As kids, there were few more serious infractions we could commit in our mother’s eyes than that of “making a spectacle” of ourselves. I can practically hear her bark that in a way that ensured that whatever spectacle was being made got cut short.
Those words are ancient, tiny barbed hooks buried deeply in my psyche.
When I got run over by an elderly man taking his wife to her oncologist appointment in 2006 my response — after watching his left front wheel bump up and over my leg — was to scream hysterically not to let him get away. I was surrounded by people on their cell phones, several of whom came over to make sure I was ok. The old guy did stop. I wasn’t badly hurt but cooler heads prevailed when I said I didn’t need to go to the ER (which was less than two blocks away).
For days after that, I felt a weird queasiness whenever I thought about it. I realized after the first day that I was embarrassed. I had made a spectacle of myself, sitting in the street and screaming.
That’s how deeply I’ve internalized that phrase.
Moving to New York City has given me ample opportunities to make a spectacle of myself. There was the day, not long after I got this apartment, I was trying to pull a wheeler piled high with K-Mart purchases through the gate at the Penn Station subway. I’d swiped my card and was waiting for the guy in the booth to click the gate open for me. He kept yelling “Turn the wheel!” I’m looking all over the place for a wheel and yelling back that there was no wheel. We both got good and loud before he left his booth to come out and turn the turnstile. Like I’m supposed to know a turnstile is also called a wheel. Please.
Again with the queasy, icky feeling of (yes, you got it) having made a spectacle of myself. Later I told a friend about it, a kind and dignified older lady who responded promptly that she was glad I yelled like that at that idiot. Who the hell knows that wheel means turnstile anyway?
I still felt icky.
I’ve been known to return to places of business to apologize after inept, inattentive staff have pushed me to the point of shrieking and throwing merchandise on the floor. When I’ve turned to long-time New Yorkers with my sad confession, to a person they praised me for that kind of behavior. Really?
Apparently people in this city have a very different idea of what constitutes acceptable behavior in public. That was another of Mom’s dire instructions made before we went anywhere: “I expect you to be on your best behavior”. That meant no spectacles were to be made or there would be hell to pay. My mother was the queen of the cross-room dagger-stare. That look would freeze any of us, including Daddy, in our steps.
I loved my Mom but I was also scared to death of the woman.
She was beautiful and very, very unhappy. Like her, I’m not in any way maternal. I never wanted to procreate and I suspect she didn’t either. The difference, of course, is that I had a choice and she didn’t. That’s what happens when you’re born in 1932 vs 1958. She soldiered on through the births and raising of four daughters, softening after divorcing Daddy and moving in with a man who adored her and her daughters. But being a little kid around her was, shall we say, warping.
“You may not love me, but by God, you’ll respect me.”
“I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“Wish in one hand and shit in the other; see which gets full first.” (she got that one from her mother, another particularly scary individual)
I may be north of 60 years of age and Mom has been dead now for four years, but that doesn’t mean she’s not deeply embedded in my daily thinking. I ached for one smile from that woman my whole life. When my cat, Georgie, ate rat poison and died in a box in our bedroom, I cried for an extra day because Mom was being patient and loving. I was ten years old. I’d do the same thing today if she were alive.
So, no Mother is not going away.
And, yes, I will continue to make a spectacle of myself from time to time. And feel crappy about it after. But at least I’m in a city where no one pays much attention to spectacles unless they mean someone’s going to be late for their audition.
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