From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

Just Plain Wrong

To say my mother was plain is neither criticism nor complaint. She was, in fact, simply one of those women whom people didn’t notice. The world is full of the proverbial “plain Jane” types.

Born into a painfully long line of alcoholics, my mother decided at the age of 17 to leave St. Louis because, as she put it, “I couldn’t take another minute of the fighting and drinking and craziness.” She moved in with her California cousin and his family to begin a new life. That was in 1959.

In 1960, she married my father—a Navy man—and over the next four years they had Tammy, Tina and me, Jerry. My parents bought a small, plain house in Orange County in 1967. In 1975, having both given it their best, my parents divorced. I was 12.

Maybe it was because of the enormous change a divorce brings, I don’t know—but I suddenly noticed my mother more as a person than a parent. I started noticing her face with its unstartling features. Her eyes had great dark circles about them, and her shape had suffered the fate of the birthing process and its aftermath. Men did not notice my single mother. They never seemed to notice those flaming eyes that I’d begun to take note of as time passed.

As single mothers often have to do, mine took a second job at night delivering racing forms to liquor stores. She used to promise me a chocolate-dipped cone from Foster’s Freeze if I’d just ride along with her, saying it was the only time she got to see me anymore. She would take stacks of forms into the liquor stores, barely getting a grunt out of the men behind the counters. My mother seemed invisible to men.

As I grew into a young man, I became silently bitter about people’s general disinterest in my mother. I knew the lethal wit she wielded and the immense knowledge she’d acquired from having been an insatiable reader. It was all right there in those eyes. It wasn’t a critical observation typical of teenagers when it comes to their parents. I simply noticed that my mother’s silently heroic life was passing by unmarked, unappreciated. It pained me.

On February 19th, 1986, I got a phone call in the middle of my shift at a wholesale warehouse. It was my mother, with the news that the cold she’d been trying to shake for two months was due to a tumor in her left lung that had “trapped” the cold inside. A week later a surgeon opened her up, noticed that the tumor had wrapped around her aorta in an upward spiral toward her heart, and promptly closed her chest back up. He spoke at length of chemotherapy and radiation, but his eyes gave us the truth.

My plain mother fought that tumor like a warrior, and no one seemed to notice. She withstood the effects of radiation on her voice box and on her abilities to swallow and even breathe. In no plain fashion, she faced the nightmare of chemotherapy, even buying a screaming red wig to try to lighten the family up about the whole thing. It didn’t work. She vowed to “beat this beast,” until she lost consciousness on February 2, 1987, and passed away with her three children holding both hands and stroking those plain, unstartling cheeks. It angered me.

I was enraged at the world for not having noticed her. I noticed her. I watched the struggle and the loneliness take their toll on her. How could they fail to see that this physically uninspiring woman was, in fact, a gorgeous human being? I was furious until the funeral.

People I didn’t know began pouring into the plain, little chapel where my mother was to be noticed for the last time. Coworkers from jobs two decades before came in, telling me that the last time they saw me I was in diapers. Friends I never knew about from the job she’d had until she was too sick to work flooded in, hugging my sisters and me. Even her racing form boss from eight years earlier came, shook my hand, and told me that my plain mother was “just about the kindest woman I ever knew.”

I’d started noticing my mother as a person at 12, and I felt her life plain. I looked out at the standing-room-only chapel filled with good people who had noticed my mother, and who had judged her as anything but plain. She had made her mark on their lives, and I’d never noticed. It never felt so good to be so wrong. They’d noticed all along, and I wasn’t angry anymore.

Gerald E. Thurston Jr.

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