What She Called an Overhaul

She took my father back three times, and then he was called "out."

Bunny with Snowy
  • Bunny with Snowy

The mother of my youth was never afraid. She wore splashy polyester pantsuits with a thin self belt. Every weekday at 6:00 p.m. she careened into our carport in Oakland on Penniman Street in her faded pink 1960 Nash Rambler. Nash made a lot of Ramblers in pink that year, and my mother was fated to buy one at a used car lot. It broke down almost every day, and one Friday it broke down at a gas station on High Street and she simply left it there and walked home in her inexpensive size-six high-heeled sandals. She laughed about it. The pink Rambler was no match for my mother. Every time I see one I think of her and feel stronger than I am.

She had a good job at Heald Business College, and her boss, Bill, was in love with her. He took us all to the movies once to see The Love Bug, a Disney movie. He loomed toward her with armfuls of popcorn and Jujubes and Milk Duds. My mother was not swayed. She kept her job, he kept his love. There would be no Uncle Bill lurching about. My mother didn't play that tune. She supported us all on her secretarial wage, and my father paid nothing. Nothing was too little, we all decided. My father went into a separate place in the family tree, a kind of anteroom for fallen relatives. We visited him every other weekend in San Francisco, but we longed to be home. He never made it up to us. He couldn't.

When my mother had a problem in a business or retail sense, she always immediately asked to speak with a manager. She triumphed over every situation involving store clerks or telephones; she had a smooth professional voice that sounded lovely and collected. A mere five foot two, she wore heels and appeared much taller than she actually was. She had a large, round butt and big breasts. She wore black Maybelline eyeliner -- not too thick, just right -- and lipstick in a subtle bow. And her hair was thick and substantial and black; her hair framed her face just so.

I'd watch her apply makeup in her closet, which she had made into a dressing room, with a rectangular mirror with round soft-white bulbs all around it, studded like stars in a sky. I sat on the floor in her closet and watched her apply makeup. She was as stunning a creature as I had ever known. I didn't look like her; I had my father's wide forehead and fine hair. My hair was always headed every which way. My hair hadn't the discipline my mother's hair had. My mother went to a beauty salon. She would occasionally give herself what she called an Overhaul: In a single afternoon, she went to the beauty salon, shaved her legs, plucked her eyebrows, and painted her toenails. Coral pink. Always.

She took my father back three times, and then he was called "out." She then, after a perfectly right period of time, met a man at work in the mailroom who was eight years younger. Naturally, he fell in love with her, this pale blond man with a wispy beard named Ronald Mathews. He gave her a bag of combs, I remember; some of them were shaped like fish. He came over and hung her swag lamp over the bar in the kitchen and made her Harvey Wallbangers in large, frosty mugs. Ron was handy, and he drove a big, yellow Cutlass Supreme that was like a ship. He didn't make any money, and he wasn't fancy, but my mother saw through all that to the diamond underneath. He put in nice custom bookshelves in her bedroom, and he fixed our sinks and faucets, which the landlord wanted nothing to do with. Our landlord was Mr. Farkas, and he paid my brother to clean up the trash around the apartment complex.

"Real good, Dan," he'd say, handing my brother a ten-dollar bill. Then he'd disappear for a long time; a happy man.

We weren't supposed to have a dog or pets on Penniman Street, but we did have a dog, a fireplug white fluffy dog that showed up on our doorstep with perfect authority one Wednesday. By the time my mother came home, we had named him Snowy, and she let us keep him. She defied rules and we had a dog; her courage was true. How she worked it out, I'll never know. Snowy liked to run around the neighborhood collecting greasy bones that he would pile proudly on our doormat. My mother just stepped around them. She loved that dog, we all did. There was a small campaign at our house: Snowy for Mayor of Oakland. We cast our vote for Snowy every day he was alive. When Snowy got arthritis and limped around looking pained and aggrieved, it was my mother who took him to the vet to have him put down. She cried hard and long, and then she came home and made us all creamed eggs on toast points -- a recipe she claims to have forgotten, but I know better. She is keeping it to herself. She is saving it for a greater emergency.

In 1970 they were married, Ron and my mother. They are still married. The mother of my youth learned things once, and that was enough. She got it right. And when my own husband left my 18-month son and me, my mother came right over and stayed with me until I was functional. She didn't lecture or whine or blame anyone. She looked my husband straight in the eye when he came to visit our son. She was bigger than all that. She wanted to part his hair with an ax, but instead she kept her composure.

"He's Pablo's father," she said, as if that explained it all, which it did.

My mother never badmouthed my own father, just let him be: as Anne Lamott says, "...let him lay where Jesus flang him." She outlived my father by decades. This is the reward, I think, for being such a mother. Longevity and a good second marriage.

Long live the mother of my youth.

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