I've been ill lately - the kind of sickness that lasts for weeks and you aren’t really sure what day it is or where you’re at because it’s all this great big vacuum of timelessness, chicken noodle soup, and reruns of The Golden Girls on Nick at Nite. Fever. Chills. Coughs. An endless parade of physical maladies, treating me to one fun bodily breakdown after another.
As minutes bleed into hours I finally stop looking out the window and go inward to face the delirium that is quietly brewing: a perverse cauldron of real life mixed with clips from The Price is Right. My husband’s face superimposes over Bob Barker’s body as he’s setting the table. Hit the buzzer, quick! That Rice-a-Roni can’t be more than 2.99. Go for the vacation package. And they all dissolve into a thinned-out, Drew Carey lookalike.
“Stop it,” I tell the sickness. “If I’m stuck in this prison cell of a mind, give me reality at least. And maybe some hot tea.” My mind reaches and grasps and settles on something, a punishment of sorts for taking it away from its fun: images of my mother.
It's funny. When you are sick your body sweats out impurities but your brain also sweats, leaking out the toxins it's stored up across the decades. I say this because there are many memories of my mother my mind could have dredged up, had it been so inclined: My mother reading me a favorite story. My mother combing out the tangles in my hair. My mother calming me down on the phone when I thought my world was going to end. All of these would have been acceptable, and welcome, but my ill -brain chose instead remembrances I had long buried, gleefully digging them up like the dog whose found his cherished stash of old bones. Memories of my mother, not as kind nurturer, but as bizarro sage-woman, dolling out words, advice, and tidbits that permanently scarred my brain, no matter how deeply I tried to repress them. And because misery loves company I have decided to share these communications with you. And so I present: The Top Five Things You Never Want to Hear Your Mother Say.
5. You’re afraid of snakes because you’re afraid of penises
I was 14 and had just returned from a hike with my first boyfriend. He was telling my mother how he had bravely saved me from a snake that happened upon our trail. My mother - blank-faced as she nibbled on a nutria-grain bar - explained that I suffered from a classic, Freudian fear of penises. This fear manifested itself in the shape of small woodland creatures and probably household objects. “Why else would you be afraid to use a rolling pin?” She asked me. The boy broke up with me and I earned a new nickname at school that week: Lesbian.
4. You were conceived on a pool table in your grandmother’s house
This little piece of DNA trivia is a fairly recent discovery, revealed to me several weeks ago while she was trying to teach me to play billiards. When I complained that I was no good at the game she lamented that I was just like my father. “I tried to teach him too, many years ago, but he didn’t have the knack. So, we found something else to do instead.” She winked, popped the 6 ball into the corner pocket, and let me know that at least one of my father’s sticks were working right that night.
3. I installed a pole in my bedroom so I could practice stripping
My mother had just gotten cable and was bravely moving away from the comfort of Murder She Wrote to see what other programs were out there. “There’s a show called The Girls Next Door about the life of Playboy Playmates,” she informed me one day while I was visiting. “Do you know how those girls keep their cores so tight,” she asked. I wasn’t sure what a core was and I didn’t want to think about it, but it turns out it wasn’t Hef related. “They do strip aerobics.”
“If they can look like that so can I,” my mother said, shimmying around the broomstick she had secured from the ceiling with duct tape. I did not argue that those girls were 25 and my mother was pushing 70. Logic doesn’t work on her. It was a big enough win that I had talked her out of the metallic thong at Victoria’s Secrets. And I had to give her credit. I’m not sure my knees could handle the ‘dips’ she was demonstrating. Still, some things can’t be unseen and I still break out in nervous hives whenever she offers to sweep the floor.
2. I’m not sure what to do about your father's erectile dysfunction
My dad was dying. In fact, we were on our way to visit him in the hospital because he had just suffered a heart attack. Neither of our brains were in the right place that night. Beside me, I heard my mother sniffle. A wave of compassion swept over me and I reached across my seat to pat her leg. “Mom, you okay?” It was dark out and I suffer from night blindness. I was doing my best to comfort my mother and make it safely to our destination. “I’m here for you.” And then she springs it on me.
“I’m not sure what to do about your father’s erectile dysfunction. We hardly make love at all anymore,” she explains. My hand shoots back to the steering wheel; I blink twice, and keep driving. I see her face turn to me in the dark. “Do you have any suggestions?” Her voice is sad. I understand the importance and connection of sex, but I can’t help. Aside from offering to upload Euro-porn onto his computer, I draw a blank. I shake my head no and she sniffles beside me.
1. When I was young they called it a Fur Burger
It was Thanksgiving Day when those fateful words were uttered. My mom was basting the turkey and my sister-in-law and I were mashing potatoes, discussing ‘cute’ words to call her two year old daughter’s private area. Words like hoo-haw were jokingly tossed around and then discarded. “Maybe I should teach her the correct word,” my sister-in-law said when we had exhausted our Dr. Seuss vocabulary of genetalia. My mother entered the dining room, carrying a glorious 22 pound bronzed turkey. “You could call it what they did in my day,” my mother said, gingerly placing the bird onto the table.
“What’s that?” her youngest grandson asked.
“A fur burger.”
With that one declaration, Thanksgiving Day came to a halt. The entire household stopped watching football, playing Xbox, and mashing potatoes as Grandma delivered the 50's version of the F-bomb and proceeded to pour the gravy.
"What?" Someone asked. "Did grandma just say..."
Yes. Yes, she did. And then we all laughed; A fit of hysterics unrivaled to this day. My mother repeated the words - fur burger, fur burger, fur burger - until we were doubled over with laughter and the words had lost all meaning. But it left an unsettling feeling in the pit of my belly. Later, as I picked at the yams I couldn’t get the image of my aged mother, dressed in her Betty Crocker apron, spewing out the words fur burger during a Norman Rockwell moment.
And there you have it: my top 5 things you never want to hear your mother say. Those sayings that scar and tear and pull at your soul and make you realize your mother isn't just a sweet old lady but a woman whose lived and loved and lost and adventured and spent some time in the company of crude boys at one point. Those words that wake you up to the fact your mother is a mortal woman and not just the compilation of 60's advertising you have been led to believe. And I'm not sure what's more shocking, hearing those words uttered from your mother's mouth or realizing that in many ways, she is just like you.