14: Old Yeller

14: Old Yeller

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever!

Old Yeller

Families are like fudge — mostly sweet, with a few nuts.

~Les Dawson

Like many kids who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, I had a mother who could be classified as a “yeller.” Back then mothers yelled. They’d yell at the umps at their kids’ baseball games. They’d yell “Hello!” to neighbors across the yard as they hung damp laundry on the line. They’d yell their kids’ names into the air when it was time for dinner, and they would yell again if they weren’t in the house within five minutes after the streetlights went on.

My mother was a mighty yeller. If there were such a thing as competitive yelling, without a doubt she’d be in the winner’s circle. She’d yell to her kids up two flights of stairs, causing the doorbell chimes to buzz from the vibration of her voice. She’d yell at my father — a lot. And when she was mad, that particular type of yelling would often be peppered with colorful language.

One afternoon in spring 1968 was exceptionally notable. One of my little friends playing at my house after school ran into our living room with a smile that showed her obvious delight. “Your mother just told your father to [expletive] in his hat!” she gushed.

I know everybody thinks their mother is special, but how many people can pinpoint the moment they came to that realization? How lucky was I?

I really was lucky. For as far back as I could remember, my mother would hug me until I could barely breathe and tell me I was “so beautiful” and “so smart.” That said, one day when I was trying to understand the wonders of nature, I asked her, “Is the air blowing the trees around, or are the trees moving and that’s what makes it windy?” She gave me an incredulous look and yelled, “WHAT THE HELL KIND OF STUPID QUESTION IS THAT?”

How many people can pinpoint the moment when they realized they might not be that smart after all?

Often my mother yelled at the television. “DON’T TAKE HIM BACK, YOU FOOL,” she’d shout to characters with poor judgment and low self-esteem on As the World Turns. One time I saw her yell at nobody at all: My father and I watched her bolt from the couch to answer a phone that was ringing on the television. “Helloooo” she said sweetly, before barking select curse words when she only heard dial tone and then slamming down the receiver.

For a good part of my life, there was no escaping my mother’s yelling. She was a stay-at-home mom, and I mean that literally. Over the course of many years, my mother suffered from agoraphobia, an irrational fear of being in public places. Having five children over a fourteen-year span, Mom developed a home-based lifestyle that became increasingly comfortable, to the point where she became fearful of leaving.

To ease the anxiety, Mom was often doped up on “nerve pills,” which kept her sacked out on the couch for most of the day. It seemed that she’d wake up for only two things: Jeopardy! and the weather forecast during the six o’clock news. Considering she never left the house, the obsession with the weather seemed a bit peculiar. Perhaps she was only wondering, Will I need the heavy afghan over me tomorrow or just a light cotton blanket?

I do stand-up comedy and often joke about my mother’s agoraphobia, on stage. I can joke only because Mom was able to overcome it. After many years of being a prisoner in her own home, she joined a support group for people with agoraphobia and other types of fears. Together they would practice everyday things that most of us would find quite unremarkable: walking through a mall, riding an elevator, driving over a bridge.

Her next step was to get a driver’s license and soon after, her own car. More accomplishments followed; she enrolled in a continuing education class at the local high school, and then got a part-time job as a bookkeeper (her first job since she was a teenager). She and my father divorced and Mom began working full-time. Secure in her independence, she bought a house and, realizing that twenty years of Jeopardy! was no substitute for a formal education, enrolled in classes at the local community college.

At age fifty-eight, she was awarded an associate’s degree in accounting and at sixty-six, she went on her first business trip — to midtown Manhattan of all places. Imagine my mother walking through Times Square, when she was once afraid to step off the front porch!

In her early seventies Mom remarried and moved from New York to Idaho. Her new husband was sweet, kind, and as luck would have it, very hard of hearing. Mom was able to continue her yelling. They had a beautiful life together, racking up many miles of travel. After Jim died last year, Mom moved to Florida to live with her two sisters. One is all but deaf and the other has a hearing aid, so now Mom can use her yelling for good purposes.

We now live on opposite sides of the country, but I travel to Florida when I can, and Mom, who’s eighty-two, visits me in Las Vegas. She flies by herself. Of course, the first thing she says at baggage claim is, “What time is Jeopardy! on here?” To this day she still yells answers — I mean, “questions” — to hesitant contestants: “WHAT IS THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE?”

When she’s able to come to my stand-up shows, she laughs heartily as I perform the material she inspired. I do a bit about how my sister and I would run outside when we were in trouble: She’d be standing at the door yelling, “GET BACK IN THIS HOUSE!” and from the sidewalk we’d calmly reply, “Come on out and get us.” We weren’t stupid — to her, fresh air was like kryptonite.

I proudly point to Mom during the shows and tell the audience that if they’re lucky enough to still have their mother, they should treat her like the Queen Mum. Afterward people typically mill around, eager to chat with Mom and tell her what a good sport she is to be the butt of my jokes. I hear her voice, not yelling this time, but distinctly above the others.

“That’s my daughter!” she says.

~Linda Lou

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