It all gets better from here.
I have probably fifteen pictures from the day I met Tom Robbins. Each one of them blurry, each one of them totally awkward and posed. I did it for my dad. I like the idea of Tom Robbins just fine, even own some third hand copies of his better known books. Never read them, but have carried them, as I do so many.. Mom and I waited in line on the bottom floor of Village Books in Fairhaven for a good hour and a half to get two copies of “Tibetan Peach Pie” signed. To say hello. To snap a wobbly photo. He is my father’s hero. My father is someone who desperately needs a hero. While my father is mostly not a father at all, he is a man for whom I feel some responsibility in this life. For the entirety of my existence, my family has shown a penchant for rescuing stray humans. It’s what we do. So when I see that my dad’s hero will be reading while I am visiting this tiny town, I see a rescue mission laid out in front of me. I grab a folding chair, and listen, and clap along with the crowd of fans. I give my seat up at least twice to people who need it more than I do. I stand and bob my head around to catch a glimpse of the torso of the author, adorned in a dark blue t-shirt- Einstein quoted across his chest. My aunt is with us for the first half, maybe, then heads out to catch her flight home. Mom and I stay on. He is a jovial reader, Tom, engaging, introverted, funny. When he is done, his fans go (Bellingham) wild, and in the fray chairs are folded, lines formed, books pawed at. Mom and I look at each other, and decide that, yes, we’ve come this far, we’ll go all the way. Mom rests her weight on her cane, while I go in search of two hardbacks. There were some in reach, but they had been manhandled, and if I was going to buy hero books, they were not going to have torn covers. After much seeking, I find one perfect, one adequate copy, and return to mom. She has advanced maybe two feet in line. I go in search of one of the earlier abandoned folding chairs. I wrangle one out from behind a large woman, assuring her that I am not cutting the queue, merely reaching for furniture. She looks at me, uncertain whether I am trying to get away with something. I bring the chair back, and set mom up- leg out, two heavy books in her lap. She is thirsty- it’s been a long day. As the line inches along, and with easily 80 eager bodies in front of us, I leave her, the chair, the books, our shared bag, and make my way up to the third floor cafe for reinforcements. I return ten minutes later with overpriced coconut water. We take turns swigging from the box. It is a long and uneventful wait. I think of my dad, oblivious, undoubtedly sitting in his tiny condo on beautiful Maui, playing solitaire against the computer while the whales swim by just outside. I think of him in his shorts, in his loneliness, stuck with his own mind. I think how maybe this hero book from the mainland will shake him back to life.
Eventually we make it to the home stretch. With six or eight people left in front of us, I show my mom how to snap a photo with my iphone. Not because I want a photo with Tom Robbins. Because my mom really wants to capture this day. Because my mom, who really is a mom, wants to be momly. As I approach the signing table, I explain to Mr. Robbins that my dad is a crazy huge fan of his. Tom says he is a fan of Lahaina, where my shorts-wielding dad is, right in the same moment, dueling with his mind. Tom says he likes to vacation there, and isn’t it such a nice place to visit. He signs both books, and while we are making small talk, I feel my mom clicking photo after awkward photo from eight feet away. Doing her mom job just right.
After I fly home, a few days later, I send the copy of “Tibetan Peach Pie” autographed to Mark off to Maui, wearing a tattered, insulated manilla envelope, address scribbled with black Sharpie five minutes before the post office window closed.
The other copy made it’s way to me. Mom read it, thought it “interesting.” It sits on my shelf, much fancier than my other Tom Robbins books. Equally unread.
and other stories
I’ve been seeing lots of stories lately about kids with one hand. Kids with two fingers, kids with one limb shorter than the other. Until recently, I never thought much of it. My brother-in-law had no feet, and one short arm. My mom has one arm and leg shorter than the other. Only one digit on her right hand. This has always been my world.
I never thought about my mom being different. When I was growing up, my mom was- my mom. She drove a stick shift green Datsun, made my food, read me stories, picked me up when I fell. Sure, my friends would look at her with their heads cocked sideways, and ask “what happened?” with eyes like owls. “She was born that way,” is all I would say. That was the truth I knew. That was about the extent of my thinking about my mom’s short arm. She never gave it any airtime, and it didn’t occur to me to wonder if it was an impediment. I never once saw evidence to that effect.
The thing about my mom, is, like so many, she is a superhero in plain clothes. Sure, they gave her a “grabber arm,” when she was young, and a leg brace too. Sure, she spent a year at Shriner’s hospital, with her leg in traction, missing her schoolmates and her family. By the time I came along, however, her leg was lengthened, (six inches, with a bone graft taken from her hip,) the leg brace abandoned, and the “grabber arm” long ago tossed out the window of a moving car. She was just mom. Larger than life, like a mom should be. She was left handed, I was left handed, my brother, once he came along, was left handed. We were family. We shared DNA and common colds and hardships and laughter.
Things I had absolutely no idea I was doing differently from my peers:
~Wearing flip flops of two different sizes around the house. Mom always bought two pairs, as her right and left feet are different sizes. My kid mind could not see any reason that I shouldn’t wear the other two new sandals. Who doesn’t want new shoes? She got the bigger left, I got the bigger right. She the smaller right, me the smaller left. Yin yang.
~Clasping my bra in the front, before spinning it around my trunk, and pulling on the straps. It never occurred to me that there was another way. In High School, at one of ten thousand sleep overs, some friend pointed out as we were dressing, that I did it funny. Stunned, I learned that my peers were going straps first, front loading their breasts into the cups, THEN clasping the closures behind their backs. I tell you, I still can’t do this. Or maybe I never tried. I will forever be a clasp in front and spin kind of girl.
~Using one hand to eat- (I still don’t get the “knife in one hand, fork in the other” thing.) This I realized in my late thirties, when I was dating a British woman, and her entire family utilized the two-handed utensil method. Much to their chagrin, I could not be trained.
Over time, as an adult, I gained more awareness of how my mom’s disability effected her life:
When she told me about Shriner’s.
When she stopped being able to wear flip flops.
When her knee replacement surgery took six hours, because the muscles were in atypical places. And she had to start walking with a cane, because the new knee gave her a limp.
When she tried a new shoemaker, and wearing the new shoes threw her back out, and the doctors recommended amputating her leg, because her muscle and bone structures did not lend themselves to surgical correction.
When she started flying across two states with a suitcase of shoes, to the only man on this earth who understands her feet. When he started talking about retiring, and I realized, along with my mother, that that left no one to maintain her shoes.
When her shin bone was rubbing painfully on her boot, as she no longer had any cushion left on that leg. When I found her solution in an Elbow pad from the Japanese dollar-fifty store.
Nothing has ultimately changed. She’s still a superhero. She’s still my one and only fantastic mom. We don’t split flip flops anymore, but we do borrow each others fuzzy socks.
I think in at least a double digit number of ways, I have been raised up in the midst of differences. The result of that being that I rarely actually notice anyone is “different.” People are just people, and we connect or we don’t. It makes things pretty easy, really. I wouldn’t change it if I could.
(Obtain the picture of mom wagging her finger authoritatively as a wee child. Insert here.)
4.25.15 (prompt: angel, 10 minute write)
I took my mom up to the country to see her shoe guy, Frank a few weeks back. She flew in with a suitcase filled with the four of the five pairs of shoes she can wear on this earth, the ones molded to her every muscle and bone. The ones that keep her walking. The fifth pair on her feet.
We drove out of a storm of family drama- the worst ever, really. We left Sebastopol feeling stunned and drained. Angry. Teary.
We drove up I-5, ruminating, bewildered. Shattered. As we drove north, the light changed. The traffic lightened, the buildings and fast food joints gave way to familiar open fields. The light changed, the heat changed. The interstate nudged us off onto a country highway, which took us down down to a country road. Traffic lights were left behind, along with some of the rawness of the night before.
Eventually we came to the turn in the road, the sharp right, then the gravel driveway.
My first time there, my mom showed me the way to the workshop. I brought the suitcase of shoes, and followed her up the path.
Once inside this lone, airy building, Frank appeared. The one my mom had said in the car that she could ‘easily be sweet on.’ He was lovely. He was quiet, wearing big glasses, shoes he’d made himself, and a humble, open gaze.
He listened to my mother as she explained each nuance of the changes with her right leg, how the bone was near the surface now, how her foot was curling further in, back to the position it had been born in. How this toe was rubbing in a new way. He listened, seldom responding with words. As she talked, he examined each shoe, some he took back to the workbench to be glued, re-soled, filed…others he left with us and brought a tube of adhesive, scissors, a sheet of padding.
Within hours, my mom had improved shoes, modified to her April 2015 leg. Four pairs went into the trunk, so that we could mail them back to Washington the next day. One pair went back on her feet. She then asked if we could walk the farm. This was something they had done together for years and years. I walked a few steps behind them, the last in my family to experience this walk.
I watched Frank, tenderly, awkwardly, catching up with incredible woman who raised me. He spoke of his recently deceased mother- the one he had tended every day for so many years, the one with whom he had bought this farm, the one who had encouraged him to learn to craft Space Shoes.
He spoke so matter-of-factly about grace. About how the woman at the mortuary had placed his mother’s comb into her breast pocket, just so. The way he had buried her in clothes that he had sewn for her when she was alive.