Growing up, we never made a big deal about Mother's Day. Or Father's Day for that matter. Maybe a card and breakfast in bed - but nothing like how most people celebrate. It didn't seem like a real holiday at all. Just an "oh, yeah." However, today, as my dear girls each remembered me individually, I thought about my mom.
Her name was Carol Simona Cushing Jackson and she died only a couple of months past her 49th birthday. She was a genuine "bleeding heart liberal" who stood up for unpopular causes. My mom would have enjoyed being popular but her willingness to be led by her heart, even if sometimes reluctantly, caused her to be something of an oddball to other women back in the early 60's - before hippies. She had tremendous integrity, but in those days at least, she was a little lonely.
It was 1964 when I was about 7 years old. We were living in the house on Sawleaf Street in theStarlite Hills development. Starlite Hills was a brand new neighborhood of tract homes that sat in flats at the base of the hills of Fremont, California - then mostly farmland and orchards. At the time, Fremont offered lots of new homes to new young families headed by "20-something" couples and their kids. The dads worked for companies like General Motors or Lockheed. But it was a time when no women worked and all the neighbors were friends. Except my parents were not big socializers.
I used to go over to the Hansen's down the street or to the Smith's across the street and was conscious of the fact that the moms were always visiting with one another - laughing at the kitchen table with their coffee and cigarettes. But my mom was not among them. The Brahamswho lived directly across the street, kept to themselves quite a bit too - but they were the only openly Christian family on the block and from what I have learned since, the shenanigans that took place on old Sawleaf Street between parents lived somewhere way downhill of anything scriptural. But that's another story. (And a good one!)
Perhaps it was all the shenanigans that kept my folks from getting too close to anyone as well, but at the time, I just felt like we were outcasts somehow. All the other families had better furniture and their moms all wore makeup and went to the "beauty parlor". None of that at our address. I thought I was the only one who recognized the difference between our family and the other families back then but I realize now that my mom did too. She sort of stood on the periphery of the social scene happening there at the time. My mother loved people but she didn't quite fit in on Sawleaf Street. Most of the other moms were nice to her but in the same way you are nice to people you don't really want to get to know: nice enough so that you can sleep nights. Not that they were actually mean to her, but Starlite Hills seemed - in retrospect - an extension of sorority life. My mom was not a sorority girl.
Anyway, I felt great relief when my mom struck up a friendship with Mrs. Keffer, up the street. It isn't a coincidence that my mom gravitated toward Mrs. Keffer. Mrs. Keffer was an artist and my mom loved artists. I think she secretly longed for a bohemian lifestyle and anyone with a bit of creativity in them was magnetic to her.
Mrs. Keffer made - mostly - mosaics. She made mosaic tables and such but what I remember most was that she made pictures of broken glass which she hung on the wall. She'd go out in the back yard and break up old beer, coke, and 7-Up bottles in a bag and then create some still life arrangement of fruit or whatever using all these shards of broken glass - which she ultimately framed and hung throughout the house. Even at 7, I thought she had too many of them. I remember my mom being inspired by Mrs. Keffer's artistic endeavors and tried her own hand at broken glass pictures - without quite the success. But it didn't matter, Mrs. Keffer (or Maryann, as my mom referred to her) was my mom's friend and I was grateful. For my mom to have a friend made life seem more normal to me. That was important to me. I didn't generally feel like my family was that. Normal. It didn't hurt that Maryann and Bob had two kids: Mike who was the same age as me and in my class at school and Julie, a couple of years younger but who owned the most amazing doll house I had ever seen. It had a ton of rooms which all sat on a magnetic table base. All the people had little magnets on their feet and with a wand you maneuvered underneath the base, you could move the people around from room to room without ever touching them. It was so cool! But I digress...
Central to the summer social scene in our neighborhood was the Cabana Club. This was the private pool club within walking distance of all of our houses. The Cabana Club was home to a sparkling swimming pool that warded off summertime boredom. It also offered exercise classes (ala Jack LaLaine) under the open but shaded overhang that ran along side the pool. This class was for moms only and it was led by the resident life guard/"boy-toy for bored moms", Mike. There were many rules to the club. You could not go into the pool for a full half hour after eating. Running could get you benched for 30 minutes. Girls, no matter how short their hair, had to wear those horrible rubber bathing caps that had rubber flowers or fish glued to the top and fit so tightly they made marks on your forehead that stayed for hours. Boys, no matter how long their hair, did not have to wear a bathing cap. Every 30 minutes or so Mike would blow his whistle and signal all the kids to get out of the pool so the adults could go for a swim without having to endure kid play. Even if no adults chose to go in, kids would have to sit it out until adult time was over. But we tolerated all these unfairnesses and indignities because the pool was cool and offered a party-like atmosphere. Most every family had a membership. However, my parents really struggled in those early years and there was a membership fee, so unless there was extra money around the house, we didn't join. It didn't stop us from being able to go as guests of our friends, but we'd have to pay 50 cents or something for the privileged and we were never allowed to go to the pool club parties - of which there were several in the summer.
Something was going well in 1964 though, because we did get a club membership that year and I remember feeling like we had made it. Not only did we get to go swimming whenever we felt like it, my mom could also be a part of all the "mom things" the club had going on. The Keffers were members too and Maryann and mom would take us all down and they would talk and smoke and lounge in the sun while we splashed for hours. I remember looking at my mom regularly to see if she looked happy - and she did. This made me feel that all was right with the world.
So one week during that summer they announced that there would be a contest for all the club moms. I don't recall what the prize was but the idea was that you had to to create a hat around a theme. It wasn't supposed to be a hat that you would actually wear - it was to be creative and fun - comical even. My mom was really excited about this. She said she didn't care but I knew otherwise. She expected that other moms would simply decorate one of their own real hats with stuff from around the house. The problem was, my mom forgot about Maryann.
My mother spent some time thinking about what her creation would be. I can see see her laughing and excited as she came upon her "eureka" idea. She was going to make a hat out of a dish drain and fill it with dishes. The straps to secure it onto her head would be made from dish towels. She was very pleased with her cleverness and had a great deal of fun putting it together. Furthermore, I know she thought she would win. And more to the point, I know she wanted to win.
The day of the contest, even though it was only two blocks away, we all got into the car and I clearly remember her dish drainer hat sitting on the car seat next to her. It had cups and plates and forks and knives and dish soap and dish rags adorning it and when we got to the club, we all got out of the car and watched her as she carefully placed it on her head, holding the side of it for balance. She was immensely proud as she walked into the club with her dish drain hat smiling at everyone there who clearly had not been nearly as creative a she had been. I was so excited for her. She walked past the pool with a sparkle in her eyes and her big toothy smile accepting compliments and laughing at her own "joke". A dish drain for a hat! Hilarious. My mom was experiencing some validation here - and it rubbed off on my own precarious ego.
But in an instant, I saw the sparkle leave my mom's eyes and her smile become less natural as she saw Maryann, running up to meet her. I knew immediately what was wrong. Maryann had made an enormous hat that held securely to her head - without the aid of her hand. Perched on top of her head was a large board painted blue like the water of the pool. It had a little diving board off to the side of it and she had utilized bendable cloth dolls - one bent into a diving position and secured to the diving board, two others cut in half and glued onto the "pool", their bendy arms raised high as if having a wonderful time in the water. There were also plants and flowers and chairs and details around the pool to make it look like the Cabana Club. She carried on about my mother's hat - how fabulous it was - but it was gratuitous. There was no contest and they both knew it. My mother's dish drain hat was diminished to nothing next to Maryann's Cabana Club hat. And my heart fell to my stomach. I watched as my mother pretended to be having fun during the judging parade, and as she clapped enthusiastically when Maryann went up to take her prize, awarded by Mike the boy-toy. So the dish drain hat came off and sat on the concrete next to her until we left soon after. She was not careful putting it back into the car. And she was silent as we drove home. And I remember most of all, later that night my father putting his arms around her while she cried just a little bit for having experienced such a disappointment by having been clearly beaten by her friend. And I hated Mrs. Keffer that night.
This isn't really a sad memory for me. Everyone knows the disappointment of coming in second when you want so badly to be first; this memory is a dear one. But I wish she were here today because I would put my arms around her and tell her that I loved her and that she will always be "first place" to me.