93: Mother’s Little Helper

93: Mother’s Little Helper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

Mother’s Little Helper

Love is more than a noun—it is a verb;
it is more than a feeling—
it is caring, sharing, helping, sacrificing.

~William Arthur Ward

The first day of seventh grade was a maze of locker combinations and up and down staircases, five minute passages through crowded hallways from English to Math classes, and girls with cuter outfits than mine. It also involved a packed lunch—my first and last. Webster Elementary School allowed me to go home for lunch but Sheridan Junior High was seven blocks from home and promoted a hot lunch program, so that those with thirty-five cents could buy a tray full of meatballs, mashed potatoes, green beans, and milk in cartons, all served up by women in hairnets.

My mom must have had a burst of maternal energy, sending her last child off to the junior high world, so she packed me a tuna salad sandwich on white bread wrapped in waxed paper, complete with mitered corners. Her intention was right and I knew nothing of packed lunches so I slumped off to school, sure of social failure, and carrying a brown paper lunch bag as my last connection to a home where I didn’t need to look like an American Girl model.

I survived the morning, found my way from room 105 (Modern Math) to room 302 (American History, taught by a teacher who put on films about WWII and promptly fell asleep with her head upon her cluttered desk) and room 20 for a science class that was horrifying, with periodic tables on the wall and promises of “interesting experiments” in the year ahead.

I went to my locker at lunchtime and finessed the combination lock, only to be greeted by the bouquet of tuna fish left too long in September temperatures. The bag was a speckled mess of grease stains and my locker-mate would surely live forever with that smell in the yellow cotton sweater she had hung so sweetly on the hook.

If I wasn’t unsure enough, now I stood with this stinking brown bag that might have held a day-old cadaver, judging from the smell. I looked about for a giant garbage can and hoped for a break in the hallway traffic so I could dispose of this evidence of my uncoolness and my mother’s stupidity. When the break came, I dashed to the girls’ room to wash the stink from my hands, and went hungry. I would not carry a lunch again. I was glad it was not my mom’s natural style to get up and pack these embarrassments and planned to just steal change from her purse forevermore.

Second day lunch found me wiser. I had a gleaming quarter. I bypassed the hairnet ladies and went into the freezer for an ice cream sandwich. The cashier, somebody’s busybody mom no doubt, asked if I had a lunch to eat before this dessert. I nodded to the table where Dianne, whom I had just met in English class, was seated with her brown bag and said, “Yes, I left it on the table over there.” I was allowed change and passage to be seated.

Being watched, I went to sit next to Dianne. She made room on the bench and asked where my lunch was. “Right here.” I said as I unwrapped the ice cream sandwich. A natural caregiver, she cut her bologna on Wonder Bread in half and slipped one diagonal piece to me without any comment. It looked familiar and inviting.

Soon enough, she was bringing two of those daily and I sat beside her and accepted her mother’s kind gift. I’ll never know if she went home and reported that she sat by a poor hungry waif or knew I was too lazy to tend to lunches on my own. For the entire seventh grade I ate bologna on Wonder Bread for lunch, provided by Dianne’s mom, Alvina. I used the stolen change from mom’s tips for ice cream treats for Dianne and me.

Eventually, Dianne brought me home with her, to the source of that white bread largesse. Assaulted by heat and the scent of cinnamon upon entering the back door, we found we were in Alvina’s kitchen.

“Come in and sit down! You have to eat some rolls. I sure don’t need them. I’m getting so heavy! I’m so glad Dianne finally brought you home, but I look a mess.” She ran her hands through her beauty shop hair. In years to come, I would see her anxiety grow in the forty-eight hours preceding her standing salon appointment and eventually, Dianne and I took to setting her hair for her on brush rollers with harsh plastic pins that left dents in her scalp when we fixed them in place especially well.

“I bet your mother isn’t heavy. Don’t I look too heavy?” She would ask this regularly over the years. This question was punctuated by a stomach lifted, an inward breath, and her work-weary hands pressed to her stomach’s center. A sideways view was then offered and no response expected. As the soft folds regained their position she reinforced them with a warm caramel bun, sticky, sweet and billowing with calories and love.

From then on, Alvina fed me love and acceptance through bologna sandwiches, lard-fried hamburgers, and eggs fried in bacon grease after sleepovers. All the while, she would apologize for everything she couldn’t forgive about herself. Her apologies were wasted on me, though. I thought she was flawless.

Today, I have her recipe, written in her own hand and style, misspelled with no discernible order, and composed entirely in run-on sentences just as she spoke. The recipe begins with “melt some ole in a pan” and becomes less specific after that. I’ve tried to follow it, to create the smell and taste and sugary mess of her cinnamon buns, but it’s no use. In my oven, her directions like “scald milk until hot” and “add flour until the dough is just right” only yields—well—bread.

Dianne and I grew apart after our lives took different paths, but Alvina became a patient of mine when I became a nurse later on. She always showed up to our clinic visits dressed up with her hair set. One morning, I came to work and the doctor I worked with called me to his office and closed the door. “I got called last night,” he said. “Alvina died.”

There are things we carry from those junior high halls. Modern math, history, first loves, and the last vestiges of innocence. We’re lucky if, somewhere along the line while we’re discovering bad skin, too-big feet, and too-ugly clothes, we find a surrogate parent or a special teacher to shelter us and guide us.

~Beadrin Youngdahl

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