Once a year, my mom would take us to Six Flags Great America along with our aunt and our cousins. My mother planned the annual outing so thoroughly and meticulously that I couldn’t help but feed off the energy. I used to get so excited the night before, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. With my outfit laid on the floor in the corner of my room, and a printed brochure of all the fastest rides at the park resting on my desk, I’d lie in my bed staring at my ceiling fan until the sun rose the next morning
It’s no secret that Six Flags is a bit of a money pit. The tickets were expensive, and along the way they’d shake you down for parking, lockers, drinks, and god forbid you actually order anything to eat while you were there. But all the expensive spoils and overpriced trickery of the American amusement park status quo was no match for my tirelessly thrifty mother. She saved diet coke cans marked with coupons to hedge the price of our admission. She packed us a picnic lunch feast to enjoy out in the parking lot in the middle of the day. With all the cereal bars, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, carrots, celery, chips, and cookies we could possibly want, it was hard to want more, and we didn’t have any reason to give Six Flags an extra dollar.
Except of course for Dip ‘n Dots. That was the one in-park indulgence of the day, and nobody questioned it. I think you’d have to be crazy to turn your nose up at Dip ‘n Dots, even at the exorbitant Six Flags mark-up.
Taking your children to Six Flags in the late nineties, stranger danger reigned as every parent’s top concern. To quell her own fears, my mom used to write her cell phone number with a thick permanent marker across our stomachs.
“But mom,” we’d ask. “We memorized your phone number. Why do we need it here?”
“You never know,” she’d say. “You could forget, or you could get klopt in de kop.”
She had a point. Although it never came to this, I suppose it was comforting knowing that if I got into trouble, all I had to do was walk up to one of the blue polo wearing Six Flags attended and just show them the fresh phone number sharpie tattoo on my sweaty, pale, hairless midsection.
There were few things my mother took more seriously than packing school lunches. With the rigor and discipline of a Michelin star chef, my mother would lay out our to-go meals each night following her same tried and true system. In a classic brown paper bag she’d pack a main course, a salty side dish, a drink, and a sweet.
Following the same system each day, like a true culinary artist she found room for variety and spontaneity even within the strict boundaries of these food groups. Most days it was a sandwich and a cookie, but sometimes it was a couple of slices of pizza wrapped in tinfoil, a wedge of biscuit tomato pie, or a tupperware bukje of casserole on which the words Jane Recker were written in immaculate cursive to remind you that of how important it was to return the empty tupperware when you were done with it.
As we got older, she agreed to let us order hot lunch from the cafeteria a few times a week. In place of a sandwich, I ordered a burger or tacos, vending machine chips instead of a side, a drink out of the vending machine - but what about the sweet? Even on days we ordered our lunch at school, she still sent us out the door with a brown paper lunch bag with just a napkin and a cookie or a pair of Trader Joe’s peanut butter cups. There always had to be a sweet.
Meals were serious business for my mom. No matter what we were eating, it had to be complete, it had to be together, and it had to be prepared, plated, bagged, and proportionally tupperwared with love.
While working on homework on a school night, Kelly was having trouble remembering the difference between the terms horizontal and vertical. With her crisp notebook paper, sharpened pencil, and oppressively heavy Saxon Math book arranged on the kitchen table, my mom scooted a wooden chair along side her to explain.
“Look Kel,” she said. “It’s easy. Horizontal.” She repeated the word more loudly, more forcefully, making a fierce chopping motion through the air with her hand.
“Hori-ZON-tal!” she yelled. Kell caught on and together, they chanted “HORI-ZON-TAL HORI-ZON-TAL HORI-ZON-TAL.” From my bedroom I heard the syllables bounce around the high ceiling of our living room like a Maori war cry.
“And then the other one is vertical,” she said more gently. “See? You got HORI-ZON-TAL… and vertical. HORI-ZON-TAL… and vertical.” My sisters and I adopted the mnemonic as our official memory aide for learning the difference. All three of us at some point were probably guilty of muttering the chant to ourselves in math class. HORI-ZON-TAL… vertical.
“And what about oblique?” asked Kelly.
“That’s easy,” said my mom at the table. “Oblique… that’s just the weird-ass one.”
“The weird-ass one,” Kelly shrugged. “OK, I can remember that.”
My mom treated us so well on sick days, I almost looked forward to coming down with a stomach bug or catching a cold. She’d lay out fresh sheets and pillows on the couch in front of the TV with a clean puke bowl and a cold wet rag at arm’s reach. All morning, she’d make trips up and down the stairs with ginger ale and ice water. For lunch, if your stomach wasn’t too upset, she’d bring up a plate of cheese and crackers, chicken noodle soup, and toast.
Momma always feels sorry for sick kids was a phrase we heard a lot growing up. She never rushed us to get better or acted like it was a chore. I never felt like I had to prove I was sick enough to warrant her care. She was generous, and with her actions, she taught us that when you’re sick, the most important thing you could do is rest, take care of yourself, and get better.
Growing up, we had plenty of fights. My sister’s and I fought, my parents and I fought, and things would sometimes get heated. But one type of fighting that never took place in our house was passive aggressive fighting. Nothing was hidden out or carried out in secret. Everything was hot blooded, immediate, out in the open, and transparent to a fault. If we had a problem to deal with, we’d hash it out at the table through yelling and tears until we figured it out.
My mom believed that there was something sacred and final about the moment when the person at fault humbles themselves enough to blubber the word “sorry”. She wouldn’t think about holding it over your head or saving it as ammo for another fight. She’d reach across the table for a hug, and in a single embrace she could absolve you of all the guilt. “It’s OK,” she’d say. “We’re done with it now.”
She taught us that there was power in the words “I’m sorry,” and that if you really meant it, real family is quick to forgive, and the things you regretted may as well have been hurled into the ocean or shot into space, never to be mentioned by anyone again - unless you were ready to joke about it. Time, and maybe a little bit of light hearted teasing, can heal all wounds.
Happy birthday, Mom. Thanks for everything you taught me. I love you.