The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The fall of 1977 had arrived in northern Indiana, and orange and yellow leaves as big as paper plates covered the russet lawn of Southwood Elementary, where I was in fourth grade. My mother had been referring to herself in the third person for almost two years by then. A hysterectomy without hormone-replacement therapy had left her acting strange and feverish. She was always engaged in some project or another, such as painting rooms of our rental house in wild colors: the pantry cherry red; the living room coal black; the bathroom red, white, and blue (for the Bicentennial) with silver and gold glitter thrown on while the paint was still wet. “Your mother sure is tired,” she’d say, or, “Your mother wishes she could find some time to paint the inside of the closet purple.” Who was this other mother? And why was she so tired and wishful? She looked as though she’d been jolted by electricity, her beautiful brown eyes alive with surging energy but puffy and gray underneath. At times her zest to complete tasks frightened my brothers and sisters and me, and I’d hide from her, even though I liked to help her cut out pictures for collages.
As the night of my school’s fall carnival approached, Mom was frantically sewing big white pillows into triangles to make them look like shark’s teeth for a Jaws-themed haunted house. She’d read the novel several times and had gone alone to see the movie at a drive-in. We kids couldn’t come, she’d said. “It’s a horrible story about being all by yourself in a huge ocean, and something just comes up from out of nowhere and rips you to pieces. It’s not suitable for children.”
I watched her from the corner of my eye as I read a book about Daniel Boone for school. Mom sewed shut a seam on the pillow, cinched it, and ripped the thread off with her teeth. Then she caught me watching her, smiled a dry grin, and told me to get back to my homework. My brothers and sisters had all finished theirs, but I was always behind, sometimes scrambling to complete it on the bus the next morning. I sat up straighter and tried to focus on the book while she reached for a stack of shark photographs ripped from National Geographic. “I’ve got to get the head and teeth just right,” she said, more to herself than to me. “Make it look like the real thing when the kids first walk in the door.” She held one of the magazine pages up to the light: the gigantic head of a shark, mouth as wide as a school-bus hood, streaks of red along its snout, little scraps of flesh wedged between its teeth. “Says here sharks have between ten and fifteen rows of teeth. When a tooth falls out, there’s already another waiting to replace it. The new tooth moves forward like on a conveyor belt. It can be replaced in as little as twenty-four hours.” She spoke in a monotone that didn’t match the hectic pace of her work. When she caught me spying on her again, she walked over, pulled the book from my hands, and kissed me on the head. “Get upstairs, now,” she said. “Your mother’s got to get this work done, and you need to go to bed.”
That night I dreamed of a huge shark’s head with teeth as big as me about to clamp down on my leg. I twisted and turned and tried to scream, but when the teeth finally made contact, they were as soft as pillows. I woke up and heard the sewing machine rattling downstairs, the syncopated throttling as Mom stomped on the foot pedal. Every so often the machine would go silent, and I would hear her mumbling to herself.
In the morning Mom showed us all her work from the night before. She was bleary-eyed, fingers red and nails chipped. Dad was already at work at the ceiling-tile factory, and she was due at Harding’s grocery in just an hour or so. She held up the teeth and explained to us how they would be installed: “We’ll use Velcro to stick them to the sides of the little hallway that leads to the stage — you know, the one the principal enters from during your convocations.” She was almost out of breath. “Anyway, when the kids walk in, they’ll see these big, awful-looking shark teeth, then, when they go farther in, the dry ice will make the stage look like the pit of his stomach, and we’ll have bones and pieces of clothing, and one of you can pretend like you’re still alive and writhing around in the shark’s belly. We’ll make it look like you’ve had a chunk taken out of you somewhere.” She’d been after me to play this role, but I kept telling her I didn’t want it.
My brother Darren looked at his watch. “You better get your uniform on, Mom. You’ll be late.”
She smiled and let one of the tooth pillows fall from her grasp. “Your mother’s not going in today,” she said. “She’s got to get the rest of this figured out before the carnival on Thursday.”
When we returned home on the bus that evening, Mom was sewing a pair of old pantyhose together and pushing dark wads of red velvet into the legs. “These will look like intestines under the black lights,” she said, her face pallid, as if she’d lost half her blood. “There’s chocolate-chip cookies in the kitchen.”
The others scrambled away, but I hung back to watch her make the intestines. It was Wednesday, the day before the carnival, and we were supposed to go with her to the school that night to help decorate the haunted house. She mumbled to herself and shoved the wads of velvet into the pantyhose with her fist. “Your mother’s so tired, Dougie,” she said, and then continued attacking her project.
Mom was fidgety as she drove us to the school. I knew the children of other PTA members would be there, and I worried how she would act. She’d been behaving oddly around people lately and was sometimes unresponsive in conversation. But there were also times when she was gregarious and charismatic, perhaps talking about how she’d sewn beautiful matching shirts for our school pictures. I didn’t know what to expect as we climbed out of the car and helped haul the shark-teeth pillows into the gymnasium. There were boxes of blue cutout waves that Mom had painted with watercolors, and fish netting and canisters of sand she’d shoveled from the river-bottom fields. On the last trip back into the gym I saw Mom laughing and telling another mother about how the Jaws pillows had scared my little sister. Maybe everything would be all right.
For the next few hours Mom went to work transforming the stage into a beach. First she had me pour sand around some inner tubes. Then came the fish netting draped over cardboard partitions to create a maze of sorts, leading to the center. There, lying in a jumbled pile, were the guts made out of old stockings. They were too big to be real but were still scary, if only because someone’s mind had thought them up. The janitor asked what they were. Mom was sweating and running around the stage, adjusting items that weren’t even part of the haunted house: a wrestling mat, a podium, a rolling chalkboard. “They’re a kid’s guts,” she said, tossing a box of jump-ropes off the stage. The box slammed onto the gym floor. “You know,” she said, standing still, “after he gets ripped open by the shark and he’s dying all by himself.” A mother who’d been helping stick waves to the walls pulled her two children to her side and quietly exited.
It was almost midnight by the time we finished. I had fallen asleep on the wrestling mat, along with my little sister. Mom woke us up, smiling, and I smelled peppermint gum as she kissed our heads. Then she took us by the hands and led us out into the hallway, where the kids would wait in line for the haunted house. We even pretended to hand over tickets, which she mimed tucking into her pocket. “Thank you,” she said. “Are you ready?” We were sleepy and standing in a dimly lit school hallway after-hours. I was ready to go home. But Mom put her hand on the knob of the stage door. “Voila!” she said, and she yanked the door open.
At first it was too dark to see much; then she flipped a switch, and the black light cast an eerie glow over the pillows, which did indeed look like giant shark’s teeth. The red paint that was supposed to be blood appeared black, though, like dark seaweed. She pushed us into the “mouth,” and my little sister clutched my hand and began to whimper. Mom told us the spongy material under our feet was supposed to be the tongue, but it wasn’t accurate. “Shark tongues are actually very hard, but you have to remember: it’s pretend. It doesn’t have to be exactly right.”
As we climbed the steps into the belly of the shark, Mom listed some additional elements that would be in place tomorrow: the famous Jaws theme music playing from a tape recorder; the sound of ocean waves; and one of us lying next to the guts, writhing and moaning. (She had given up asking me to do it, but maybe my brother Darren would agree.) As we stepped around her homemade intestines, my little sister went into a bawling fit, and I told Mom we wanted to go home.
“Jeez,” she said. “Remind your mother not to take you two to see Jaws. You’d cry like babies when he eats the captain.”
All the next day in school, kids asked me about my mom’s haunted house. The gymnasium was off-limits to students as the PTA set up carnival booths. There would be food, like funnel cakes and cotton candy, and games where you could win prizes. Hula hoops and plastic jewelry were hot items for the girls, and the boys coveted miniature NFL helmets and posters of dirt-bike riders. I was so excited, I’d almost forgotten Mom had been up all night sewing, cutting, pasting, painting, and drilling on something we couldn’t see. She’d still been at it when we’d climbed onto the bus for school. At lunch I saw her carrying a big box down the hallway, but I couldn’t get a good look inside.
Finally school was over, and everyone milled around, waiting for parents to show up. The gymnasium was packed. Vice-Principal Hobbs offered a greeting, and the carnival began. Kids scrambled in all directions to be the first in line at the games. My sister and I walked to a booth where you had to choose a lollipop from a wooden tree. You got a prize based on the color on the bottom of the stick. We both won plastic frogs from a fishbowl.
It was around that time that the screams started to come from the stage area. Several kids emerged crying, their red-faced parents looking around for the vice-principal. Before long the children lined up outside the haunted house were told to disperse; the attraction was closed. Some of the bigger kids protested, saying they wanted to be scared. Mom had emerged from backstage and was talking to the vice-principal. She wore a white blouse with red paint all over it, and she’d ripped her pants as though a shark’s teeth had torn at them. I realized then that she hadn’t gotten Darren to help out. Instead she’d been the one lying near the intestines, pretending to have been disemboweled.
The vice-principal tried to take Mom by the arm and escort her into the hall, but she’d started to cry and move in circles. Every time Mr. Hobbs got hold of her, Mom yanked her arm back and spun away. My little sister sniffled, and some kids came up to tell us how awesome the haunted house was. “I thought I was really being eaten,” a boy said. A girl who didn’t like me told us that our mother was going to jail for “giving kids trauma.” Finally Mom walked over, mascara running down her cheeks like ink, and told us to get our jackets and lunchboxes. We were leaving.
In the car on the way home, we sat with Mom in the front seat, and my little sister fell asleep. “I thought for sure they’d love it,” Mom said. “Who doesn’t like to be scared?” She drove slowly, telling me how the shark attacks the boat in the movie, and in the end only the two most creative people survive. “They killed the shark and made it back to shore,” she said as we turned into our drive. The car rolled to a stop next to the house, and she turned off the headlights. I couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but I reached over to hold her hand.
“Your mother sure hopes you kids never have to face something like that,” she said. “Just think of it: all that water, and it’s so deep.” Then she put her head down on the steering wheel. We sat in the car like that for a long time, as if we were out to sea, floating adrift, with no land in sight.
I didn’t write “Not Suitable for Children,” but I could have.
I identified with the sense of impending doom Doug Crandell felt about how his mother’s latest manic phase would end with the inevitable crash and the possibility of exposure, embarrassment, and shame. His essay concludes with a soft landing, but judging by my own experience, I expect there was worse to follow.
I fretted constantly about how others viewed my mother, although my friends liked how colorful she was, how creative, how interesting, never boring. One childhood friend recalls sitting at our kitchen table while my mom watched a pot of stuffed cabbage cook on the stove for hours, waiting for it to be done so they could taste it.
I watched my mom the way she did that pot on the stove, but my anticipation was laced with fear and dread. I never knew which mother I would get.