We lived in a neighborhood of classic post-war ranch houses on the southwest side of Houston, Texas. We had a kitchen and dining area in the front, a formal living room where nobody was allowed to go, and a den where we watched a lot of after school Batman and Speed Racer. I still want to be Speed Racer when I grow up, or maybe Maude if that doesn’t work out. I’ve pretty much ruled out becoming Nadia Comanice. We had three small bedrooms, a bathroom with a wall-mounted gas heater that was absolutely terrifying in the middle of the night—so much so that I was known to wet the bed rather than face it—and a fairly large, fenced-in back yard where Pepper the dog lived. We were as middle class as middle class gets, though I didn’t know it at the time. Mostly, I just thought that we were happy.
I also didn’t know that my mother was a badass. Back in the day, she was the classic 1960’s television mom: room mother for my brother’s elementary classes, head of the PTA, queen of the neighborhood coffee klatch, keeper of the casserole recipes. She hated baking but loved puzzles, and applied that love to sewing and crafts. Anything with an absolute solution made her happy. Then I came along. Poor woman.
It’s weird, the things we remember; my brother is 6 years older than I am, so I couldn’t have been more than 5, but I still remember the year she saved all of the tuna cans (we ate a lot of tuna) and turned them into little drums filled with candy, one for each student in his class. That was also the year that she made angels out of empty toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners, decoupaged everything she got her hands on, and kept the house so clean that it squeaked. Okay, so the house was always so clean that it squeaked. She also made all of my clothes. I was completely into dresses, and I loved the ones she made, the ones with the rickrack trim and little embroidered embellishments. She made them, despite having to take on a full time job, through most of my elementary years. Style-wise they got simpler and simpler—less rickrack and fewer embellishments—but she kept at it until one day she’d had enough and dragged me down to the Sears catalog store, where she ordered a couple of their girls’ size 6x polyester pantsuits. But I showed her. I kept wearing those dresses even as the hems frayed and the seams drooped; no pantsuits for me, by golly.
Eventually, as her marriage was falling apart and my father wasn’t coming home at night, my mother decided it was time to learn to drive. It was 1973 in southern Texas. Driving wasn’t necessarily on the list of things that nice women did, but she had reached the point of not giving a damn what nice women were and were not supposed to do.
My mother, badass that she was, didn’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether or not to learn how to drive. Instead one morning, with me in tow, she marched down the street to Carol Dimler’s house and asked Carol, clearly a bit of a badass herself, to teach her how drive.
I had no idea how momentous this was. What I did know was that I loved going down to the Dimlers’ house. They had a huge fish tank that mesmerized me for hours on end. To be honest, it didn’t take much to mesmerize me for hours on end. When you live in your own head, everything becomes a part of your story, and that story is always significantly more interesting that whatever is going on in real life. See also: “clueless dork.” And when it was feeding time and Mrs. Dimler tossed in some fish kibble? Pure magic. Plus, I had a big crush on her son Michael Dale, who was my brother’s age. I would sit there for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of him and spent a very memorable 7th birthday chasing him around the backyard because I really wanted kiss him. For the record, he was way faster and I never did catch him, especially after he jumped the fence into the VanNatters’ back yard.
I spend a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to piece together a timeline for my mother’s life, and I have this strange snippet of memory from kindergarten at the King of Glory Lutheran Church because kindergarten wasn’t really a thing in Texas in the early 1970s so when you could find it, it was run by private or religious organizations. We were not Lutheran, but their kindergarten was within walking distance of our house one day, coloring a picture of the three little pigs (memory is a bitch, isn’t she?) that was, bar none, the best job I have ever done coloring anything ever because staying inside the lines just isn’t one of my strengths. I carried my masterpiece up to the teacher’s desk and promptly puked all over it. I don’t remember feeling unwell beforehand, mind, I only remember that my most perfectly colored thing was utterly ruined. They sent me to the sick room to lay on a cot, and my mother and Carol Dimler showed up to take me home.
I digress. One minute I was sitting cross-legged in front of the Dimlers’ aquarium, communing with the fish, and the next I was in the back seat of their station wagon watching my street creep while my mother had her first driving lesson. After that, she became unstoppable.