Lessons from a Politically Incorrect Mom

One cold December night our family had the privilege of spending time with two children from a foreign land.  My brother had befriended a classmate, David, who had moved with his family from Israel to America.  David and his little sister ate dinner with us one night and afterwards attended our church’s annual Christmas party for kids.  They seemed to enjoy it.

Later that evening we dropped the two beautiful children off at their house, their big brown eyes wide with excitement from the night’s festivities.  Their sweet mother stood in her driveway thanking us profusely in broken English for letting her children hang out with us.  As my mom turned to leave she paused as if a light bulb of awareness suddenly came on, a tiny voice letting her know that some sort of disclaimer needed to be made.

She turned back to the Hebrew mom still standing and waving in the driveway.  “By the way, I really didn’t think about this before…but I hope it’s okay.  We had hot dogs for supper tonight.  Your kids loved them. I buy the inexpensive kind so they probably don’t have much pork in them at all, your family being Jewish and everything.”  So after dropping Hiroshima, she continued by immediately delivering Nagasaki .  “Oh, and we took your kids to church, and they sat on Santa’s lap.  They also sang Christmas carols.”  She basically couldn’t have potentially offended them more if she would have replaced David’s yarmulke with a Santa hat and handed him a basket of Easter eggs to replace his dreidel.

I like to imagine in my mind that the next day as David’s family hightailed it on the first available flight back to Israel that security guards arrested my mom as she chased the plane down on the runway holding a box full of Jimmy Dean sausage and American flags, something to remember us by.

My mom meant no offense, and I truly don’t think any was taken, but when she got back in the car that night she thought for a minute and then let out the tiniest of laughs.  Then, slowly, as the scope of what just happened fully hit her, her laughter picked up until she was in full-blown crying mode.  And I was right behind her.  My mom has always found it easy to laugh at herself, and from times like this I learned two important lessons.  First, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.  Second, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself, laugh often, and laugh so hard that you cry.

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Perfectly Good

My parents created the Iron Curtain of established parameters when it came to how money was spent in our family.  Years of research and careful observation resulted in finally being able to decode the decision process they went through whenever my brothers and I asked for something.   In their financial methodology every potential purchase was contemplated in light of one or more of the following questions, depending on how soon they could arrive at a reason to say no:  Is there something at home that’s a perfectly good substitute?  Is it worth the gas money?  Would you be better off doing something else?

Since the “perfectly good” substitute was the most oft-used excuse, I will expand upon that one.  A perfectly good substitute, according to my parents, was anything in our home that sort of resembled what we wanted them to buy for us somewhere outside of our home.  Easy examples include:

  • Hamburgers: “We have perfectly good sandwich bread and Spam at home.”
  • Malibu Barbie Townhouse: “We have perfectly good, stackable shoe boxes at home.”
  • Rain poncho:  “Don’t you remember?  We still have that perfectly good Hefty bag with a hole cut out in the middle for your head.”
  • Ice cold lemonade to stave off a possible heat stroke after four hours at the zoo:  “We have a veritable storehouse of perfectly good liquids at home, including two week-old milk, vegetable oil, and prune juice.”

At grocery stores, shopping malls, public parks, and anywhere else other kids’ parents were buying them stuff, our parents tried to sell the back-at-home alternatives with looks of incredulity, as if to suggest that any responsible member of society would have remembered every item we owned and its potential for functional malleability.  Their quantum approach to the concept of substitutes took its toll after years of living according to this spooky word-action at a distance.   Upon arrival at school one morning in sixth grade I was told my teacher had fallen ill and our class would have a substitute teacher for that day.  However, until I saw her with my own eyes I had no way of knowing if the substitute was a nice lady with a measure of experience in educating youngsters or an aardvark.  The “perfectly good substitute” didn’t have to be a member of the same species as the original–indeed, it rarely was–but my parents, to their credit, did aim to stay within the same kingdom.  We got as close as phylum on those days they felt especially generous.

Perfectly good substitutes could sometimes be found at stores, but only on those occasions when we wanted brand-name clothes.   My mom had a knack for finding shirts, pants, and shoes that resembled a popular brand at the time, and she was a firm believer in clothing us in nothing but the very second-best.  If our hearts longed for a glaringly obvious knock-off of a famous brand everyone else was wearing, it was never further away than our closets.   Our friends’ parents threw away money on Ralph Lauren Polo Club shirts for their kids.   Why spend $60 when $10 would buy a shirt from the well-respected Raphael Lowman Stable Association collection?   Unfortunately, Raphael’s horse was caught in mid-trot, and since it’s difficult for an embroidery machine to capture the three dimensions involved in an action shot, the horse looked like it was missing a leg.  In real life this horse would have been put down, much in the same way I was whenever I wore one of Raphael’s shirts.

In the early 80s for several birthdays and Christmases I asked for a Members Only jacket.   I was drunk on the allurement of the semi-shiny material and the shoulder straps.  I recently learned those are more properly called passants.  Only the French could come up with something so exotic.  But most importantly this jacket signified that its wearer had finally reached that elite echelon where only Members were allowed to roam, conversing with other Members about the secret things in life that only Members knew about.  I wanted one.  I had to have one.   Then, on an autumn Saturday around 1983 my mother walked through the door, home from a shopping trip, emitting the kind of smile that could only be elicited by an incredible bargain.  “Guess what I found for $15?”  As I watched her produce the jacket from a discount store bag, I genuinely believed all my dreams had finally come true.  I did a combination run/skip kind of thing to my new jacket, admiring the cinched waistband, my first passants, and the unmistakable black tag on the front announcing my induction into Membership.  I should have known by the strained look on my mom’s face that something was amiss.  On closer inspection I realized my mom’s super bargain wasn’t a Members Only jacket after all, but a Lepers Lonely jacket, an apt description of both the way the wearer was treated and felt.

Cheap Childhood

The vice grip my parents have maintained on every nickel they’ve ever seen is so impressive that NASA contacted them when designing the International Space Station for hints on construction, and the following account is just one small example of this.

On hot summer days our family traveled ten miles–one way–to go to a members-only swimming pool.  That is, we traveled from our small town over to the next, even smaller town where the pool was because the membership fee was cheap.  We were not allowed to spend money at the concession stand, and since our parents were legally obligated to feed us, every pool trip was preceded by an hour of preparing and packing our lunches into a shamefully heavy cooler, which we would then load into the back of our fuel-efficient Datsun station wagon, dislocating a thoracic vertebra in the process.   The amount of money we saved by hunting and gathering our own food, not even mentioning the berries we foraged off of public lands, enabled my parents to put that money toward other, more important things. We just never found out what those things were.

That shamefully heavy cooler, bought for two bucks from the clearance aisle at K-Mart, was not so much of an insulator as it was a semiconductor. Now, I’m not a person normally given to wild speculation, but perhaps that’s why it was put on clearance in the first place.  It didn’t keep anything cool!  By the time our ten-mile journey in a car with no air conditioning was complete (“Why do we need air conditioning when we have perfectly good windows that roll down”), the little bit of ice our mom put into the cooler had melted, and the water found its way into the generic plastic sandwich bags that were supposed to zip-lock shut but never did.  It turned out okay in the end, though.  Since we weren’t allowed to spend money for drinks at the vending machine, the soggy sandwiches served as our food and drink, and as we all know, nothing is better than a buy-one-get-one free deal.

When we rolled our truck-sized cooler through the entrance of the pool it was obvious we were that family, the family who had no intention of spending a dime at the concession stand.  The staff always gave us that same look that a morbidly obese family of ten probably gets whenever they show up at the all-you-can-eat buffet.  Their entire business model depends on people eating an amount of food valued at a lower price than what they pay, and one eager family can throw an entire day’s revenue out of whack at one sitting.

They eventually had to close that swimming pool for lack of concession stand profits.