A Life Lesson from My Mother, a Freelance Financial Writer
It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night and I’m having a meltdown. I’m in the seventh grade and sitting cross-legged on the floor of my mom’s home office. There are dozens of small stacks of white paper laid out across the floor with no discernible organizational method. She knows exactly where everything is, but only because it’s a giant game of “memory” she’s been playing for the last 15 days. It is April, the middle of tax season.
“Mom, this is important!” I cry. “You’re always on the computer! You never listen to me!”
My mom is a freelance financial writer and accountant. She’s been working from home since I was in elementary school, having left a well-paying job at the accounting firm Geo S. Olive & Company to be at home when my sister and I return from school. My mom being at home means I don’t have to go to after-school care at the JCC where Reed McNeal throws footballs at my face and knocks my glasses off. To do this, she works twice as hard as a person with a regular job, for half the appreciation. She wasn’t paid the advance on one of her earliest books, The Complete Idiots’ Guide to Doing Your Income Taxes, 1999, until the book had been on store shelves for eight months. This is how publishing companies treat freelance writers sometimes.
She calmly swivels her desk chair around to face me, careful not to roll over any of her papers. My stringy blonde hair is plastered to my face with the glue of wet tears and snot. “What is it?” she asks.
Her attention eases my hysteria a bit. Peering at her through wet eyes, I tell her: “I don’t have any cool clothes.” The thought overwhelms me and I start to cry again.
We don’t have much money. Things have been tight ever since my dad moved out. Most of my friends shop at the Gap or at Abercrombie & Fitch, and their moms drive new model Ford Taurus station wagons that are so smooth and curvy they look like space ships. My mom drives a boxy 1985 Monte Carlo the size of a boat and when the muffler breaks she can’t afford to replace it, so we thunder around suburban Indianapolis with this loud clackclackclackrattlerattlerattlerattle announcing our presence everywhere we go. I duck anytime she drives anywhere near my school, hiding in case someone recognizes me. Sometimes, she needs me to help her tug on the wheel when it’s time to pull into a parking space (the car has no power steering).
It’s only really been in the last year that anxiety over any of this has overtaken me. In elementary school everyone wore overalls from Old Navy and simple little shorts and T-shirts, but once middle school started everything changed all of a sudden. Girls started wearing makeup. I could see them putting it on in the bathroom—dabbing concealer over red spots and combing their eyelashes with mascara (how did they not poke their eyeballs?). The popular girls wear clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch every day, and even carry their gym clothes to school in old bags from the store, as if they’d never even so much as set foot in any other kind of store, never heard of any place else to purchase things. “Hardware store? Grocery store? What are these places you describe? I get all my sustenance from inhaling cologne swatches.”
Casey Alexander, the boy I loved who flirted with me occasionally on AOL Instant Messenger—by that I mean occasionally threw me table scraps of conversation when there was a lull in his conversations with popular girls he dated—wore shirts and sweaters with ABERCROMBIE stitched across them every single day. Maybe if I did, too, I reasoned, he would like me that way.
My mom makes a gentle clucking sound to show sympathy. She knows there’s more to it than just clothes. It’s all of it. It’s my stringy hair and my glasses and the fact that I don’t know how makeup works so some days I wear bright blue eyeshadow over my whole lid and the kids on the school bus call me “Mimi,” a reference to the Drew Carey Show, which I have never seen, so I don’t get the reference. It’s that Casey doesn’t like me, and neither does Ryan or David or Drew; they all like Caitlin though. It’s because I am so fucking 13 it’s not even funny.
I need to find a place to throw all this angst so I drop it like a turd into my mother’s lap.
“You don’t spend any money on me!!!” I wail.
She takes in this accusation solemnly. My mother has always been a tough woman to read. She doesn’t really get angry; I have never heard her yell. The loudest she gets is when she brings her thumb and index finger to her mouth and whistles, a skill she relishes but whips out only very occasionally—maybe to get someone’s attention across a parking lot, or to celebrate when someone on my softball team hits a home run.
She looks at me for a moment, and after a silent beat she pats her lap and says in a gentle voice, “Come sit.”
All right, I think. Here we go. The moment I am always after has finally arrived: The TV scene where my mom wraps her arms around me and tells me that she’s sorry things are this way, that she loves me and will henceforth bend her every waking action to suit my bucking, hormone-injected bull whims. “I know I’ve been distant lately, honey, and I want to give you all the things you deserve. Thank you for the courage to express your feelings,” she will say. I will then sob into the collar of her denim button-up shirt like I did the night our cat died when I was in the third grade because, yes, this is horrible, yes, this is just as sad, just as tragic.
“I want to show you something,” she says, clicking over to an Excel spreadsheet on her computer.
The document is an outline of everything she has spent money on so far this month, down to the fucking cent.
There’s my dentist appointment, $65. Dues for my softball team, $100. A pair of cleats for softball from Kohl’s, $39. At Target there was $7 spent on hair bands, a tube of Chapstick and deodorant. Notebooks and pencils for school, $2.50, and, yes—clothes. There it was, neatly typed, $30 on a new pair of flare-leg jeans bought early on in the month when holes had worn through the seat of my favorite pair. In a flash it all came back. I remembered when she’d gotten me the jeans, how grateful I’d been, how cool I’d felt wearing them to school the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. But three weeks had passed since then and now they were just my jeans, just something I owned, like all my other possessions. And there I was crying on the floor, a paragon of teenage drama, unfounded in any semblance of the actual, adult, black-and-white accounting department reality of it all. The numbers pounded my face like cold water out of a hose.
There, too—$6.50, Baskin Robbins. After she bought me the jeans, she’d taken me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream. No reason in particular. We had a lovely time. I cried harder.
Children cannot utter a “sorry” big enough to fill the caverns they have clawed in their parents’ bone marrow. They just can’t. I felt that, but said the word anyway because there was nothing else, in English, or any language in the whole universe, to say.
My mom grew up in the 1960s and, for a while in her 20s, was the owner of a Mustang convertible. I don’t know what happened to it, and she likely doesn’t enjoy dwelling too much on the chain of events that led her from being the proud owner of a forest green Mustang convertible to the captain of an ’85 Monte Carlo with no muffler or power steering, that her daughters’ friends referred to as “the Ghettomobile,” and make rock from side-to-side by throwing their body weights back and forth at stoplights throughout the north side of Indianapolis.
The first Mustang convertible came out in 1964. Normally new cars are released in November, where they get introduced at big auto shows, but the Mustang was held until Memorial Day, and was introduced as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 auto race. Since it was a mid-year release, it became known as the 1964 1/2 Mustang. The 1964 1/2 Mustang is the one my mother loves. Perhaps for its Indianapolis connection, perhaps just because she’s a numbers person, and it’s a novelty.
I always thought, ever since I was little, that that’s the way I’ll pay her back: For all that she’s given me, all that she’s sacrificed, I would someday find the means to purchase her a 1964-and-a-half Mustang convertible. I’d just drop it off outside her house, or something crazy like that, and stick a note under one of the wiper blades on the windshield. Here you go, Mom. I love you. Thank you for everything. Perhaps that would be enough—enough to fill all the hole-punch holes I punched in her, so numerous that they coalesce into a mammoth maw right in the center of the white computer page of her life, sending a confetti of individual little circles fluttering down into her lap, at once beautiful and the most annoying thing you could ever possibly imagine.
After I dry my tears, after the shock wears off, after I murmur my deflated “sorry,” my mom stands up, slings her purse over her shoulder, and looks at me. “Where are you going?” I ask. “Old Navy closes in an hour,” she says. “We need to get you something to wear to school tomorrow.”
At the store I pick out a blue wool sweater. Even as we stand in the checkout line I can’t believe she is doing this for me.
They keep my school really cold—obnoxiously cold. It has something to do with deterring kids from falling asleep; they blast the air conditioning even, perplexingly, throughout the winter months. Hats are not allowed, because they “signify gang membership.” It’s a problem for me. I’m skinny and can never seem to get warm enough. I shiver in class, tuck my hands between my thighs and squeeze.
The next day, after my meltdown, I wear the wool sweater. It’s heavy, heavier than any other sweater I have, and it keeps me warm all day.
Photo: Antonio Rubio