The other day my son, Porter, and his class were each writing notes of support to a school secretary who is going through cancer. I never saw his letter, but from what I can gather it started out encouragingly enough, something about we’re proud of you, we know you can do it. But then there’s a postscript where we meet Porter himself.
“P.S. Sorry about the nose hairs, I hear they’re the worst.”
No context, nothing. He was so proud of himself.
When I stopped laughing I said, “You have no idea if she’s even having chemo.”
“Well, she’s bald.”
By the way, losing your nose hairs really is the worst, and strangely enough turned out to be the hairs I was most eager to welcome back after chemo. Nobody had mentioned that constant drip, blood clots, and blocked breathing are actually staved off by the unsightly hairs, the same ones cartoonists exaggerate to signify a grizzled or unsavory character. But none of this is common knowledge, so I’m very much hoping she knows his heart is in the right place.
Recently Porter entertained me with a little vaudevillian ballet, performed with all the stunning grace of a seventeen-year-old boy who’s never had a lesson. “Tendu, Graaaaaand Plier, then Kicks,” lifting his leg not unlike a dog marking his territory. “I’m a male danseur,” he said, with a sly grin. He only knows that term because the day before I had told him there was no such thing as a “ballerino.” Our apologies to actual dancers out there, we admire what you do, but neither of us understands more than the surface, which means we don’t have a clue what it’s really all about. I did meet a real ballerino once, at the McDonalds in São Paulo, Brazil. Some big deal New York Ballet troupe was performing at the opulent opera house next door, a sister theater to the Palais Garnier of Paris. The ballerino and his ballerina friend were next to me at the counter as he attempted to order lunch in Spanish so broken it would have been hard for a Spaniard to interpret, let alone a Brazilian who actually speaks PORTUGUESE. I offered my assistance, but he looked at me like I was something he should kill with a newspaper, then went back to his little train wreck. He didn’t know what it was all about either, so I guess we’re even.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The biggest problem with that famous quote is that four other people may also have originated it, and Shaw himself may not have used those exact words, but this only serves to prove the point: everything gets lost in translation, words, actions, and intentions. I’d like to introduce you to my mother, but that would be like dropping my favorite ballerino into a Brazilian McDonalds, so I’ll tell you stories and let you try to figure her out for yourself.
In the July between my third and fourth grade years, my family lost our home to the Teton Dam disaster, so we packed up, uhm, pretty much nothing because that’s what we had left, and moved to Anaheim, California, home of Disneyland, and the almost as famous Sunkist Elementary where I was enrolled as the resident hayseed from Idaho. Desperate to fit in, I would have given my left arm for a lunchbox. I begged, I pleaded, I whined. I believe it was the whining that did me in. “You’re just fine,” my mother said firmly. Of course I wasn’t, but eventually I gave up, believing a lunchbox to be a ridiculous fantasy. Then, one day, my dad picked my younger sister, Natalie, and me up from school, and made an unexpected stop at a store. This was a bit of luck, and a good bet we could parley dad’s sweet tooth into a little treat. Then, in a shocking turn of events, he took us to the long double row of shining lunchboxes. “Pick one,” he said.
I have no memory of which one I chose or my sister’s either, but I do remember that there was so much to contemplate. What did I like? What did it say about me? Would it be cool enough? An elementary school lunchbox is akin to a personal billboard, and I had to carefully gauge the extent of my dad’s patience with my endeavor to ensure each offering could receive due consideration. I remember that none of them quite spoke to me, but I did pick the best of what they had, because pushing for another store definitely wasn’t going to fly. I cradled my shiny new lunchbox in my arms, and when we arrived home my mom’s mouth set in a flat line as she gave dad the eye. My work there was done, but as I streaked off with my prize, I heard my dad say, “At school I saw all the other kids with their lunchboxes.”
Recently I started tutoring low readers at a local elementary school, and was rather dismayed to open the faculty fridge and find salads boxed in modish gray containers, and, of course, lovely, crisp grownup lunch totes all stacked together with Tetris-like precision. I looked at a particularly pretty striped tote, then back at my crumpled brown bag and disreputable banana. It’s a little tragic when you realize that certain chunks of you haven’t actually progressed beyond the fourth grade.
As I said, I’d like to introduce my mother. She danced the jitterbug, and spoke rapid fire pig Latin, so there was some nonsense if you knew where to look. She also spent months engineering lovely Christmases for her family. She would fix a curtain across her sewing room door, admonishing us never to peek because she was talking to the elves, and naturally nothing good could come of seeing that. My baby sister, Roni, once forgot and crossed the barrier, catching herself just in time to hightail it out. “I didn’t see anything,” she said in a panic, “not even one pointy hat.” “Talking to the elves” was code for staying up night after night sewing fabulous dresses for each of her six daughters, but she never thought to do much for herself. She came from solid pioneer stock, and still had a bit of the covered wagon about her, so waste was not an option. One day she and my dad stood in the kitchen as he spun his yarns about this and that. “Yes,” she said, “but I am on the road to El Toboso where you can buy chickens cheap.” By the way, that was a Don Quixote quote, the movie, not the book, she would have known the difference. I’ve never actually been on the road to El Toboso, but I suspect nobody there sells lunchboxes.
My youngest sister, Roni, was a bit of a shock to my parents who’d figured they were long past cribs and diapers, but it didn’t take us long to realize that Roni was our parents’ reward for not drowning the rest of us, which we often deserved. We all loved her fiercely, but even she didn’t get a shiny new lunchbox. I am the oldest and she is the youngest. Mom was nothing if not consistent.
Roni did have a lunchbox, and by that I mean she had a conveyance for her midday meal, but things had shifted a bit at home. My saga of the lunchbox occurred shortly after we lost our home and all our possessions in the Teton Dam Flood, so my mother was attempting stay on budget as she replaced every single thing our family needed from underwear to the living room furniture. It was at this time she acquired the dresser that now sits in my guest bedroom, and the secondhand piano she refinished herself, which would one day provide the bench where I sat for my chemo head shaving party. It was a time of acquisition, but by the time Roni was born I was a senior in high school, and our house was filled with all the flotsam generated by five older sisters, and a mother who was well into Reuse and Recycle long before it was chic.
“It’s fine,” my mom said.
Roni with her deep red curls and big brown eyes looked at the yellow Teddy Ruxpin lunchbox, a fugitive from the 80s long since cast off by an older sibling. It was second or third grade at Lincoln Elementary, and the stature of the mighty lunchbox had apparently not changed since my breezy days at Sunkist. She begged, she pleaded. I doubt she whined because she was always smarter than I am. Still, mom was unmoved. “It works just fine.”
Well, yes, it kept the contents from falling on the floor, which is much to be desired in a lunchbox, but little Roni was so mortified she carried it flipped over, which was rather hard on the lunch. No one ever teased her, but she lived in fear that someone would, until finally, something had to be done. Safely at home she cornered the lunchbox, picking and pulling, attempting to banish Teddy Ruxpin to the annals of history. It was all going so well, until the disappearance of Teddy revealed the awful truth. In a previous life, Teddy Ruxpin had been Robocop, but the factory had been too embarrassed to take it to school, so they covered it up before letting it leave the house.
Desperate times, desperate measures and all that. Roni figured it was time for her own artwork, which didn’t quite go to plan, and may or may not have led to a little wistful longing for those heady days of Teddy Ruxpin. The damage was done, but the lunchbox still functioned, so she carried it for awhile, furtively, but she carried it. Then, in a shocking turn of events, equal to my own years earlier, Roni lost the lunchbox. Lost it for real, not even on purpose. Oh, the rejoicing, free, so free.
I have no idea how she conveyed her lunch for the rest of the year, but whatever it was it probably brought a spring to her step and a smile to her face, right up to the end of school when some industrious good Samaritan decided to haul the lost and found from classroom to classroom looking for the owners. The Samaritan held up the lunchbox, and little Roni and her huge conscience stood up in front of her entire class—
and claimed it.
Roni inherited her huge conscience and sense of duty from our mother, Mary Messer, who left her fingerprints on six daughters who will honor her all our days. I love hearing stories of people’s lives, but I know they’re snapshots, picked from the pile to support the teller’s intentions. What can we know about anyone from a single moment? Some things certainly, but a spot check is not necessarily accurate. All of us have good moments and bad, triumphs and failures, sometimes in the same day. But if you take a good look at the trail a person leaves behind, the cumulative effect she had on those around her, a richer portrait emerges.
I wish you could have met my mother, but at age fifty-five we lost her to cancer. It snatched her so fast she’d only had one chemo treatment, so she never learned about the nose hairs, and Porter was not yet around to write a letter and tell her about it. I figured I’d write an open letter of my own, including a childhood photo of her. I never thought to ask whether she had a lunchbox; I never thought to ask a lot of things. But I hope she knows I mean well, because for all my pretty words, I recognize I cannot do her justice.