Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The post in which I manage to mention soup, unicorns, and E.T., in that order.

Today is the first day of fall. This morning, I braved the dog’s muddy paw prints on my pants to harvest an armful of zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and carrots from our little patch of garden for what I call my End of Summer Soup.

Which my kids don’t even like. (So I pulled a can of Spaghettios from the cupboard as well.)

It’s also my mom’s birthday today. And wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to say I got the End of Summer Soup recipe from her? And that by the fact of its very description, I make it every year around the date of her birth in tribute to her?

But I didn’t. And I don’t.

She does have a kickass banana bread recipe though. And her birthday does fall on my absolute favorite time of year, just when summer and autumn are jostling for position, trying to settle into their respective places. It comes upon us always in the rush of back-to-school (for her and me) and full loads of sport schedules and warm weather on the cusp of calling it quits.

So I've been thinking about her today (and how we’d had to fit her birthday celebration in early this year amid soccer practices and committee meetings) and out of the blue, I remember her birthday the year I was about eight or nine years old and I had gone to the corner pharmacy and bought her a purple unicorn candle. No, she had never expressed any preference to purple or unicorns. Or candles, for that matter. And it wasn‘t just any old unicorn candle--it was a unicorn bust that stood at least 10 inches tall, mane flowing and nostrils flaring. I laugh about that for a moment, and then I suddenly realize: at the time of that recollection, she couldn’t have been much older than I am now.

I’ve always suspected I have an abysmal memory. Even when searching the past with all my might, I’m lucky to recall further back than tiny snippets of kindergarten, or a summer day at the pool (my younger sister already competently swimming beside me), or a holiday party in what must have been early elementary school, a stiff ring of cardstock wrapped around my head in the shape of an Indian headband. If I reach further back, I remember McDonalds pancakes served on wide Styrofoam plates (we may have eaten there often, or only once), my grandparents’ house decorated for Christmas, the flowered wallpaper in my first real bedroom. I definitely remember watching E.T. and riding a blue bicycle with tassels on the handlebars. Swinging at a playground. A red cotton dress.

But my mother? What’s my earliest memory of her? I sit and think, and every image that surfaces is framed within the limitations of hearsay. Polaroids, faded milky white with time: one depicts a huge elm tree in the yard and a baby posed below it. Her mother must have been behind the lens. Another, a day at the beach, my hand in hers as we brace against the strong tide. They are nothing more than stories passed down: camping in Yosemite, a VW bus packed to the brim, corduroy trousers wet to the knees with creek water. They're anecdotes retold at present day dinner tables, the burden of truth lying not with the subject, but with the teller. In other words? None of them are mine.

I finally settle upon a day too unremarkable to be archived in any form but my memory. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, and I know I’m very young, because as I swing my legs, my feet graze only air. My mother is at the sink. It’s mid-morning. The kitchen counter is tiled, which to me means we’re in the house on Rubicon Court in Laguna. I ask a question, and she says, “Just one minute.” And I ask again, instantly. And then again, starting up a chorus of “Has it been a minute? Has it been a minute? Mom, has it been a minute?” And she says, “No, that’s a second, not a minute.” And the memorable part--to me now--is that I don’t recall even the hint of anger or irritation in her tone. Just fact.

This memory leads right into the next: riding my Schwinn to the duck pond by our house, my eyes trained on the back tire of my mom's bike in front of me. I watch tiny chunks of dried mud fly up like sparks as my training wheels make a metallic screech against the asphalt with every turn. Was this the same day? Was this the outing I was anxiously counting down toward?

It could have been. It likely wasn’t. It could have been any day, every day, or maybe no day at all…a dream of mine, or yet another story folded upon itself enough times to be packaged conveniently for safekeeping and filed away.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the majority of us cannot form a first memory of our mothers because we were never properly introduced. If they’ve been central in our life experiences from the very beginning, the stamp of their presence must be intuitive and subconscious. My first awareness of my mom most likely took the form of a fundamental, even primitive exchange of cause and effect: hunger…satiation. Fatigue…sleep. Cold…comfort.

Which, when you think about it, is quite the gift.

I do wish I could find that unicorn candle though. You couldn’t possibly have thrown it away at some point, could you, Mom?
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