and we were 50 pages through the first book when I read aloud that “Mrs. Robinson, who was lame” fainted after hearing shocking news. Her children, in the room with her at the time, had apparently experienced this behavior before and ran to grab her “medicines” to shorten the spell.
With its first book released in 1927, The Hardy Boys series holds up. Once you make it past the “presentlys” and “jalopies” and more than one mention of chewing tobacco, the center of the story reveals itself: mystery, suspense and motivated teenagers, changing the world to impress their world famous detective father. We’ve made it through 6 of the books so far, and they keep asking for more- the series makes no mention of smartphones or Fortnite and somehow, they’re still listening.
I’d say my only complaint thus far, is the role of women in the books. The moms and aunts and female coeds make appearances when a picnic needs to be packed or a chicken needs to be roasted. And of course, the ladies have their 5 minutes of fame with dizzy spells, or as objects to “date regularly”. These females will briefly appear to supply feverish, worry-filled quips when their men are doing something dangerous. After their supporting roles have padded the story, the women retreat back to the shadows.
And I get it- the series’ target audience is not 30-something mothers like me, but prepubescent boys, living vicariously through motorcycle riding brothers with crew cuts and a knack for thorough investigation.
It’s literature like this that led me to believe I would faint much more frequently than I have as an adult. Based on films and books I absorbed like a bowl headed sponge in the 80s, I predicted that 2-3 times a year, I’d be shocked to the point that my body would give out, my mind would shut off, and, with the back of my hand to my forehead, I’d collapse into the arms of the nearest fella dressed in a suit and fedora. I’d be revived, of course, via smelling salts, after a dramatic pause of the appropriate length.
At the time of this post, I’ve fainted a total of none times.
In sharing all of this I have teed myself up to proclaim that writing about a female character who faints frequently is characterizing the woman as weak, or unable to cope with devastation or incapable of tolerating pain. And while that might be true, my mother is a fainter, and weak would be the last word I would use to describe her.
My mom is a multi-faceted woman with more life experience than most women have in three. She was in a convent to become a nun in her teens, she married and had her first child by the time she was 20, raised 5 children and has grown up throughout a marriage with my dad, her husband of… wait for it… 51 years so far.
She has also experienced the death of a special needs sister, the loss of her parents, and the passing of her 2 year old daughter to cancer. It was this process: my sister’s diagnosis, decline and death that prompted my mother’s interest in therapy. She went back to college for her bachelor’s degree while I was in kindergarten and was eventually awarded a grant to USC where she earned her PhD in psychology.
But. She faints.
I’ve experienced my mother’s fainting on multiple occasions. My memory doesn’t filter out whether I was in the same place when these happened, or just heard about it later, but I know of at least three times that she’s collapsed.
1. When she performed a cartwheel in our living room just to show that she could, she misjudged her wingspan, hit her ankle on a piece of furniture and immediately crumpled to the floor.
2. My childhood home had a brick path that lead from the driveway to the front door, with three steps smack dab in the middle. It was on one of these steps that my mom tripped, hit her leg, and took an unintended faint-nap on the scarlet colored pathway.
3. Another year, we were at the beach in Southern California during one of the countless summertime jaunts she’d taken us on. Clad in her bathing suit and over-shirt, she decided, uncharacteristically, to give boogie boarding a shot. She strapped the board’s velcro band to her wrist as my sister and I had showed her, and not long after experiencing her first wave, the undertow took her board toward the ocean while her wrist went in the direction of the shore. Lifeguards were called, a scene was made… mom fainted.
It was during this beach trip, and multiple beach trips before and after, that I was sunburned on every inch of skin that wasn’t covered by one of my ill-fitting fluorescent swimsuits. Not that we hadn’t used sunscreen, I’m certain we did. The smell of Hawaiian Tropic is singed in my nostrils to the length that the sand-encrusted bottle is etched in my mind. There was sunscreen involved, but the application before we settled into our activities was rushed and haphazard, as though the seagulls would attack our bodies the way they’d ravage the bags of potato chips left unattended on our beach blanket.
It was a different time- Princess Diana was married to Charles, smoking sections existed in restaurants and beachgoers lathered on baby oil to ensure a bacon-esque sheen as they crisped. We were getting closer to reality, but the 80s drew lapses in judgement, like pretending Camilla Bowles wasn’t lurking around the corner and smoke only harmed the lungs of the inhaler.
My mom knew to bring the coconut scented SPF, but reapplication and consistent lathering wasn’t quite perfected. This led, of course, to freckles and sunburns. Bad ones. My crow’s feet around my eyes made their appearance before I needed a training bra.
After the hours spent on the coast of Southern California, building sand castles and consuming our weight in red vines and orange soda, we’d pile back into Mom’s silver Mazda, bringing with us loads of sand and premature sun damage. We’d chant our favorite tongue twister while driving on the 55 freeway toward home: “She scorches skin cells by the sea shore.”
This ditty applied to me only, of course, as my sister had somehow jumped into the correct gene pool. Not only did she gain two more inches of height than me and thick hair that can go unwashed for days, she also managed to earn olive-hued skin that tanned as though the sun favored her and wished to gift her for being born.
Once home, to relieve the early on-set of my burn and to also rinse out our suits, my sister and I would jump into the over chlorinated pool in our back yard, where we swam and lived the lives of powerful mermaids, with questionable taste in men and trust issues.
After our hair was thoroughly rinsed and our fingertips resembled raisins, we’d wrap ourselves in scratchy discounted towels from the local warehouse store and make our way upstairs to our shared bedroom, settling in in our still-damp suits.
Summertime meant hours of play in our teal painted room, with the majority of a three year span spent gathering cabbage patch kid clothes into a pile, and carefully selecting, one at a time, the items we would choose for our plastic headed, yarn-haired children.
Some clothes were made specifically for cabbage patch dolls, while others were our old baby clothes, and we systematically organized the chosen outfits with an unspoken routine only sisters can manage.
Dinner would be served downstairs after the wardrobe ritual- maybe burrito night, or spaghetti, or Dad’s lemon chicken off a charcoal barbecue prepared right below our bedroom, as the smell of smoke wafted upstairs and streamed in through our window.
It was a time of routines, but the absolute best kind. Beach, pool, play, eat, and the days would end with the reminder that the Sun, while bringing life to our planet, is also a dangerous beast that must be given ultimate respect.
After digging through my disheveled dresser, I’d pull a cotton nightgown over my mangled, chlorinated, sand ridden hair, and the fabric hitting my shoulders would send a sharp, sheering pain through my back, triggering the memory of the hours we’d spent at the beach. I’d do what I always did around 7pm after a Saturday spent at the beach- shake my head and picture the puddling mess of melted Hawaiian tropic that had pooled in my mother’s hands at the beginning of our beach day.
“I should have used more.”
“Why does this happen?”
“Punky Brewster would never get a sunburn.”
I would dramatically limp down the stairs to my mom, complaining about my burn as she moved toward the bathroom, opening the cabinet to unveil her secret remedy to the scorching flesh, blistering on my pre-teen back.
“Let’s go back upstairs”
I’d move blankets onto the bedroom floor, smelling the charcoal barbecue that had settled onto the linens from dinner earlier, while Mom turned on the box fan near the entrance to our room. Cat fur and dust would cloud through the air, as she opened the container holding the elixir to cure what ailed me.
The potion that made my eyes water and cleared out my sinuses. A blue canister with a greasy worn label from summers before, ready to be slathered all over my radiating back. I would lay on my belly as my mom shellacked my skin, covering the entirety of my shoulders down to my toes.
I couldn’t move then, for fear that the sticky layer would magnetize fuzz-balls from my blankets or sand dropping from my scalp. To the hum of the rickety fan and with the scent of menthol circulating throughout the room, I’d dose into a deep sleep, comforted by this ritual, the ebb and flow of childhood, the highs and lows of motherhood, amazed by the magic my fainting, line-walking, psychologist mom could do.