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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mother Apron

Lots of my bloggie pals participate in a phenomenon widely known as "TMI Thursdays" where they regale their readers with blush-inspired OMG, LMT offerings from their unfortunate days of yore. Because the vast majority of my blog entries already offer up what most people who don't live underneath cars would classify as too much information, I feel little reason to engage in the TMI Thursday clique.

That said, in recognition of rapidly approaching Mother's Day, I'll use today's Blog Entry #2 to chat about my mother, and to formally nominate her for whatever the Jewish equivalent of sainthood might be. "Jewhood" doesn't sound quite right-- I keep seeing images of gritty, downtown Yonkers.

And so, as much as I hate the idea of having my mind and my blog controlled by Hallmark, I wouldn't be a very good mama's boy if I didn't compose an eloquent paean to my mother dearest, so here we go:

I get a little overwhelmed when I try to think about something to write about my mother. Writing about my father is easy. His personality, his questionable grasp of the finer points of technology and the English language (paternal text message regarding dog-sitting: "Finley wasGREAT. He ate at 4;30. I know he slept good. He made a very healthy BB .i should have taken a photo and mail it to the art museum. R u on the way? love dad mcnab") make him pretty prime material. I mean, be fair: how can mom mcnab compete with that?

My mother is quiet wisdom. She doesn't speak much (because it's impossible to do so when my father is, and he usually is) but, when she does, it's memorable, important and funny. She's a Jewish mother, but she's not. She doesn't obsess about when we're having babies (she's never mentioned it to me or my wife once), she doesn't ply us with food ("Eat, nu?!") and she doesn't insist that we cook her recipies, although my wife makes me her chicken approximately thrice annually. She's traditional, but she's not. She couldn't care less that the man my sister is dating isn't Jewish, but she is very displeased about the fact that my sister is pregnant and unmarried.

She told me around ten years ago that all she ever wanted to be was a mother. She got her chance probably earlier than she would have liked, at around seventeen. Nobody but her really knows all the details, and I guess nobody but her really needs to. When my father came into the picture, and the other guy went distinctly out of the picture, my father adopted my sister and that, my friends, was that. It's funny-- she was married when she had her first child, but it didn't help. I suppose, if it's to the wrong man, marriage offers very little of the protection, security and comfort it advertises.

My father and my sisters and I have put my mother through a lot. He, without telling her, depleted their entire savings and pumped the money into his failing business in a psychotic effort to keep his feet from getting wet on the deck of the Titanic. That was almost fifteen years ago. Eventually, he broke and admitted to her what he'd done. She was furious, but they worked it out and, all these years later, his work phone still rings and the lights still come on. My sisters are a ripe pair. One has emotional issues stemming basically from day one, and spends her day endlessly obsessing about probiotics, product recalls and emergency broadcast system alerts-- the other one is, well, unmarried and pregnant.

And then there's me. I kept her consistently harried throughout my youth as I showed her mole after rash after mole after rash in a seemingly endless quest to identify a phantom life-threatening illness. I was constantly pestering her with the most bizarre interrogatives, such as,

"Mommy, if someone throws up into someone else's mouth, would the other person have a heart attack?" Age 5.


"When did Zayda have his first thrombosis?" Age 7 or 8

and, the big winner:

"If two gay men kiss each other hard enough, do their mustaches fall off?" Age 6

I bothered her ceaselessly with questions about death, craving her knowledge, her opinions, her best time estimate of her own demise ("so I can prepare myself") and I even went so far as to ask her to speculate about what I might die of. She didn't answer. I think we all know I'm going to stroke out majorly.

I thought her life would come to an end on the day I announced that I was going to enter the police academy. And, you know what? It probably did. I guess it restarted when I dropped out.

I can remember one day in 2006 when I was sitting in the ambulance while my partner was asleep inside the fire station where he volunteered. It was snowing outside and I had the radio on the dashboard in case we got a call. My cellphone rang and it was her, checking in. I hadn't been on the streets for very long, probably a month or two and she wasn't very crazy about this particular line of work either. Uniforms and badges and lights and sirens are not for Jewish boys to play with, you know. I was curious about her feelings, as I always was as a boy. We always want to know what our mothers are thinking, and if they love us.

"Are you proud of me?" I asked. I wasn't fishing for compliments-- there was, in my mind, a very real possibility that she was disappointed in me for not becoming a writer, or an actor, or a teacher. There was a little sigh on the other end of the phone.

"I'm always proud of you," she said.

A couple years later, after I completed my Master of Education program, I got a chance to become a teacher for a month. A private, Catholic girl's school was looking for a substitute for an English teacher who was going out for a month to have surgery for cancer. It didn't look good, and there was a very real prospect that, if I did well, it would lead to a permanent appointment for eighth grade English. On a stellar recommendation from my employer, glowing references and a relatively un-awkward interview, I was hired to start May 1 and finish out the schoolyear.

I used my full bag of tricks from my M.Ed. program, as well as some tricks of my own. I had the girls singing Gilbert & Sullivan songs to boost their lackluster vocabularies. They did freewrites inspired by quotes from authors like William Blake and Mark Twain-- on subjects such as sacrifice, human nature, happiness and heroism. They did creative final projects that emphasized their multiple intelligences-- some drew comics, some did monologues or scenes, some did diary entries, some did formal reports. The girls excelled and flourished, and we had a solid rapport. They were so obsessed with structure and formality, with what color pen they were "supposed" to use, and I can remember one of them getting so worked up for handing me a freewrite with the paper chads still attached from her notebook.

"Relax," I said, "this is school, it isn't the military. I'm concerned with the content of your papers, not with whether or not you used black ink or purple ink. That doesn't change your ideas, does it?"

Of course not. But that was the culture I had entered-- where they were scared stiff to be different, themselves. I had no idea, for example, the unchartered, revolutionary waters I would be stirring by arranging the desks in a circle, as opposed to the rather Draconian straight rows. I can recall one or two of the girls gasping upon entering the classroom for the first time.

I admit that I felt a little out of my element in the affluent Catholic school, being neither affluent or Catholic, but I did fine. I couldn't stand the bitter, catty exchanges about the students that were favorite lunch-time conversation topics amongst the careworn old hagithas on staff-- so I often ate lunch alone in my room during a free period.

On my final day as their teacher, I asked the girls to write me some feedback. "It's my first time teaching," I told them, "and I have a lot to learn from you, too." I told them that their feedback, their critiques of our time together would be most helpful in my future teaching endeavors.

"It can be anonymous," I said, "though I can probably figure you all out by now by your handwriting." They laughed. I went home that day with my briefcase full of their comments, which I said I would read at home. I told them I would be back Thursday for their graduation ceremony.

The next morning, the Head Penguin called me at home.

"We've found something on your... your Google," she said to me. What? I didn't understand what she was saying. But then it became clear. Someone had been Googling me and had found a personal essay I wrote ten years ago, when I was single, dating, and horny. Foul language. You know me well enough by now to know the kind of stuff we're talking about.

"I don't think I need to tell you that you are not welcomed back here. I also understand that you have intentions of attending graduation. Do not return here."

I asked for an opportunity to speak, and she said, "Sure, say whatever you want."

"That piece of writing is a piece of fiction that is a decade old. I'm rather shocked to think that I am being judged and persecuted based on an old piece of creative writing. It has absolutely no bearing on my conduct at the school, which has been professional and of the highest caliber at all times."

"I have no evidence to the contrary," she said, "the girls have said only wonderful things about you. Goodbye."

And she hung up. And I sat in my desk chair for a solid hour, frozen. Horrorstruck. Blindsided. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Ridiculous. Destroyed.

Now you know why I write my blog under a pseudonym. Because this is the world in which we live.

I told my wife the day it happened, and she was furious at the school for crucifying me-- something Catholics know a lot about, I suppose. I told my best friend. I even told some not-so-best friends. The one I couldn't tell was my mother. I was too scared she wouldn't be proud of me anymore.

I kept it inside for almost a year. At every family function, every time I saw her, I wanted to cry and confess what had happened to her-- because I can't lie to my mother. But I couldn't do it. I made up some story about how they decided to hire someone else for the following school year. Whatever. It didn't matter.

Finally, one day a couple months ago I drove to my mother's house when I knew she would be home in the middle of the day. She and I were sitting in the living room talking and she got up to go to the basement to do laundry.

When she comes back, I said to myself, I'm just going to tell her.

And I did.

"You know," she said, "I'm not surprised. That's how those people are."

"Aren't you ashamed of me?" I asked.

"They're the ones who should be ashamed, not you. You just did something naive-- stupid. They did something cruel and malicious. They don't care about protecting those girls. They care about protecting their goddamn money."

She shook her head.

"You're probably the best teacher those girls will ever have at that fucking school."

The 60 or so sheets of feedback from those girls, written in their pens of purple and pink and green and red, chads hanging off some, little hearts floating above the "i's" on some, would seem to concur with her. I know that no matter how zealous I get about spring cleaning and minimalist living, I'll never throw those papers out. Never.

I think it's very telling that what I was afraid of most from this whole sad affair was not losing my position at that school, or not being psychologically prepared to enter a classroom again, or obscuring my online identity so that I could continue to write with honesty and humor, but it was my stomach-rattling fear of disappointing my mother.

I said to my wife one day a while ago in reference to this incident that I didn't think I would be able to truly move on from it until I 1.) told my mother about it and 2.) wrote about it. I couldn't do the latter without achieving the former, and I have my patient, perceptive, supportive, surprising mother to thank, as always.

Happy Mother's Day.


  1. Oh wow, that was just beautifully written. I think you were able to do exactly as you had hoped..and from an outside perspective...while it may be a story some might get angry about (damn catholics...etc), really, it's very touching. I'm glad you talked to her, and even more...I'm thankful you wrote about it.

  2. Excellent entry.

  3. Mother Apron sounds like a true gem of a woman.

  4. Thank you guys very, very much for your positive, supportive comments (and compliment about my mother!) As I am sure you can imagine, this was an extremely difficult post for me to write, and your affirmations mean quite a lot to me.

    Happy Mothers Day to you all.

  5. Fuck those nuns. Wait...

    Okay. First of all, I love your Mom and I don't even know her.

    Second of all, this is about the most unfair thing I have ever heard of in my life.


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