My living room walls are painted the color of old Coors cans. It’s a sort of muted golden yellow. I didn’t even realize I’d chosen Coors yellow until this week, when I got to feeling sappy about my childhood. The walls have been that color for five years. How could I miss the connection?
Coors Banquet Beer made regular appearances at my parents’ neighborhood barbecues when I was a little kid. And I can still almost taste the sweat I’d swipe off the cold ones, freshly popped by my dad and other mutton-chopped men, after golf tournaments in the crusty mining town we called home. They’d scoop them with their gloved hands out of ice barrels near the patio where their scores were posted. I can still hear the hot locusts buzzing as I sat cross-legged in a shady spot watching them, my hair smelling like chlorine and the sun-blistered skin on my shoulders starting to peel. I liked being there around all the dads. They looked mighty high on their low handicaps and tossing back those Coors.
I don’t remember my mom drinking beer, even though she’s the one out of my two parents who will indulge in a cold one now and again. “I never really was a drinker,” I’ve heard my dad say. I can’t argue with that. Knowing how memories go, there were probably just a few backyard barbecues and not nearly so many sweaty Coors cans as I like to imagine. We fudge our childhood memories a lot, maybe more than we think. And some of us take a longer time than others to realize it wasn’t all about us.
I spent this past Saturday in a primitive little hilltop cabin for a quiet getaway with my mom. We had no electricity or running water. The bathroom was an outhouse about 30 feet from the cabin. Snow was up to our knees in some spots, and we had only a wood-burning stove to warm our food. We took little hikes and naps and read quietly from our books. We ate homemade chicken-noodle soup and salad by candlelight and corked a bottle of wine using a shoe and a steak knife. (By God, we were going to open that #%$&* bottle!) At night we curled up together in a loft bed and talked. In the morning we chatted and giggled before heading out to build a snowman and then stab the snow with so many pretty icicles, it looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
None of this was the elemental thing of it all. No, the whole point, for me, was discovering that my childhood version of my mom wasn’t the “real” her.
My mom stayed home taking care of my sister and me for a long time. She and my dad were close friends with several couples that also had kids, and when we congregated, there was drinking and loudness and so much hilarity, the kids running wild and staying up a little too late and all of us playing games of badminton or cards. We were happy and nuts. I can still see my mom laughing and smiling in all these scenes.
When I was in college, she started to change. In fact, though she’s always been an angel to others, over the years, she’s become almost obsessive about helping the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, animals—just everyone and everything that breaks your heart. Her latest thing is the fight against human trafficking. Sometimes talking with her is depressing. “Mom, I’m sorry. I know you think some of these death stories are sweet,” I remember telling her when she was working with hospice, “but they just terrify me.” There is sadness all over the world, and she can’t just relax. Sometimes I just wish she’d be her old self. I miss the real her.
But as we talked this weekend and I told her how much I hate these Wisconsin winters that I was never cut out to endure, she said this: “Imagine that you’re sitting behind our old house in Arizona, and it’s 100 degrees out, and the LAWN has just been put in—a lawn has been PUT IN—and you’re staring at the wall of dirt over you, where they’ve just cut through the earth so you can have a house, because they just did things like that. And flies are buzzing around your head, and you think, ‘This is where I live now, and I’m going to just live here for a long time, and this is it.’” She explained to me how she made a good life there, how she sought her friends and found ways to make it work, but the things that gave her days meaning were not the things I would have expected. It sure wasn’t the Coors banquet beer cans.
And that’s when it hit me, how blind I’ve been. I know good and well my kids don’t really know the whole me. They have no idea what a detour was taken when we decided to have them—before we moved to a town with polar vortexes that make me feel murderous. Before I quit my editing career to raise them. Before I put on stretch marks and wrinkles. Before I learned how to speak in whole G-rated paragraphs. Before I knew anything about time-outs or changing diapers or making sure homework gets done or shoveling snow or volunteering on school committees or teaching Sunday school—or, really, most of the things they’ll probably remember about me at this age. They have no idea that, like them, I’m not a finished product. There’s more than meets they eye. I’m still becoming something, and I may become many more somethings before I’m done.
So, that pretty much tells you where my “real” mom went. She went to the cabin with me this past weekend. Turns out she’s been with me all along.