Finding The Inner Erma


Written Sometime in January; there was snow.  Edited & Posted Much Later–end of August, windows open, hoping for a cool breeze after a hot day.  School starts tomorrow.

This morning I awoke to freshly fallen snow.   Which for me is usually a treat— promising festivity and frolic.  Except of course when we’re consumed with a construction project, and have to dig it out from under the snow.  Thankfully, the house is buttoned up and we are tucked cosily inside; I lay warm in bed in the early morning darkness and listened as the neighborhood snowplow scraped by.  What a luxury a snow plow can be!

Feeling mellow and at peace with the white world after getting girls off to school and spending an exuberant hour with my own human sized snow shovel (doing normal sidewalk snow removal), I luxuriated in a stop at the D.I. (local thrift store).  A favorite destination, convenient to my workaday errands. I can zip through in ten/fifteen-ish guilt free minutes, scanning shelves and aisles for Coveted Objects, and be on my way almost without skipping a beat.

But wait.  I cannot go on without first elaborating on Coveted objects. Irrelevant to the tale, probably…but gratifying to the writer.

Gnome, Small Monster, Elephant

Coveted Objects

(PS: if you read this, and you love me, and you happen to spot a Coveted Object and don’t want it for yourself, text/call/smoke signal me to come and at least have a look, before it disappears into the mists of time and becomes legend; untouchable, unattainable.)

1)  Sewing desks, pre-1950’s.  I have one, my grandmother’s.  I love it and naturally I want another.   Long legged, dainty, and top heavy, often with a picturesque, broken down sewing machine hidden inside.

There were no vintage sewing desks.

2)  Carnival Glass.  Blue (sometimes gold), sparkly, iridescent.  I hoard it without shame.  I love its history: the poor woman’s Tiffany, circa 1920-30-ish.  I don’t care if I’m buying a 70’s knock-off of a 20’s knock-off, either.  It’s pretty.  It’s nostalgic.  It’s welcome in my home.  

There was nothing sparkly and blue in the glass case reserved for precious things.

3) Vintage books.  Mmm…the colors and fragrance of parched decadence.  Words archaic, yet as wonderfully familiar as a favorite old aunt.  I would cry with joy over an early edition of anything written by E.B. White, James Thurber, Edna St. Vincent Millay.   A few weeks ago D.I.’s precious glass case sheltered a biography of Someone Important From Long Ago… I can’t remember who.  Beautifully bound and wonderfully aged, it was marked $200.  Frank leaned close and took a picture.  We gazed for awhile in awed silence, finally leaving the book to rest in peace under glass, Snow White waiting for her kiss.  

Vintage Books in a Row

There were no vintage books.

There were no vintage books, but there was a 1980-something Erma Bombeck (as a child of the 70’s who came of age a decade later, I refuse to recognize anything from the 80’s as vintage).  It was still in its glossy dust cover, the title printed in a faux cross stitch:  “Motherhood, The Second Oldest Profession”.  I chuckled and ruffled the pages.  Erma is a childhood friend;  I eavesdropped on her light-hearted conversations with my mother in the late 70’s and 80’s, devouring Mom’s copy of  “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank” I found lying on the couch.  While reference to all things maternal seemed hypothetical to me then, today I remembered her domestic caricatures with surprising fondness, feeling almost homesick.  I wondered whether her saucy words would be germane to me, now.

Because now, motherhood is hardly remote.  And it certainly isn’t a joke.  It is immediate, intense, soul-expanding, gravity defying,  heartbreaking.   Especially, it is humbling…often in raw, impoverished ways.  I have riskily invested much of my emotional/psychological currency in its uncertain future.  People say you make yourself vulnerable when you take a One True Lover.  Yes.  Definitely.  Still, after 26 years of marriage (24+ of them spent as amateur parents), Frank’s loyalty, affection, and company beyond the hereafter seems relatively assured, while the loyalty and esteem—not to mention the company— of my five children (after a cumulative 4 years of pregnancy, 5 years of nursing, 15+ years of diapers, 26 years of adolescence, and 6 precarious years of Launching) remains yet to be determined.  Even for this weekend.  It changes almost daily.  A bit of a cliffhanger when one looks down the uncertain road ahead.

I skimmed Erma a bit.  In the introduction, she addresses the question that haunts every insecure  moment I’ve had as a parent:  What kind of mother am I?  (note: I’ve studiously trained myself to consciously dismiss the notion of “kinds” of people as a flat out lie, and yet…when I’m leveled by disaster, disgrace, disappointment, or dysfunction, this question is still, unfortunately, instinctive and unrelenting).

What kind of mother loses immunization records, birth certificates, library books?  Rarely catches up with laundry?  Shows up to parent teacher conferences covered in paint?  Screeches and growls?

Erma writes about women gossiping at a baby shower, scandalized over a mother forgetting her child in a laundromat restroom.  What kind of mother would…?  She muses:

“It was a familiar phrase.  Ten years and three children earlier, I had used it myself with just the right blend of shock and disapproval.

Now, I personally knew seven mothers who had tried the same thing.”

She continues:  

“Mother” has always been a generic term synonymous with love, devotion, and sacrifice….They’re the Walter Cronkites of the human race…infallible, virtuous, without flaws and conceived without original sin…

“Immediately following birth, every new mother drags from her bed and awkwardly pulls herself up on the pedestal provided for her.

Some adjust easily to the saintly image.  They come to love the adulation and bask in the flocks that come to pay homage at their feet on Mother’s Day.

Some can’t stand the heights and jump off, never to be seen again.

But most mothers just try to figure out what they’re supposed to do– and how they can do it in public.”

I was sold.  For two dollars, Erma would be mine; I wasn’t going to let her go, no matter how un-vintage and dowdy her dust cover.   As I ambled to the cash register (a freshly fallen snow day gives one permission to amble), I thumbed through the book again.  An inscription just inside the cover caught my eye…this book must have been a gift!  Maybe from a tried and weathered mother to her daughter, sharing the fun.  I looked closely, paying actual attention to the handwritten words.  It was dated 1983.  Someone had written, “For Christine–Who is about to live where I write.  You’ll love it!  Trust me.  Love– Erma.”

Convinced I now own a veritable treasure, I shared it with my family after/ok during dinner.  I opened my new collectible and read Chapter 3 out loud (“What kind of a mother would…go an entire day without shaving?”, wherein a stay-at-home dad named Frank became the first suburban mother in Rochester with a mustache who wasn’t on estrogen).  I laughed til I couldn’t read…particularly the paragraphs where an epic winter storm has closed school for ten days ”and he was charged with the responsibility of keeping three children from killing one another”, finding himself saying nothing while watching Teddy force a button up his nose, and then, as Caroline colored his marriage license, “all he could mumble was, ‘Stay in the lines.’”

Stay in the lines.  Also, when was the last time I heard of a kiddo named Teddy or Caroline?  Barely one generation past the Kennedys, and we’ve already forgotten them.

The dust jacket is irrelevant now, by the way.  One probably shouldn’t eat corn muffins dripping with hillbilly jelly when one is reading Erma out loud to her family.

Or maybe one should.

Erma appeals to me partly because she dismisses my culture’s unrealistic, painful expectations of motherhood.  Protesting an impossible standard.   And yet, of all the things I do, motherhood is definitely one thing that I long to do really, really well.  I’d like to get it perfectly right, someday.  Somehow.

It’s just that it’s a work in progress.  I’m a work in progress.  It would be so tragic for me (and for my kids) if one of my bad days was chosen as the final result.  The pop quiz that counts for 98.6% of the grade,  absolute proof of the “kind” of mother that I am.  While part of me instinctively worries that I’m a hopeless case when I’m lost in one of those awful snapshots , there’s another  part that protests indignantly.  “Wait!  I’m not done yet!  Do over!  This isn’t all there is to me!”   Deep in my soul, in quiet moments, I hold tightly to the belief that God at least is infinitely more generous.  That He doesn’t condemn me in the moment, but regards me patiently, waiting for a distant, gradual accumulation.  One that takes into account my intentions, sincere desires, broken heart, and best efforts—giving them at least as much weight as the occasional fumble or ugliness.  And that all along, from now to the brim of my lifetime’s sum total, He is willing and eager to add His grace to the mix.

Signed by Erma

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nancy Wilson September 1, 2016, 11:21 am

    Ahh I do remember Erma’s book. do I still have it? Not sure where.
    “So this is what happen’s to little girls who sit on the front row in class because they cannot see to read the chalk board.” (Dad) Amazing that that little girl has grown to be such an articulate, delightful , creative Mother and daughter. So we must copy this and take it to the missionary MPR so that others can enjoy and see what a great Mom and Dad we are!!!!!! We work so hard to be the perfect parent with perfect children , but truly it is a work in progress……..You are an example of hard work and we are proud of you, Frank and your lovely children!

  • Cynthia August 24, 2016, 7:54 pm

    Can’t wait to do DI trips with you…..and on my own. We are soooooo far away from thrift shops here in the country. Love your coveted list. And musings on motherhood. And the pictur. What as the cake for?

    • Lynaea September 20, 2016, 7:37 am

      DI trips with you sound like so much fun. The cake: Nora’s birthday cake last winter. She owned it entirely…we baked it together and she decorated it. Was very proud of it, calling the last rainbow embellishments “unicorn poop”.

  • Shari August 23, 2016, 12:19 pm

    Just the medicine I needed-thanks dear friend.

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