Today we are celebrating. Today we are throwing a party. It’s only fair. It’s payback. And you know what they say… Payback’s a bbbbbbbb….. birthday party!
There were really only two reasons I was ever popular in high school. One, I had a van. And not some piddly minivan. No, I had a full-size conversion van. Four captain’s chairs, a back bench that became a bed, and room for half a dozen sitting on the floor! It usually stored my bicycle, my kayak, my camping gear and many random other things. But on occasion, when folks wanted to go some place and all wanted to go in the same vehicle, my van was their go-to.
I always kinda imagined their discussions going like this, ‘Hey, who wants to go bowling!’ ‘Great idea! Let’s go bowling! How many of us are there? Like a dozen or so? Hmmm… does this mean we need to invite Olen again? Let’s draw straws for who has to call him.’
I wasn’t present, and on confrontation they never admitted to these conversations, and my therapist thinks I’m paranoid to this day, but there’s certainly no proof to the contrary.
At any rate, the ability to pile a dozen or more friends into my van was one of the reasons I had any degree of popularity in high school.
Secondly, and more importantly, I had the cool mom. Not just A cool mom. I had THE cool mom. And no, she never bought us booze or weed, but then again, we never asked her to. But my mom was the life of the party. My mom WAS the party. Whereas most teenagers cringed at the thought of their mother hanging out at their parties, I knew I needed it to keep people there.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, consider the evidence. One year, my mom called all my friends (more simply defined as ‘the people who frequently rode in my van’) and invited them to my birthday party. Not impressed yet? She called them and informed them that I was out of state traveling with my grandfather, but that she was throwing me a birthday party anyway in my absence. No lie. Still not impressed? My friends all came!!! And later told me what a great party my mom threw! Without me!!!
The next year, I called my friends myself to invite them to my birthday party, informing them quite clearly that I would be present in-the-flesh this go round. Their response? Each one asked, ‘Yeah, but your mom will still be there, right?’ before being willing to commit to my party.
My mom was the one who cooked, who planned the games, who decorated, who made sure everybody was having fun, who made sure the party kept its forward momentum, who cleaned up afterward, who did it all. Had we run out of soda, she probably could have found a way to work a miracle with tap water too. But of course, we never ran out of soda.
I had the mom who worked as an obstetrical and gynecological nurse, so she knew all about sex and she knew how to curse like a sailor, although always graphically accurate cursing and never in anger. If it was a vulgarity that technically referred to intercourse, it was used only in reference to intercourse. If it was a colorful word for excrement, it would only be used in reference to actual excrement or the act of defecation. If it was a female dog, my mother much preferred the efficiency of a certain single-syllable B-word as opposed to wasting all that breath saying ‘female dog’. Her curses were really just impersonations of a thesaurus. Ever the educator.
My sisters and I will always remember the time she actually lent herself to wrathful verbal outburst. My cat, Tatter, had once again gotten into the butter and was racing out of the kitchen with my mother hot on his heals. (In my memory, of course she has curlers in her hair and a rolling pin in her hand, but that may be exaggeration.) My mother, desperate to release the steam valve of anger building in her brain, blurted at the top of her lungs, ‘Tatter!!! You bbbbbb……. BAD BUCKET!!!’ Despite the million instances of four-letter words easing out of her mouth with the chill and smoothness of flowing lava and the technical accuracy of a German timekeeper over the years… this… ‘Bad Bucket’… was the greatest epithet she could manage.
Another time, I met my mother in the parking lot at the university when I was finished with school and she was finished in the nursing department. No sooner had I closed the door than my mother turned to me and said, ‘Feel my breasts.’ No sooner had she put the final ’s’ on ‘breasts’ and I had the door open again. ‘No! They’re in the backseat! Tell me if they feel right.’ Turns out, she had silicone breasts in the backseat for nursing students to practice physical exams and feeling breast masses. I kindly reminded her I had not much experience with breasts since abandoning breast milk at age one. ‘Well, then familiarize yourself. Get in the backseat and see if you can feel the lumps.’ This story is still one of my therapist’s favorites. He keeps coming back to it.
As payback, there was a several-year prank I pulled on my mom, and I even got my sisters to go along with me. Fresh off a horrible experience with a girl in college, of which my parents knew nothing, I was in no mood to discuss the ladies over Christmas break with my parents. One evening, while my mother was haranguing me to find a lovely girl, I told her I had decided I was gay and I would be going to bed presently, and then I immediately retired to the bedroom. My sister, unbeknownst to me, had also implied similarly to my mother, thinking my mother understood it to be a joke while my sister was trying to get out the door in a hurry. Confessing this to me, my sister offered to amend for her sins and correct any misperceptions my mother might harbor. I declined my sister’s offer and decided this could work to my advantage.
Not to pass any judgement on either my parents or those who are homosexual, one must understand that homosexuality was not anything my conservative Christian parents would have willingly chosen for their children.
Before Christmas break was finished, my mother and I set out, just the two of us, on a cross-country trip from California to St Louis, alone in the car for days. My mother, completely capable of keeping conversation going for days on end, was unusually silent and deep in thought, taking in the vast and beautiful deserts of Arizona. Suddenly, she asked, ‘You know, Olen… Do you ever wonder if you’re gay?’ To which my most rational reply was, ‘No, Mom. I don’t need to wonder.’ I could see my mom playing over and over in her mind a list of my closest friends, my years in glee club (errr… choir), and those years of Home Ec I took as electives in high school (free food!). Silence and desert continued until Texas.
A year later, my senior year of college, I was falling head over heels for a girl, K, yet completely lost as to what to do about it, since I was graduating in a few months and she still had years of college left. During this awkward phase, while the girl and I were determining what to do about our mutual attraction and impending separation, my mother came to pay me a visit. Picking her up from the airport, the girl accompanied me and got to meet my mother, again. She was re-introduced as ‘my friend, K’. (My mother had already met her a few weeks before when she came to visit my house with a group of friends.)
The next day, on a walk with my mother, Mom couldn’t stop raving about the myriad virtues of K. ‘Oh, she’s just so beautiful, but you can tell K’s really so much more than just a pretty face. Oh, I know she’s just sooo smart too and what a wonderful personality, and…’
I had to interrupt. ‘Mom. You know she and I are just friends, right?’
‘Oh.’ And here the girl had already passed the no-penis test and everything too.
It wasn’t until 2005, six years after the first misdirection, that my mother met the love of my life, a girl named Danae. By then, I think my mom was actually looking forward to being the loving and accepting mother of a gay son. In fact, I think I noted a tiny twinge of disappointment upon learning that Danae was, in fact, born a girl.
In case you’re feeling sorry for my mother, shame on you. For one, don’t be homophobic. For two, oh… Mom had gotten me on PLENTY of pranks. Don’t you worry one bit about that. My revenge was but a drop in her bucket of creative mischief. In case you wonder where any mischievous bone in my body came from, you needn’t look far.
One of my mom’s favorite and most enduring pranks was making me sandwiches with special ingredients. No, the special ingredient was not love. Well, maybe there was love in there too. But Mom enjoyed hiding things in my sandwiches. Things like giant globs of dijon mustard in the middle of a peanut butter and jelly. Or giant globs of jelly in the middle of a veggie burger. Or a pickle in the middle of a peanut butter and banana. Then she advanced. She’d put dollar bills in sandwiches! Her pranks started to get expensive. Or coins! Things not approved by the department of child protective services. Or toothpicks! My friends would always ask, ‘What did your mom put in your sandwich today?’ That’s Mom. Always making me interesting and popular. Leaving my friends wondering if it was intense love, or an effort to dispatch with me and collect on my generous life insurance policy.
My parents left me an empty-nester when they moved from Berrien Springs to Silver Spring, leaving me alone in our unsold house at the age of 17. I think it’s maybe the one thing my mom might still feel guilty about. It was the right decision for them to go where Dad’s dream job was. And it was the right decision for me to stay and finish my senior year where I had spent the last five years and where I’d be the next year for university anyway. But that knowledge didn’t make it easier.
Mom drove out to visit as often as she could, but I no longer had the cool mom. Well, actually I still did. But she was a lot farther away. Interestingly, it still didn’t stop my friends from hanging out with her, not only when she came to visit me, but also when I went to visit her. I often drove all Friday, getting in early Sabbath morning to my parents’, then leaving again Sunday night, getting back to Michigan in time for school Monday morning. So many friends wanted to drive home with me on these lightening trips, eager to spend some quality time with my mom again. I had to turn friends down for lack of room in the car.
Some of these trips would be planned, and some would be the spontaneous surprise type. Invariably, a surprise visit would bring us in to Maryland in the wee hours Sabbath morning. My friends and I would go to where beds were typically available to find strangers already occupying them. In the morning, Mom would explain, ‘Well, so and so was in church and needed a place to stay. I just met them.’ Or ‘My old friend’s previous dentist’s vet treated this guy’s neighbor’s dog for venereal disease, so it’s like we’re practically family! So they’ll be staying here until they find a new place (or new job or new spouse or or or).’ My friends would not be disappointed to discover that my mother was still my mother and we would happily pass the weekends on couches.
In addition to Middle Eastern hospitality, my mother taught me about parenting, that it’s fine to love, it’s ok to screw up, you always need to forgive, and even parents need to ask forgiveness when they screw up. She taught me that children should always be having fun, even when learning responsibility. She taught me the value of travel and expanding your worldview. She taught me the value of service to others. She taught me to try and mess up and try again. She taught me to be a productive member of society, but that career wasn’t all that important. She taught me to be outgoing and work hard to make sure everybody in the room is smiling and enjoying life. She taught me that doing this is part of what makes life fun. She has tolerated all my exploits and outbursts and been more patient with me than I am with my own children. She has taught me that God comes first, but you had better not forget how important family is.
She has been there to support, if not encourage, swimming across Lake Erie, kayaking across Lake Michigan, skydiving, traveling Europe for a year, traveling to Korea for six months and then Africa for six months, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and a thousand other adventures of dubious wisdom.
She has taught me that so long as she is drawing breath, there will be a human who loves me unconditionally, and she has outfitted me with a personality that has allowed me to be surrounded by people whom I love and people who love me.
And she has taught me that even after all whom I love cease to draw breath, there will still be One who loves me unconditionally.
And so, Mom, for all you have done, for all you do, for all you will do… and for all you have loved, for all you love, and for all you will love without conditions or questions… Know that I have always loved you, I do love you, and I always will love you.
And I will always celebrate your birthday on July 20, whether we are together or not. That’s just payback.
Happy Birthday, Mom!!! I love you.