My mom used to paint her nails on long car rides. She would take off her glasses and squint down at the tiny paint brush, keeping a steady hand as Dad drove over potholes and CBC played over the radio. The smell of acetone filled the air and made us kids feel nauseous.
We had a brown Astro van with two rows of bench seats. The seats were made out of soft, beige fabric, and the van’s compartments held all of our secret treasures; A forgotten Gameboy Colour and old OWL Magazines. Our consoles were sticky with spilled soda, but Mom’s was a systematic bag of Spitz and cup for the shells. She used to pretend she was a candy machine and we’d put a fake loonie into her imaginary slot. She would stick out her tongue with a shelled sunflower seed on it and we would eat it, giddy and giggling.
She took us everywhere in that van; out to the field with a tinfoil covered plate for Dad and into town to get more milk and pick up the mail. We would sit, buckled in the back, watching people through the tinted windows, waiting for mom to walk out of the bank with a cherry sucker for each of us.
One time, Mom pulled the van over and made my brother get out. We drove off down the highway and I stared out the back window as his body got smaller and smaller and we got farther and farther away. I wailed and begged her to go back and get him. She did.
Once we were all in school, she started picking us up in a sleek silver van that Dad had brought home one day. It didn’t have a DVD player, but it had sliding doors and smelled like new leather and plastic. We crowded into the backseat with our back packs and binders then Mom tore off, down the street. We ate bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches and drank chocolate milk on the way to violin and swimming lessons.
When gas was expensive, Mom started driving a diesel Jetta and started working at the school. Instead of catching the bus out in the morning cold, we got to sleep in and got to school with her, squeezed into the backseat of the rumbling Jetta. My eldest brother drove most mornings with his Learner’s license while Mom sat in the passenger seat, listening to the radio and peering over at the speedometer. She was an amazing Home Ec. teacher.
In high school, I started playing volleyball in a city 45 minutes away. We practiced a few times a week and mom somehow fit those long drives into her schedule. She kept watch while I put on my shorts and sports bra in the passenger seat and did my best not to flash anyone in the passing lane. We ate trail mix and talked about school, and if it was the weekend, we would be on our way to a tournament in Winnipeg. We would stop at McDonalds in Neepawa for coffee and muffins, then I’d put my sock feet up on the dash and read a book aloud while she drove. While my teammates went to get Subway in between our games, Mom would drive us to a park or nearby river and we would sit in the car eating the sandwiches she had packed.
On Sundays, the two of us would put on something floral or colorful and fill to-go mugs with coffee. While she drove and ate jam and cheese toast, I wrote a cheque out to the church for collection. She told me how to write out the numbers and where to put date then showed me how to add it to her balance book. We tip-toed up to the third pew and tried to find the right hymn everyone else was singing.
When it was time for me to go to college, I chose one that was three provinces away. We loaded up the van with my clothes, bedding, a lamp, and all of my volleyball gear. Dad barbecued hotdogs and we all ate one last meal in the backyard before starting the three-day trip to Vancouver. Mom and dad took turns driving while I hid in the very back seat, sleeping off summer, and dreaming of whatever new life was waiting for me out there. We stopped in Swift Current and cruised past Calgary. The mountains shot up around us and the air smelled cool and light.
They stayed for a few days, helping me stock up a pantry and settle into the big city, and when it was time for them to leave, it was like ripping off a Band-Aid – There was no easy way to do it. Hugging them goodbye felt so surreal and my throat still aches with sadness just thinking about it. I would see them again at Christmas time, but that’s not why I cried.
The backseat of Mom’s van was empty and clean, and as she drove away, I knew my childhood was now nothing but amazing memories.
On Halloween morning, every kid in my elementary school would chew their fingertips in a manic state until the afternoon. We sat, stewing in plain clothes waiting for the infamous annual Halloween Parade – myself in a pair of husky-sized jeans, and a skateboarding t-shirt, even though I didn’t skateboard.
This afternoon would be the red carpet event of fourth grade. We’d finally be able to be free from the constraints of our every day, children’s clothes and wear our costumes, showing it off during a lap of the gymnasium in front of the entire school.
The house I grew up in was a few streets over from the school I grew up in. So, at lunch, I sprinted home so my mom could organize my costume.
My mom worked the night shift. She still does, actually. She’s a registered nurse who cares for anyone who can’t care for themselves. And the morning after a grueling night of turning bodies, adjusting feeding tubes, and administering meds, she was about to deal with her most annoying patient: me.
I, having no real grasp of responsibility or organization, relied on my mom to choose my costume for me. After a string of classics in years previous such as Count Dracula and Frankenstein, mom decided to switch things up. She neglected the kiddy costumes recommended to her in every Wal-Mart catalogue and instead chose to dress me up as something a little more edgy: a 1980s glam rock star.
I came home to a chesterfield display of what she had gathered for my costume: snakeskin leather tights, BDSM-style spiked-collar and bracelets, a straight, glitter-infused black wig and of course, a bunch of make-up and nail polish. Like a Vanity Fair stylist, she summoned her model/son. I squeezed into the tights, slipped into moon boots and threw on a tattered old Metallica t-shirt. After a lunch-hour’s worth of wardrobe adjustments and ingesting fumes of hairspray, my dweeby nine-year-old body had transformed into a bedazzling rock and roll god. It was time to rock this parade.
But after seeing myself in the over-sized mirror near our front-door, I was too embarrassed to step outside and face the crowds of kids who I would most definitely not be dressed like. I couldn’t stand to be the odd-one-out. And this time, I was extra-odd.
I engaged in a temper-tantrum; a performance art I had completely mastered by this young age. My mom, stumped by my difficulty and impressed by the Hollywood-level costume design she had whipped together, refused defeat. Instead, she did what mom’s always do. She did what she had to do to make her kid feel better.
She threw on a matching black wig from her trunk of Halloween costumes, vandalized her pristine face with black eyeliner and lipstick. Then just as we were about to leave, took out her hoop earrings and replaced them with giant safety pins, amplifying her image as a true punk-rock goddess.
There we were, mother and son satanic rock heroes, stomping our platform boots toward my grade three classroom, covered in ambiguous glam make-up, amateur piercings and rattlesnake pleather.
We opened the door to shrieks, unhinging jaws and applause. The other mom’s, including one who decided to get real crazy and throw on a pumpkin costume, were floored. I was the gleaming star of our school’s Halloween parade that afternoon. Mom watched from the sidelines of the gymnasium with a raised devil-horn salute.
For reasons far beyond Halloween spirit, my mom is perfection. She is the epitome of caring. It’s not just how she earns her living; it’s how she lives her life. She makes everyone else feel better before she even slightly considers herself.
My mom has always kept my life together. Even if she has to use safety pins.