1: Upside Down & Inside Out
It was a delicious plum, sweet-tart and juicy. I wanted all of it, every last bite. But you can’t actually eat the whole plum, pit and all, or you’ll choke. Which is exactly what my mother said to 5 year old me just seconds before I tried to do precisely that.
The pit immediately became lodged in my throat, probably because of physics, but mostly because mothers are always right. Before I could even consider what it might mean to no longer be breathing, my mother grabbed me by the ankles, raised me up as high as she could, and shook me up & down, up & down, up & down.
This was a woman with a nursing degree, and this was a technique her nursing teachers had expressly told her never to use on a choking victim.
To hell with it though, when your own child is choking, you are more mother than nurse. I remember being upside down. I remember thinking: I’m upside down! And I remember, mid-shake, swallowing the pit, getting some air, and yelling: MAMA! MAMA!
I wanted to let her know I could breathe, and maybe lightly suggest she could let up with the Herculean jackhammer maneuver.
Once right-side up again, my mother took a long, suspicious look at me and said: GET IN THE CAR. So I did. She was clearly unhappy about my almost dying, and there was no use arguing that maybe we could just stay home and eat more delicious plums.
She sped to the hospital, propelled by both fight and flight, as though I was still actively choking. If your sorry-ass car happened to be anywhere on the road near our car, then you were a GODDAMNED HOT DOG SON OF A BITCH SHIT DRIVER because for my mama, this was still a matter of life and death.
At the hospital, the doctors x-rayed my chest and showed us exactly where the plum pit hung eerily in my lung.
Ok, ok. It was in my stomach. But in my cartoon memory of seeing a plum pit inside of me, it is, and will always be, in my lung. Now and again, I’d remind my mother about the plum in my lung.
She’d say: You DO NOT have a plum pit in your lung, Autumn! Stop saying that or people are going to think I’m a bad mother.
2: Boy On Fire
My mom loved to drink tea & she made the best damn cup of it too. The tea kettle whistled throughout our childhood, a snaking tendril of steam weaving together days and years.
It’s an interesting psychology that allows a shrill and crazy-making feral cat sort of sound to remind you that you were loved, and yet, there it is.
Along with the shrieking kettle came the ever-hot stovetop burners and the ceaseless warnings about their danger. We went to Catholic elementary school and wore uniforms. That seems unrelated other than to foreshadow forthcoming tales of guilt, shame, and pranking nuns. BUT. The uniforms were polyester. In other words, highly flammable.
One night, my brother, still in his uniform and distracted by his conversation with our mom, leaned up against the stove just after she had made her tea.
Instantly, he was on fire. ON FIRE.
I watched in paralyzing horror as my mother tackled my burning brother, bringing him down hard on the floor like a stunned quarterback getting sacked.
She enveloped him with her arms and legs, forcing them both into a roll, down past the dining room table and into the living room. How that even worked I will never know. It was surreal. There was no: Hey, Josh, this is that fire safety thing you learned in school, ok? It’s that STOP, DROP, & ROLL business? Ok? So, do that. Nope.
My brother was ON FIRE and my mother put that fire out with her OWN BODY.
Did she quickly calculate: If a boy on fire hits the ground with a speed of I WILL NOT LET MY SON DIE and then his mother slams down on top with an added velocity of TAKE ME INSTEAD, LORD … can we put this fire out?
My computation was decidedly more self-serving: JOSH IS ON FIRE GOING TO MY ROOM NOW BYE BYE.
When I finally re-emerged, the ambulance was on its way and my mother, herself with badly burned hands, was speaking softly to my brother — soothing his fear, easing his pain.
To this day, only two scars remain from that accident: the E-shaped one my brother has along his back. And the memory that my mother still made me go to school the next day.
3: Ride or Die
We were faculty brats. Our father was a college administrator and we lived on campus in an apartment on the ground floor of a huge dorm. It was fantastic. It was magical.
It was my big brother putting toddler me alone on the elevator and sending me up to the cafeteria to get us hamburgers. It was 3-year-old me knowing exactly how to acquire said burgers. The dorms were our king & queendom, and we were its wily pack of child rulers.
If we made trouble, which we absolutely did, our mother would rescue us. If we hid under the pool table and messed up your game, and you attempted to complain, my mother would threaten to call your obviously terrible parents and explain exactly what sort of pathetic man-baby they had raised who would dare pick on little kids.
She was both loved and feared by the students. And she had our backs. The halls connecting the dorms were walkways of sloping cement ramps. As in, find anything with wheels and spend the afternoon doing yo-yo laps.
Early on, I was given a great chariot with which to survey our domain, a well-engineered driving machine, a Big Wheel. It was a low-riding yellow beast, with a red seat, and shiny red tassels on the handlebars that would fly straight out when I hit top speed.
One fateful afternoon, as I was making my 1000th trip down the ramp, I sped by a group of students. WHAT WAS THAT? They must have mused. Was it Ronald McDonald in a flying saucer traveling at the speed of light?! Was it Haley’s comet arriving years too early?
Just as I skidded to an elegant stop, arching around to see the respect and admiration their faces would surely reveal, they laughed at me. Those Cretans LAUGHED AT ME.
I was broken. I was mortified. I was embarrassed by what I saw in their expressions: that I was only a dumb little kid riding a dumb little toy. For a minute, I was completely defeated.
But then, I thought of my dear old mama. My mom who was always saying things like: Stick up for yourself. Be proud of yourself. Damn it all to hell if I was going to let her down.
Stepping slowly off my Big Wheel with all the swagger of Calamity Jane dismounting her mighty steed, I stood beside my beloved whip, pointed forcefully at the group of heartless students, and yelled: YOU! WERE! LITTLE! ONCE! TOO! Then I climbed back on and pedaled away as fast as I could, turning back only once, briefly, to expertly flip my tormentors the bird.
Later that day they conspired against me, telling my mother about my obscene gesture, disguising it as “we thought you’d want to know, Mrs. Engroff.”
She listened as they spoke. I stood silently beside her, fuming and indignant. When they finished describing what I had done, my mother looked down at me, then up again at them, and said calmly: Well, it certainly sounds like you all deserved it.
Then she reached for my hand and led me away, turning back only once, briefly, to expertly flip them the bird.