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Mother (And Father) Love

In Family on February 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Photo by Mariellen Romer

Last summer I was parked at Dick’s Drive-In, a famous 50′s style hamburger joint in Seattle enjoying an illicit vanilla milkshake. As cars came and went a steady stream of young people dressed to the nines in formal evening wear hovered around parked vehicles in small clusters, refueling after a hunger created, I guessed, from the adrenaline of their graduation ceremonies held earlier in the day.

Was there an evening prom to go to, with a quick hamburger at Dick’s to tide them over until the celebrations started? Judging by their outfits there was; the girls looking luscious, fresh and radiant as brides; the young men strutting about feigning coolness in their unfamiliar evening suits. As I wished for my absent camera to capture them all, a memory long-buried suddenly sprang vividly with into my mind.

I was of my 6th grade graduation, which marked my transition from elementary school to junior high. Getting ready for it, I thought I was truly all grown up. For this momentous occasion I’d found a dress in a second-hand shop – probably all either myself or my parents could afford at the time – a full-skirted confection of dusky pink chiffon, complete with 1960’s style shoulder veils on each shoulder. I thought it was the epitome of sophistication, which would naturally be transferred to me, the wearer. Truly, I was going to be the bee’s knees.

The day before the graduation ceremony my mother washed the dress, promising to iron it that evening when the humid heat of June in Washington DC would be slightly more bearable in those days long before we had air conditioning at home. The plan set, I went to bed.

I awoke the next morning eager to don my dress and become the grown-up it would make me. My father intercepted me in the kitchen as I honed in on the last seen location of the dress in the sun porch where most of the ironing was done, the rows of high screened windows allowing what breezes there might be to bring a little coolness to the oppressive DC heat. He stood in my path with half his shaving cream removed, a familiar sight at this time of the morning. He spoke quietly in response to my questing glance, so as not to wake the rest of the sleeping household.

“I’m afraid your dress isn’t ready for you to wear today.”

I looked at him aghast, my moment of glory crumbling before my very eyes. “But …why?”

He sighed as he cut across my protest, uncomfortable but not unkind. “It’s all wrinkled. The wrinkles just won’t come out. Your mother was in tears last night, trying to make it right. She was ironing up until two in the morning, trying. She tried everything.”

Speechless, I looked at him, horrified at what I was hearing. “She says you have a blue dress you could wear,” he continued. “Is that right?”

It was. I had a blue sky blue linen shift with a white yoke, modern and in my young, uneducated view, plain and very unimpressive compared to what I had hoped would be my triumphant alternative. But I saw the look in my father’s eye, a look that said there were no arguments to be made. Mute, I nodded unhappily. Yes, I could wear the other, plain blue dress.

My father’s relief at my apparent acceptance was palpable. He was never one for delivering disappointing news like this by choice, tending to let my mother handle these trickier situations. But I knew that the fact that he’d actually got to me before my mother woke up meant that something relatively serious was up.

In spite of this I confess to sneaking off to the sun porch in the early morning sun, the cicadas already rattling noisily in the trees outside as I attempted to produce the miracle that my mother had failed to achieve. I pushed the iron around one of the many layers of wafting chiffon, and then another, realizing with sinking heart the truth of what my father had told me. Wrinkles were truly perma-pressed into the garment where no wrinkles should have been. The whole outfit looked simply miserable.

I gave up, somehow understanding despite my youth the struggle that had gone on in my poor mama’s heart the night before; somehow able to feel the level of angst she had gone through, resonating with her feeling of standing between me graduating proudly and me graduating disappointed in how I looked. I was a rather shy and self-conscious young girl, (not much has changed) and this was her way of supporting me as I moved through another of so many often daunting change of schools. I knew that this would feel like a knife in her heart.

To this day I still do not know what shard of maturity graced me with the insight to still my protests and accept that my mother had honestly tried her very best to make this day right for me. I am embarrassed to tell you that the dress I actually wore was far more appropriate, more elegant and striking on me, a tall, dark-haired girl moving into womanhood. The straight blue shift to the rose-pink dress was like comparing Jackie O couture to something a middle-aged woman with dubious taste would wear to a cocktail party. I had a vague sense of this as I carried the US flag in the graduation ceremony entrance procession; it became much clearer to me a few years later as I looked back on that day with more comprehending eyes.

The sleek, polished young and wonderfully dressed young people at Dick’s brought this memory rushing back, a memory that had completely gone from my consciousness. It made me think deeply.

I thought about how young and fresh today’s graduates are, with so much, both good and bad, to face in their lives as they live them.

I thought about the many, many, times my mother and indeed my father, must have held their heads in their hands or even wept hot tears behind closed doors, stung by the sense of their own failure as they tried to give their children things they thought would make them happy, confident, or relieved, even for a short time, of the burden that all children must struggle with as they live those lives: learning to navigate their way in the world.

So let me say for the record: Mama and Dad, I truly appreciate what you tried to do, then and so many other times in my life, to make things right for me no matter what day it was.

I also thank the universal gods of sartorial rectitude who planted those immutable wrinkles in the pink chiffon dress. They paved the way for the much more flattering alternative I ended up wearing, however oblivious I was to this truth at the time. It’s certainly not every day that a young person is lucky enough to escape looking like Miss Piggy by the ignorance of their own hand, at such a formative point in their schooling.

And finally, I take my hat off to all parents who wrestle with this alligator every day. Not just to parents in fact, but to anyone who reaches out to give to another, and who runs the gauntlet of their feelings of inadequacy and incompetence when they fall short of the standard for success that they set themselves.

We all have a story of someone who has helped us, struggling in the giving of the gift. Is it not a testament to the resilience and teeth-gritted stubbornness of the human heart, when it  continues to give in spite of its fears and scars of shame? That love pushes past the odds, at times past the seemingly impossible, to place its gifts safely within our hands?

I believe it is.


To see more of Mariellen Romer’s words and images, pop by A Full Life and have a look.