I cannot picture her face without seeing bright lipstick painted across her generous mouth. It has always been there, and on the rims of wineglasses, coffee cups, forks and my forehead. I say this without fear of being accused of exaggeration. I truly cannot remember seeing my mother’s mouth naked.
The night my mother went into labor with me she was hosting a dinner party. She waited for one of her guests to finish a very tedious explanation of the effects of non-tariff barriers on multi-national corporations before she whispered to my father in her thick Finnish accent,
“Hey. Vayne. My vater is completely broke. Vee should go to the hospital now.”
She then re-applied her Revlon lipstick and off they went. To this day she still wears Revlon because after four hours of labor she held me in her arms, looked at her reflection in a mirror and was happy to see the lipstick was still in tact.
Of course, aside from the lipstick, I think the fact that my mother arrived at the hospital to give birth clothed in a blue sparkle crocheted pant suit and platform heels was a sign of things to come. My childhood with her would be fun, happy, but definitely not normal. Granted, being a little kid in the late 1970’s and early 80’s was a little weird anyway.
I remember when I was five I found I found a Polaroid of a naked woman, spread eagled on a water bed. It was carelessly resting on a flowerbed outside our Honolulu apartment complex. I threw it back on the ground and ran upstairs breathlessly to tell my mother of my find. Instead of being horrified, she and her friend Lillian ordered me to go get it. I did, and after careful inspection, Lillian announced,
“I know that woman. She’s in my yoga class!”
I remember when I was six I was given a box of costume jewelry from the ex-wife of one of my father’s friends. I was promptly told I couldn’t wear the gold necklace that said “coke” despite the fact it was my favorite soft drink.
I remember my father bringing me along on a date to a disco with a woman who was not my mother. I remember a Christmas party where people received vibrators as door prizes. I remember being expected to keep a lot of grown-up’s secrets. It seemed like this was an era where we kids lived on the periphery, playing our games quietly as adults reveled in theirs. In a world filled with EST, Primal Screams, and California cults, it seemed as though the focus was on anything but children. Everyone was looking for something to make them whole, and that usually had more to do with signing up for Gestalt therapy than attending PTA meetings.
By 1978 the divorce rate had skyrocketed, and my parents only added to the statistics. For the first time, many kids were openly aware of the fact that they were a hindrance to their mother’s freedom, to her search for self-fulfillment.
As for fathers, my own included, they all seemed to be running off with “slutty stewardesses” who all seemed to work for Pan Am. Most of my mother’s friends boycotted Pan Am for this reason.
In our neighborhood, divorced mothers seemed to be the norm, and despite the fact that my mother was never normal, she did fit into this category. I can remember that every Halloween, when our school would have costume parties, you’d see a room filled with little kids listlessly milling around with dingy sheets over their heads and the eyes haphazardly cut out. You could almost hear the legions of divorcees bitching,
“Oh…It’s Halloween again is it? Halloween and of course your father isn’t here to put together a costume. Well that bastard doesn’t have the time does he? No! I have to do everything while he’s out living the high life with that slutty stewardess! Alright then, go get me a sheet and a pair of scissors.”
My mother wasn’t really into Halloween, mostly because it wasn’t part of Finnish tradition. This also meant the tooth fairy never seemed to visit our house. I think this was also the reason she refused to buy me Mary Jane shoes and a Barbie, though she never admitted it. She had other reasons. The Mary Janes were impractical:
“How can you run in those ugly things?” she asked with disdain. “You can’t climb trees or do anything.”
I thought this point was lacking substance. I just wanted to make that cool clicking noise when I jumped rope on the pavement.
As for Barbie, my mother just thought she was vulgar. And considering what we did with Barbie in those days, she may have had a point. Much like many adults back then, Barbie had a pretty hedonistic lifestyle. I learned early on that the whole purpose of Barbie’s life was to get dressed up, go out on dates and fuck Ken. While it’s true that she did have several “career” outfits, no one actually cared about Barbie’s 9 to 5 endeavors. It was my friend Lisa who explained this to me. She had an amazing Barbie wonderland underneath her father’s pool table. It worked to our benefit that her father had been living with a slutty stewardess for the past four months, because when it was understood that he wasn’t coming back anytime soon, Barbie’s world overtook the top of the pool table too.
Fucking Ken was achieved by grinding the two dolls together as we made the constipated “uh uh” noises Lisa had heard the babysitter and her boyfriend make. She referred to it as “humping”. I had a rather vague idea about humping, but Lisa seemed to be something of an expert.
It was obvious that Barbie’s creators were in the dark about her humping activities, since we all know that Ken has a pathetic little lump where his penis should be. When I began to wonder if Lisa had it wrong, and the word was actually “lumping” she assured me that Ken was incomplete, and there was supposed to be something of much greater substance in his lump area.
This inspired superb ingenuity on our parts. We made him a penis out of various materials, each one with varying success. Play Doh and Silly Putty were good in terms of creating a realistic penis, although I had never seen one and Lisa had only seen her brother’s once when she walked in on him in the bathroom. But the problem with the Play Doh/Silly Putty penises was that they got mashed in the grinding process. So we resorted to construction paper and tape, and found that made for much hardier, more resilient penises.
I finally managed to get a hold of both contraband items, the Mary Janes and a Barbie through guilt. Any child of divorce becomes skilled at this. Guilt can provoke a divorced father to buy a hundred useless toys even when he won’t shell out enough for alimony. It is a strange phenomenon. But despite my devious ploys, both my dream items turned out to be a let down. I got five blisters the first day I shoved my fat wide feet into the unyielding patent leather shoes.
Even Barbie let me down. Overcompensating as usual, my father had to buy me the massive “My Friend Barbie” who was half my size and looked desperately out of place lumbering around like Godzilla underneath the pool table. She was much too big to fuck puny little Ken, and as such, had no real purpose. In the end, I used to take her to the pool where I would pop her head off, fill it with water and squirt people.
I think my mother took great pleasure in my disappointment with the Mary Janes and Barbie, though she never admitted it. Those things were a part of American culture that she didn’t particularly like, and represented a norm that irritated her. Mary Janes and Barbie were the exact opposite of what she wanted to be. They were ordinary. They were clichéd. And most horrible of all, they were boring.
My mother’s need to escape the mundane was reflected in her friends. It seemed that most of them were immigrants and outsiders, restless people like herself. They wore heavy make-up, they believed in conspiracy theories, they spoke any number of different languages. When you are very little, you take all of this in stride. It is only when you start going to school, visiting other kid’s homes that you start to realize your home is not typical. I started to feel as though my home was some kind of refuge for weirdos. The friends were bad enough, but soon I was getting irked by my mother’s eccentricity, her flamboyant clothes, her thick accent, her odd beauty treatments, her strange expressions she tried to translate from Finnish into English which never made any sense. Embarrassment washed over me in waves when she glared at some politician on TV and announced in front of my friends,
“Look at that one. Looks as uncomfortable as a fart in leather pants!”
I started to wish I had a regular American family. I longed for normalcy. I longed to blend in. I think most first generation Americans go through that. I was tired of people always asking where she came from, why she talked like that, and having to bring peculiar food to school potlucks, food with anchovies and beets when all I wanted was to bring Jell-O salad. I wanted to be a member of another family. I wanted to be a part of a nice, American family. More than anything, I wanted to live at Jean’s house.
Jean was my mother’s one friend who was blissfully normal. She was a perfect example of American womanhood to me. I loved being in her house so much I’d cry when I had to leave. It always smelled like the kinds of American foods we never had, like M&M cookies, chocolate cake and pie. You could find the minister sharing coffee with her in the kitchen. She was still married, and actually made breakfast for her husband every morning! Her children ate normal sandwiches, like peanut butter or tuna fish, and didn’t have to exercise caution when opening their lunch at school for fear of finding a fried egg sandwich with sprouts. I was also sure they never had to carry their lunch an old cigar box for two weeks because their mother couldn’t figure out what a “LUNCH BOX” was.
Jean even looked normal in the way my mother didn’t. She wore clothes other American mothers wore: cotton slacks and loafers, maybe a string of pearls when she went to church (which she did often.) She would not allow me to watch movies with too much sex or violence in them. She spoke softly and never used bad language. Her kids did not wear sheets over their heads for Halloween and she gave out the best candy on her block. She smiled sweetly, and wore only a hint of perfume.
My mother, on the other hand, wore big felt hats, long flowing scarves and high-heeled boots. My mother blasted the stereo and tried to get me to dance with her, swinging her hips, clapping her hands and shouting “TA TA TA!” until the neighbor would pound on the wall and scream for us to “knock it off!” She collected fresh rainwater in a bucket, believing it was good for skin and hair. She sang opera on the balcony, causing a crowd to gather below and applaud. My mother took me to see Martin Scorsese movies and when she caught me looking at her Kama Sutra she simply said,
“I tried dat one. Made my neck hurt for three days.”
Thinking about my childhood, I realize that I used to want normalcy because I thought it was American. I thought it was right and good, and that I would be protected from all my feelings of being a weirdo, an alien, an outsider. If I could be really American, I would never again feel like the odd little girl down the street. I would instantly fit in, be completely accepted for who I was. But the older I got, the more I realized that the ideals my mother tried to teach me were more “American” than any amount of M&M cookies and homemade Halloween costumes.
She left Finland to escape the weight of history and the class structure, and wanted to start from scratch. To her, this is the ultimate freedom, which is why as much as she loves her own country, she won’t go back to live.
So the freedom she loves about America isn’t the freedom we were taught in fourth grade. It isn’t about the right to vote or peaceful demonstration. She’s never become an American citizen so she can’t vote, and she’s never been caught up enough in a cause to make homemade signs. It’s a physical feeling, a sensation that only those who weren’t born here can feel. It’s the freedom to announce, “I want to be remarkable” without being told it is too much to ask.
The last time my mother and I took a trip to Finland, I was flipping through a Finnish phrase book on the plane while she ordered a glass of red wine. Soon, she fell asleep. One of her dangly earrings was caught in her hair, and her velvet scarf had fallen off her shoulder. Her lipstick, naturally, was still in tact. I looked at her; nestled in her seat, and felt ashamed that I ever wanted her to be anything less than what she is.