This is my favorite picture of my mom.
She’s holding court in a clearing somewhere in the wilderness, her young audience propped up on camping chairs, stumps and laps eating out of the palm of her hand. The pointy hoodie, ripped jeans and white sneakers she wore would seem a dated reference of 1991 on anybody else — the kind of thing that the “normcore” movement attempts to pillory these days, or at least I think — but Mom has never looked more beautiful.
Because it’s storytime, dammit, and who gives a shit what you’re wearing.
There I was, three feet of purple sweatshirt, red sweatpants and Velcro sneakers, absolutely mesmerized by my mother and what she could do with her words.
Every time she told a story, she slayed. It could have been a tale from memory of pigs and wolves and houses of straw, or from the pages of a book where a very lackadaisical puppy had such a hard time getting home on time that he had his dessert privileges revoked.
It was always my favorite thing.
So today, on Mother’s Day, I’m going to tell you a story.
Throughout my childhood, I accompanied Mom to the grocery store. Too young to stay home alone, I was always the co-pilot in the cart, advisor in the aisle. I’d inspect produce, or knock over boxes, or pretend to read nutrition information. Very important duties.
As our brood grew, I was evicted from the cart in deference to my younger, smaller contemporaries. I became the captain of the Grab Coupons From The Auto-Dispensers Like They Are Treasure Vouchers militia, recruiting younger members every two or so years once they, too, were booted from their wheeled, wireframe perch. We were very efficient and probably should have submitted for awards for our originality in “getting into shit”.
For Mom, grocery shopping was mostly just damage control: something was going to happen, just hopefully it wasn’t the kind that would require her to leave immediately and have to make an attempt at a later date. So she often turned to a reward system to encourage us to just give her this once, please.
The system: If you were really well-behaved the whole time Mom worked through her grocery list, when you were waiting to checkout, you could go pick yourself out a candy bar.
As a social contract, it was more than fair; my siblings and I all understood and signed on. But, like any kindness that’s done with consistency — gifts, favors, motherhood — it became less of a reward and more of an expectation. We were entitled to that candy bar simply by walking through those auto-doors finally after the fifth time pretending like we opened them with The Force.
I remember one trip to the grocery store very vividly. It was during the depths of a Wisconsin winter, when big, puffy jackets were the only way you could dress your children to protect them from the snow and subzero wind chills. Big, puffy jackets that had lots of pockets. Pockets that were hard to tell when they were full of Pick-a-Mix candy that you could steal when Mom was being boring in the vegetables section.
I don’t remember how old I was when this particular trip happened, but I was old enough to know that what I was doing every week was common theft and young enough to think that it was still OK for me to do so long as Mom didn’t find out.
I do remember the jacket. It was black and had bright blue, yellow and green accents. The pockets were lined in red and it swished when you swung your arms. It swished when you didn’t swing your arms. It swished when you thought about swinging your arms.
On this trip, the jacket swished loudly enough that it got Mom’s attention when I moved to pick up a caramel creme that had fallen out of my overfilled pocket. The jacket also swished when I pulled everything out of those pockets, Andrew Christopher Carpenter, everything right now.
It might have swished when Mom told me I was not going to be picking out a candy bar at the end of this trip to the grocery store. I don’t remember, because I exploded in tears and shouts and fury.
On this trip, I threw the most spectacular public tantrum I have ever thrown [Ed. note: A fact that my college roommates very well might dispute.]. I shouted, cried, kicked and spat … for forty solid minutes, I couldn’t do enough to express my boundless rage: physical violence, throwing produce, knocking over boxes, squishing bread loaves. It was a tantrum worth making a movie about starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. I was such a little shit.
At any point, Mom could have broken. After any one of the Can’t you shut that kid up looks from the customers who didn’t have kids. After any one of the pity eyes from customers who did. She could have saved face and chosen a less-public time to teach me a lesson.
But on this trip to the grocery store, Mom did none of those things.
To her great short-term detriment, she followed through on her promise. I went home without a candy bar.
Thank you, Mom. You have taught me more than you’ll ever know.
I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.
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