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This story is available on the CD Prairie Christmas
A few years ago I went to visit my mother for the holidays as I try to do every year. When I showed up at my mom’s house she had a great big sledge-hammer and was ripping a hole in the wall. Since my parents had divorced and the kids had all moved away, my mom did not need so many bedrooms, so she was tearing down the wall between my old bedroom and the living room to make the living room twice as large.
I said, “Mom, why don’t you let me do that?”
She said, “Nah, I enjoy it. And besides I need the exercise.”
Though smaller than I am, and I am not a big man, my mother is a powerful woman. Wham! Wham! She hit the wall a few times more.
I said, “Ma, why don’t you hire a carpenter?”
She said, “Why should I pay a carpenter to do what I can do? Besides, I like to imagine the wall is your father and this gives me a chance to work out a little aggression!” Wham! Wham! She hit the wall again taking out huge chunks of dry wall and plaster. “Besides, I’ve already hired a carpenter to add some woodwork and trim when I get done with this.”
The problem I noticed was that my old bedroom had a large walk-in closet and the living room did not need a closet. I asked. Her plan was to make a recessed bookshelf there to seal off the closet and then to rip a hole in the wall of the other bedroom, which never had a closet, so now it will have a closet.
Trying to be a good son I pitched in to help. My mom asked me to clean out the closet. “Since it was your bedroom,” she said, “You might find some of your old stuff in there.”
My mother doesn’t like me to tell this part of the story, but she probably had not cleaned that closet since all of us boys had moved out many years ago. It was filled with dusty memories. As we began to clean, we sorted things into three piles: One to throw away because that stuff wasn’t any good any more. One pile to give away, because this stuff was still useful but my mom did not need it any more. And one pile was for things to keep because my mom was not ready to part with these things, whether they were useful or not.
Eventually, the three piles grew as I dug my way deeper and deeper into the back of this closet. There in a back corner I found something I had not seen in thirty years… and my mind floated back to the third grade and Riverside Elementary:
When I was eight years old and in the third grade at Riverside Elementary, we had the coolest art teacher, Ms. Delacroix. She always came up with the greatest ideas for presents. I am sure you remember dorky little gifts that you made for your mom but no matter how tacky they were, your mother loved them because you made them.
Well, Christmas was coming so Ms. Delacroix asked us all to bring in one of those round oatmeal boxes. I grew up in a family with five boys and we ate a lot of oatmeal. So on the appointed day I brought in two oatmeal boxes in case someone else needed one. Ms. Delacroix gave us a large sheet of paper and finger paint so we could paint a cover to wrap the box with. “But before you start painting,” she said, “you have three questions you must ask:
First, who are you going to give this present to?”
That was easy, I was going to make this for my mom, because, well, like all little boys, I love my mom.
“Second, you need to think about what they will use it for.”
That was harder. What do you put in a round box? I thought about the stuff my mom used and an idea came immediately to mind. My mom used to wear those big pink curlers in her hair. I was always embarrassed when my friends came over and she had these big pink plastic curlers in her hair. I wanted to say, “Mom, hide in the closet or something,” but I didn’t. These curlers were the same shape as the box and would fit perfectly.
“If you know who you are going to give it to and what they will use it for, then you can decide what to paint on the picture.”
I decide to paint a picture of my mom…with curlers in her hair. I loved finger painting. I would put my whole hand in this gooey, gluey, royal blue paint and smear it around on the picture. Maybe I did not understand perspective or maybe I was an artist and didn’t know it, but I painted my mom’s fists bigger than her head. Her arms were pointing out like she was shaking her fists at you. Don’t mess with my mom. My mom is a powerful woman!
Then I got this great idea. You see, my mom would sometimes put this plastic bag on her head with little holes in it and she would pull just a few hairs out of each hole and bleach these few hairs blond to add highlights to her hair. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could get some glittery gold paint and add little highlights to her hair! I loved gold glittery paint!
When I told Ms. Delacroix about my idea and asked for the gold paint she shook her head. “You can not put wet paint on wet paint. It will smear. It won’t look good.”
I gave her my best little puppy-dog face and pleaded, noticing out loud that she had gold highlights in her hair. A puppy dog face usually works.
She gave in, saying, “Come back after school. You have to wait until the blue paint dries. As soon as the bell rings you come back to the art room and I will have the gold paint ready.”
Well, I could not wait until the end of the school day, every day, but especially on this day. As soon as the bell rang, I ran out the door, down the stairs, to the art room.
Strike number one, mistake number one: I did not tell my friends where I was going.
Strike number two, mistake number two: I did not call my mom and tell her I was going to be late. (Now that I am a dad, I know how important this is. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CALL YOUR PARENTS!!! Seriously, every parent’s worst fear, you do not want to imagine, is that their child is not coming home.)
Strike number three, was it a mistake? I was having so much fun at school I was not paying attention to the time. After adding gold highlights to her hair, I put little gold lightning bolts coming out of her fists like Thor the god of thunder! I still love lightning bolts! And my mom is still a powerful woman!
Meanwhile my mom was freaking out. She saw my friends come home but I wasn’t with them. She asked my best friend and neighbor, Chip, and he said, “He ran out the door. I thought he would be home by now.”
My mom waited a little longer. She started looking around the neighborhood and calling my friends. They hadn’t seen me. My mom called the school. My teacher said, “He ran out the door. He was the first one to leave.” She did not know that I was in the basement.
My mom was in a panic. Every mother’s worst fear, you do not want to imagine. My mom called the police. The police went to the school. They found me. I was excited because I got to ride home in a police car and I was scared because I had to go home to my mother.
When I got home…my mother was so mad…she gave me a great… big… hug! And then she scolded me. And then she grounded me. And I never told her exactly why I was late. I just said I was working on something at school.
But on Christmas morning, when my mother opened up my present, tore off the wrapping paper and saw that powerful woman, and I told her this was why I was late, she gave me another great big hug.
But you know, I did not get it, a child never really knows. It wasn't until I was aparent myself. It wasn’t until thirty years later, when I was helping my mom clean out a closet and I found this big round box of pink plastic curlers with a picture of my mom, with lightning bolts coming out of her fists, and gold highlights in her curly hair, it was then. and only then, that I fully realized...
...how much a mother really loves her child.

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