Pokeweed and Prostitutes

Or ‘Mental Health Days with Mother’

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally allow me a ‘mental health day’ from school. It was rare, but a special treat because it allowed me alone time with my mom, without my sister.

Sometimes she took me to work with her, which was interesting. She worked for a while as an activities and craft coordinator at a very low income ‘old folks home’. (Which, in retrospect, I realize is about as weird as me doing that same job — the two of us are about as anti-crafty as you can get). It smelled really bad, but it was always ‘character building’, which my mother to this day claims is one of the most important things you can do to become a well-developed human.

There I learned about the medicinal value of ‘pokeweed’. Every spring mom would organize pokeweed-picking excursions for some of the ladies, who made a horrific brew from it. Evidently, they grew up making a tonic out of after a long hard winter of non-fresh food and the resulting constipation. Pokeweed will clear you right out.

There I first learned what a prostitute was: every other Wednesday morning, like clockwork, Cheyenne would drop by to visit Mr. Jones. Mom stopped Cheyenne on her way out one day and asked her if she was his granddaughter. “No,” she replied. “He’s my John.” Further convo revealed that Mr. Jones was her favorite John because he was dependable, respectful, quick, appreciative, and always tipped.

If I was lucky, however, my ‘mental health day’ did not involve a trip to the Addison. Another thing I didn’t know at the time was that my folks were usually broke, but even still, we would sometimes go shopping (for very simple things). Sometimes we would stay at home and bake, and sometimes we would ‘luncheon’. Very often, that involved going to a cafeteria, where if I was good, I might be treated to a little bowl of jello (as long as I promised not to tell Papa). My favorite place for luncheon, though, was a brass and fern joint called ‘Truffles’, frequented by ladies and businessmen who wanted a non-Fridays type place to get club sandwiches and sweet tea.

(My first job, incidentally, was at Truffles as a busser. The owner, a very short, elaborately made up Greek woman, Tula, admonished me continually to wear ‘much more makeup’. She claimed that was the one thing getting in my way of success and would grab my face with her grotesquely long, red nails and bemoan the state of today’s young women. My eyeball rolling eventually got me fired. It was the first of many eyeball rolling related firings. You’d think that I would have learned by now to control it, but my turret’s-like eyeballs get me in trouble to this day.)

My mother, invariably, ordered Tula’s ‘shrimp salad’, which at the time I thought was the last word in sophistication. It was a half an avocado (at that time still an exotic luxury and not something you would find on just any menu) filled with bait shrimp and mayo. I was so proud of my mom for eating something so delicate, so ladylike, and so fucking fancy. Myself, I was content with grilled cheese and chips, my elegant, cosmopolitan mother all but crooked her finger as she sipped her black coffee, pretty much the most worldly woman in Truffles.

Years later, long after Truffles and multiple firings, after boyfriends named Billy, after living in Europe, after marriage, I found myself in rural Kentucky living in a 200-year-old log cabin with twin baby girls. I nursed them like a good mama should, but when the time came for introducing food we were all ready. Avocado was suggested as a good first food, and so it was that I drove the three of us down to Kroger and bought a few, ripe avocados. Spring was upon us at last after a very long, miserable, icy winter and so I mushed up an avocado, stripped the girls down to their diapers, and took them outside to experiment with solid food. They loved it and they still do to this day. (They also love kale, amazingly, which was one of their other first foods. I was incredibly self-congratulatory every time I successfully introduced them to a new vegetable, a real earth mother, and am still proud that they all eat a wide variety of foods, but am less proud that they also occasionally eat Fun Dip, Ding Dongs and Dorito flavored tacos.)

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