My mother was not well-tuned to other people.
It’s only in my adulthood that I’ve realized it wasn’t being selfish or narcissist that made her that way. Mom could be quite kind and thoughtful. Rather, it was the deep rooted shyness she felt from growing up in a family where she was a tad uneasy, feeling as if she didn’t quite fit in.
Neither Mom’s folks nor her siblings were a bad bunch, and those adult cousins are hilarious. But where my dad’s family’s predominate traits would be described as warmth and humor, with his parents’ home being a hub of family activity, Mom’s would be described as sedate and calm. At the Griffith’s, we kids lived adventurous times with our cousins (and the aunts and uncles). During inclement weather we would be found in either Aunt Sandy’s or Uncle David’s upstairs bedrooms—still named even after they moved out, the last of the seven kids to leave home. When we were lucky enough that our eldest cousin visited from Lancaster, she would turn off the overhead lights, turn on a flashlight instead, and tell us eerie stories.
In good weather, we were kicked outside and rambled from strawberry fields to the chicken coop, playing rowdy games of baseball, horseshoes, and croquet. We held huge holiday picnics, and our Fourth of Julys always meant fireworks. You could sum up those childhood experiences as country living, with a predominant phrase being, “Go outside and get the stink blown off you.”
Visits at the grandparents Houghton were inside. I don’t remember my grandparents ever being in their city-small yard when we kids would sit under the grape arbor and look for something to do. They stayed in the living room and visited, talking over cups of coffee.
So Mom’s family wasn’t bad with Grandpa providing rib-crushing hugs and Grandma having a wicked laugh that Mom inherited. Theirs was simply a different upbringing. With Mom hovering between seventeen years as Houghton and the balance of her life as a Griffith, she was bound to have conflicting sides to her personality.#Family shapes—sometimes warps—us into who we are. Click To Tweet
Maybe we adults remain a large part of what we grew up as because Mom always stayed shy. I think she probably confided in Dad about life, maybe about how she felt her shortcomings were too big to overcome. But we were her kids and didn’t hear those thoughts.
Along with that chuckle Mom shared with her mother, she developed a prankster’s sense of humor and was never above playing jokes on her family. There’s the pumpkin pie incident, the red satin lingerie incident, the … but I digress.
Jackie and I share a certain sensitivity to noise, although I’m more extreme with it than she is. Flapping, buzzing, barking, humming, or repetitive discordant sounds can make me bonkers. My high school yearbook lists as a dislike “static on the radio” and that sums it up. I sleep with a fan running at a constant speed to drown out the far away murmur from the TV or the ten feet down the hall vibration of the cold air return as the furnace clicks on and off—tick, tick, tick. I’m eternally thankful that the sole obnoxious dog owners in the neighborhood are finally moving. They who put their dog in the yard and allow it to bark, non-stop, for forty-five minutes at a time. It’s such a high pitched yelp that it’s not only irritating, it hurts and makes me cringe.
So sounds? Give me soothing melodies and chirping birds, please. The cardinals sound like mini sirens and the blue jay puts me in mind of a squeaky bicycle tire. Their songs make me laugh.
Mom had a specific coffee routine—coffee poured, dollop of milk to lighten the dark brew to a milk chocolate hue, and two teaspoons of sugar. Then around and around and around the spoon would go, clanging off the sides of the mug. Clang, clang, clang. She would stir for at least a full thirty seconds. The clamor seemed to last forever.
It was during a Montana summer visit by our parents when either Jackie or I snapped. Most likely it was impatient me, pushed to the brink of bursting as the three of us sat around Jackie’s dining room table sharing a coffee, perhaps playing Scrabble.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
“Stop it!” I would have yelled—gone over the edge after thirty years of listening to the racket, “The sugar is dissolved, the milk is mixed in. You don’t have to aerate the coffee! Stop stirring.”
Mom, because of who she was, clanged the spoon a couple of times for good measure. Then she looked to her eldest daughter for reassurance that I was nuts, that she wasn’t at fault.
Jackie, ever calmer and kinder, explained, “Mom, that noise makes us batty. There’s no reason to stir on and on like that. It’s crazy.”
Mom jutted out her chin in typical defiance mode and said, “Sounds like you two have a problem.”
That’s was the end of it. Nothing solved or resolved. Sides were stated, stances were taken, and Mom would not have budged an inch.
Or so we thought.
Our parents made a stop in town on their way from Jackie’s home to mine. Mom asked if I’d make some coffee. Sure, I said, girding myself for the stirring ritual and planning a dash to the bathroom until she was done. Clang, clang, clang.
Coffee poured, milk in, sugar added, and from her purse, Mom pulled a baby’s Gerber spoon with the bowl wrapped in blue rubber. She inserted the spoon in the cup and swish, swish, swish, she twirled it around. There was my mother, quietly, serenely subdued, spinning the spoon. With the broadest of smirks upon her face.