Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Time I Wrote a "Hero" Essay About My Mother

When I was in third or fourth grade, we had an assignment to write essays about our heroes.  We each had to write three short essays, so I needed to come up with multiple heroes.  The people I admired and wanted to emulate back then were mostly actresses and pop stars, and I knew adults tended to frown on such shallow choices, so I immediately chose my dad as my first hero.  Since winning the "Reflections" contest a year or two earlier with my sob story, I felt I knew how the game was played and that it would get me a good grade.  When I came home from school and told my mother about the assignment, she was outraged that I would write about my dad.  I guess she didn't remember the "Reflections" contest or how she had told me tearjerkers win awards and that I should always write about my dad when given the opportunity.  This time, she told me the person I SHOULD be writing about was MY MOTHER.  I said okay. 

The thing about writing about my dad is that it's easy.  He's a war veteran, he's paralyzed from the chest down, and it's easy to come up with a lot of filler fantasy about what we could be doing as a family if he weren't in a wheelchair.  My "Reflections" essay had even gone off onto a weird tangent about how, if Dad could walk, we could all go to Disney World together as a family (I could NOT stop writing about Disney World -- it was all I dreamed about) and how he could carry me if I got tired.  My secret Disney wish was not-so-subtly embedded in the ending (as well as my secret wish to have someone carry me around) and it STILL WON. 

Writing about my mother was harder.  She didn't have a paying career I could cite as the source of my admiration, but I also couldn't very well talk about all the home cooked meals she made or how well she took care of the house and family.  She was a hoarder who spent most of the day in a muumuu, lying on the couch and watching TV or napping.  That's not to say I didn't love spending time with her.  I just didn't think, "We watch a lot of television together," was a strong basis for a hero essay.  And I certainly didn't want to be like her.

To be fair, my mother volunteered a lot too, both with PTA and with a local clinic that offered free vaccinations to babies, but I knew very little about what she did (to this day I have no idea what she did at that clinic), so "she volunteers" only took up so much space in my essay.  As an adult, I think I'd be able to do something with her volunteer work and how much time she spent with her parents on an almost daily basis (it was like she never grew up, but I could spin it like she was helping out), and I'd lie and say she was integral to my dad's ability to live independently.  Back then though, I was afraid of lying, and I only knew how to write effectively (manipulatively?) about my dad because my mother had told me how.  She wouldn't tell me what to write about her.  She said I should KNOW.

My mother had a tendency to go on martyr rants about all the things she did for us for which we were ungrateful.  These rants happened pretty regularly.  I figured the things in her rants must be tasks for which I should consider her a hero -- why else would she talk about them so much?  Surely I couldn't say the wrong thing if I only said things she herself had said first, so I started writing. 

I don't remember everything I wrote in my essay.  I know I meant it to be sincere and loving, and I intended for it to make her pleased with me.  The only thing I remember from it was, "She stays up until 2am sorting Campbell's soup labels."  This line was from the excerpt of her rant about all the things she does that are school-related, and my school collected Campbell's soup labels to redeem for funding or computers or something.  She would bring home garbage bags full of soup labels from school, empty them onto the living room floor, and sort them until the wee hours of the morning.  "I was up until 2am sorting Campbell's soup labels," was often verbatim what she snapped at me while I got ready for school in the morning.  Anyway, the essay had multiple sentences like that, varied as little as possible from her own exact words.  I knew it wouldn't win any awards, but I didn't know how to make my mother into an award-winning hero.  I figured at least it was done. 

My essay about my dad, on the other hand, was largely borrowed from my award-winning "Reflections" essay.  My teacher asked me to read it aloud at a special program that my parents were invited to attend.  Some other kids read their essays too.  Afterwards, my mother was upset and asked why I hadn't read the essay about her.  I told her they didn't ask me to read it, just the one about Dad.  She wanted to see the essay about her, so I showed it to her.  "You made me sound like a crazy person!" she hissed.  Neither of us caught the irony back then.

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