Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

A Mother's Devotion

I was one of those kids who subsisted on oxygen and oxygen alone. Already skinny and picky to begin with, I only got worse when my parents separated and divorced. I was always such a Good Kid that I didn't act out, or at least not directly. But I did winnow down my already paltry list of foods I'd tolerate to two meal options: tuna fish sandwiches and a hamburger with french fries. I don't think I really knew how passive-aggressive I was being, but at the same time I do remember it giving me no small amount of secret pleasure to watch my father scramble around trying to find restaurants that would serve a hamburger and french fries at 8 am on a Sunday morning, which was "his day" with us.

But I...say it with me now...digress.

I was in third grade. Every day, my mother would prepare a tuna fish sandwich for me, and then she'd throw in some chips and one of those little cans of Mott's apple juice. Maybe she'd give me an apple or some carrot sticks. And me, well, more often than not, I'd throw the entire thing away without even looking inside. I just wanted to get outside to play with my friends, after all. And this was around 1972...there weren't a lot of teachers watching over the cafeteria-full of kids. If you didn't eat, nobody noticed.

Of course, I didn't tell me mother this. She'd be upset, and there was no reason to upset her. When she'd ask me about how I enjoyed my lunch, I'd say, "It was fine, thanks," and go outside to play.

One day, she seemed particularly pleased with herself when she asked me about my lunch, but I still gave her my usual answer. "And what about the surprise I put in there for you?" she said, her smile growing wider. "I saw those extra three black olives sitting in the bowl last night, and I was thinking about eating them, but then I thought it would be such a nice surprise for you, because I know you love them as much as I do, and that you'd probably get so excited when you saw them at the bottom of your lunch bag."

"Oh, yeah, those," I said. "I almost forgot, Mom. They were great. Thank you so much." And I hugged her, my eyes downcast, and got the heck out of there as quickly as I could. Because all I could think about was those three black olives, symbols of the daily sacrifices moms make for their kids, sitting at the bottom of a lunchbag at the bottom of a trashbag on its way to the dump.

I felt sick to my stomach. Not just then, but even now, as I recount that story. I feel so badly about being not only an ungrateful little brat, but a completely obliviously ungrateful little brat. For years, seriously, when I thought about that day, my stomach would tighten and my eyes would fill with tears. I thought about it again on Sunday, as I celebrated Mother's Day 3000 miles away from my mother, but with my children's excited and shiny faces watching me open my gifts.

I didn't tell my mother the "truth" of that incident until I was in my 30s. And, of course, she didn't recall the incident at all; in fact, she was touched that it had made such an impact on me, that I'd suffered so much guilt over something so small. But it wasn't small. It was emblematic. It was just one in a long, long series of sacrifices she made for me...and which I now try to make for my kids, in part to make up for the sins of the past, and in part...well, in part because that's simply what mothers do.

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