It was Halloween 1977. Dad, who had been out of work, was away on a two-week trip for the Army National Guard, trying to earn a few extra dollars to make ends meet. Mom, a dental hygienist, had gotten out of work in time to take her daughters, ages 7, 4 and 3, trick-or-treating at a few neighbors' houses in the mobile home park where we lived.
At 8 p.m., she turned off the porch light and put my little sister and me in the tub, the bedtime routine surely made more aggravating by the sugar we'd just consumed. A few minutes later she heard a knock at the door. She paused. Two little kids in the tub at the end of a long day. She just wanted everyone to be settled in for the night. But it was Halloween. She felt the urge to answer the door, knowing an excited child stood on the other side.
By the time she'd told us to behave, walked to the front of our single-wide trailer, turned on the light and opened the door, the boy who'd been knocking was gone. All she saw was the pumpkin, our lovingly carved pumpkin, he had smashed all over our front steps. Then she noticed the culprit getting back into his parents' car at the end of our driveway. Without thinking she ran past the smashed pumpkin, down the driveway, right up to the car. She pounded on the windows and started yelling.
These were the days before electric windows. Slowly, inch by inch, the window came down, and a mother and her son took the verbal onslaught they had coming to them.
My mother doesn't swear, and she doesn't recall exactly what she said that night. She remembers screaming about how thoughtless that boy had been. She told them she had three small children, and that our family couldn't afford three pumpkins this year so she'd had to settle for buying one big one for us to share. And now he'd destroyed it, and what was she going to tell her kids when they woke up the next morning and saw their beloved jack-o'-lantern in bits? She reprimanded the mother for watching and allowing her son to get away with such a crime. Tears streamed down her face as her anger mixed with her own pent-up anxiety and spilled out in a desperate, near comical rage.
"You know how sometimes it's just a small little thing that sets you over the edge?" she said to me recently when telling this story. Yes, I do. I know that feeling. I know that half of her crying and yelling that night was not out of anger, but out of stress. Exhaustion from the daily struggle of raising kids and paying bills she could barely pay. Ridiculous, misplaced but very real guilt for not being able to buy three pumpkins in the first place.
When she came to her senses she remembered she'd left her three kids inside, two of them in the bathtub. So she turned from the car, trudged past the mess on our porch and went back inside, drying her eyes and taking a deep breath before resuming the nighttime routine as if nothing was amiss.
A half-hour later there was another knock at the door. When she opened it she saw the boy, who looked terrified, and his mother, who had in her arms the biggest pumpkin Mom had ever seen.
I love this story because it shows both the complexities and simplicity of motherhood. Motherhood is love and light and tears and shadows. Motherhood is anxiety and guilt. It is defending your child and reprimanding your child and giving your child everything you have, even if you're convinced it's not enough. Motherhood is about thankfulness and counting blessings and doing the best you can. It is about forgiving yourself as much as it is forgiving those who hurt you. It is about teaching lessons to your kids while silently learning different ones yourself.
Motherhood is effort. It is tireless effort when you are anything but tireless, when in fact the level of your exhaustion brings you to tears over a busted gourd.
My mother often apologizes for mistakes she made when we were growing up. She asks for forgiveness for things that happened 35 years ago. She says she should have been more patient, more aware of us and what we were going through, what we needed. She wishes she could have given us more -- more things, more security, more pumpkins, apparently. I tell her she did a fine job, that we turned out to be three kind, compassionate, intelligent women. I try to praise her without pandering to whatever dark memories haunt her. Like every mother, she will always strive in vain for perfection, because like every mother, she knows that's what her kids deserve.
What I don't think she understands is how I love her because she's flawed. Motherhood is not about perfection; it is about redemption. What I see and feel the most from her is what matters the most -- effort. Tireless effort. Sometimes it's in her words and actions and sometimes it's in her silence and acceptance, but always it's there. And she will never stop trying as long as she lives. She is a mother.
The beauty of motherhood is not in the freshly pressed shirts and smiling photos we show the world. The beauty of motherhood is in the folds and creases of our lives, the grimaces and tantrums, the moments when we have to grit our teeth to get through, when we pound on windows and yell and scream and demand better of each other and ourselves.
And the beauty of motherhood is how we deliver just that. It's how we show up, knock on a door, wade through the discomfort and embarrassment and shame and guilt of a moment and do the right thing. Because our children are watching. And because we might have felt like a failure five minutes ago, but we push through it and keep trying, prodded by a love we cannot adequately describe.
Motherhood seems complex, but it's simple, really. It is just beautiful, gratifying, difficult, unceasing effort.