My son is more like me than he knows, or wants to know. When he was little, maybe four-ish, Buzz Lightyear was his hero. He loved Buzz so much that every night his dad would have to wash his favorite Buzz t-shirt, and at preschool he insisted that they start calling him Buzz to the extent that he found one of the little name circles they used and wrote in the word “Buzz”. At least, we think that’s what it said. Bless you, Miss Jennifer. During the Buzz years, we were at Disney World (we’re self-confessed Disney Geeks; we go all the damn time even though it’s a thousand miles away), standing in line to meet Buzz…again…and when finally reached his hero, he looked as awkward and uncomfortable as I have ever seen him. His hands, instead of doing the classic Buzz Lightyear, Galactic Hero pose, remained firmly affixed to his chest and he looked terrified. Mind you, he’d communed with Buzz a good half dozen times before and never had this issue, but that day? He was a wreck. It wasn’t until later, when we were looking at the photos from that day, that we figured out the problem: he didn’t want Buzz to know that he was wearing a Stitch shirt. He’s been particular about matching the shirt to the occasion ever since.
To the end of her life my mother claimed that my memory was faulty, but I swear by all that is holy she once got us matching t-shirts. In 1974, Ray Stevens’ “The Streak” was everywhere (Is that you Ethel???), and she thought it would be fun to get us matching shirts. Classy ones, with naked cartoon women and the words We’re Streakin’ emblazoned across the front. I was a weirdly modest child, and those were the most horrific things I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe that she was going to make me wear one. In public no less. I was also an aggressively people-pleasing child and gave in pretty quickly because I didn’t want to upset her. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned the phrase “cognitive dissonance.” Turns out I’m the poster child for it.
It was a summer night in southern Texas. We were at the dikes in Texas City, fishing like we did on so many Friday nights. I was so mortified that I stood around in the dark with my arms folded across my chest. Every time my mother told me to stop crossing my arms and go do something, I swore I was cold. For a minute she was concerned that I might be coming down with something until Ralph, the man she was seeing at the time, found me a jacket and the problem was solved for everybody. The memory of that damn shirt never goes away. As I got older, I couldn’t wear cartoon t-shirts because all I could see when I put them on was We’re Streakin’. Even on vacation I’ll occasionally give in to something I think is interesting or cute or funny, and when we get home it goes straight into the back of my closet because I just can’t go there.
For a very long time, my mother dated Ralph. I remember him as a funny, happy man with a white El Camino. Every Friday evening Ralph would come to the house, my brother and I would climb into the back of the El Camino, and we’d go out to the dikes in Texas City. There was always a cooler of beer and soft drinks, fishing poles, and bait, and a whole community of fisherfolks linking the seawall. We did this every Friday night for years. Did we ever catch anything? I have no idea. But we went, and we had fun, and the night air rushing through the back of the El Camino on the way home always had just a touch of coolness even in the heat of a Texas August.
I eventually learned from my mother, many years later after I’d found the courage to ask, that Ralph had been married and a good Catholic who didn’t believe in divorce. Their relationship was taboo, especially for the time, which is why we spent so many Friday nights out fishing. It mean that Ralph could go home, say he’d been out fishing, and be telling the absolute if perhaps incomplete truth. As for my mother, she was always just a little bit happier after those Friday nights out in Texas City.
As a parent, I remember that stupid shirt every time my son doesn’t want to wear something that he just bought. Granted in his case they’re things he has chosen, but I’m still twitchy enough that I quietly load them into bags and deliver them to the One World Clothing Donation boxes, pretending all the while that it never happened.