While he rode his bike to school, she'd stand upstairs and watch him through her telescope as he coasted the half mile downhill, past the suburban middle class houses, amidst no traffic, in the balmy California weather. Then when he got home, she'd say things like "How nice that you bumped into your friend Manny on the way to school today," or "It was very good of you to get off your bike and walk it through the busy intersection. Make sure you always do that."
"How did you know that?" he would ask, freaked out.
"Mommy knows everything," she would say. "Always be good. Never lie to Mommy."
I walked to school with Elizabeth Parkinson, who lived around the corner, which evidently made my Mom less nervous, so she never tried that trick on me. With me, she invented ways to sneak into my classroom, hide behind a bookshelf, and watch to make sure I raised my hand enough. I can't remember what she'd say when I got home, but I ended up raising my hand so often that one day my teacher took me aside and told me to give the other kids a chance.
Our elementary school was built by idealistic Californians, who named the school Walt Disney Elementary and felt that all of the classrooms in each wing should open up into a central community room with carpeting and couches. This meant that every classroom only had three walls. I had seen classrooms with four walls on tv, but my classrooms had freestanding bookshelves and open views into the community room. It was easy for my Mom to pretend that she'd forgotten to pack me a lunch and then show up later at school.
"Don't worry," she'd tell the school office staff. "I don't want to be a bother, so I'll just take this lunch over to my daughter's classroom by myself."
Then she'd peep around the bookshelf for an hour, stretch, and pop into the classroom to give me my lunch and a kiss.
My junior high was built by another type of Californian — the type that votes to sack the Governor early and replace him with an action star known to molest women. Only 7 blocks away from Walt Disney, this school had stone walls, tinted windows, and iron bars, and was known affectionately as Pine Valley Penitentiary.
Pine Valley's office staff expected trouble, and they refused to be taken in by my Mom's tricks.
"Please let me deliver my daughter's lunch," she'd beg. "I really want to make sure she gets it. It's her favorite sandwich. And her favorite drink. And she'll be so hungry and thirsty at lunchtime. And I wrote her a little note. . . ."
"We'll make sure she gets it," they'd cut her off, pitiless. "No need to cry."
When I went to my first dance, she felt that surely they'd make an exception for such a traumatic event in a mother's life, so she dropped me off, circled the block for 15 minutes, parked, and tried to stroll past the ticket taker.
"My daughter forgot her scarf," she said. "I'll just find her and give it to her."
The security guard stepped in front of her. "Sorry. It's warm enough in there. You can see her in a couple hours."
Crying and begging didn't work here either, so she snuck around the back of the building, hid in the bushes, and went from window to window, gripping the iron bars and trying to see inside.
15 years later, when she finally confessed all this, she giggled through her memories until she got to the story about the dance. "I can't believe those junior high school staffers," she grumbled, angry. "They wouldn't even let me inside for a few minutes. I still remember how cold it was that night, and the bushes ruined my pantyhose and stained my suit, and my high heels got all muddy. I had to go home and change before I picked you up, and I didn't even see anything."
She finished her reminiscences with something like "See how hard Mommy worked and suffered to be a good mother to you guys? I had to be very clever. I hope you have kids someday so you can see how hard it is, but don't worry, Mommy has lots more great advice for you about things she did to make sure you grew up well."
I can't remember her exact words because her story made me reconsider why I've always felt that someone was watching me. I used to think that it had to do with going to church five times a week as a child and hearing about God theoretically seeing everything, but now I think that it has to do with actually being watched all the time.
In college, my boyfriend Julian put up with ridiculous refusals to hold his hand in public or kiss him until his room was securely double-locked and each and every miniscule crack under the door or curtain was lined with towels, clothing, and/or bags. I suspect that we're still friends partially because this way he still gets to laugh about this in front of other people. Or maybe we're still friends because he didn't laugh at his neurotic girlfriend at the time, or argue, or complain; he just briskly went around the room rearranging his possessions until all daylight was blocked off to my satisfaction and I let him sit down next to me.
Our Mom's tactics had lasting effects on my brother as well. In 27 years, I don't think I've ever heard him tell even a socially acceptable lie. His coworkers all know that when he spends the weekend watching the latest romantic comedy or teen drama with his wife, he's the one dragging her along. His wife knows all about it when he's meeting up with friends to watch wrestling at Hooters. He looks at baby photos and says, "Wow, newborns sure are funny looking."
When he first started dating his cute and funny wife, my brother felt powerful butterflies rocketing around his stomach whenever they were together. Unprepared to tell white lies but too embarrassed to confess the truth, he couldn't pretend that he'd eaten a big meal earlier or was recovering from a stomach bug, and so she thought he had an eating disorder for the first month they dated because he never ate anything in front of her.
While on the one hand I suppose it's good that neither my brother nor I have ever committed a crime, tried drugs, or done anything really impolite, on the other hand I wonder what it would have been like to grow up without constantly being watched. I see people on the subway with their fingers up their noses, behaving for all the world as if their mothers will never find out, and I wonder if a public nose pick is as glorious as these people's expressions suggest. Is the freedom intoxicating? Of course, I would never try it, because my size 0 mother might suddenly pop out from behind a subway pole and catch me wiping a booger on my jeans.
Is this why my hamsters always used to poop so hurriedly and then scramble to cover it up with cedar chips? Did all my breaking up fights the instant they started, filling up the water bottle the instant it got low, and silent hovering over their cage and staring in the night make them paranoid?
Give me a few years, and maybe therapy will transform me from basically a gigantic paranoid hamster into a deliriously happy and free public nose-picker extraordinaire. Perhaps I should have more attainable goals, like opening the curtains in my bedroom sometime, but I like to dream big, alone in my hermetically sealed room where no one can see me.
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