For the sake of clarity, let’s call the man with white hair Mr. W. It didn’t take many visits before I figured out that Mr. W had an agenda: he was trying to get married to mom! I confronted Mom at her earliest convenience:
“Mom. Why does Mr. W come over?”
My mom was gathering her keys and getting ready to drive off to work.
“Oh him? I’m not sure.” She tried to brush past me to get to the door. No way.
“I’m serious, Mom. Why is he trying to get married to you?”
“Oh don’t be silly, he simply comes to talk. I suppose he’s just lonely, he doesn’t have a wife.”
And off to work she went. I gathered an emergency family meeting and explained the urgency of the matter.
“We need to stop Mr. W! If we don’t stop him now, Mom might start liking him and might get married to him! Do you want him to be our new dad? He looks really strict! He might spank us more than Dad did!”
We brainstormed a list. Any idea was welcome and validated, no matter how silly or ridiculous. We won’t talk to him, won’t smile, younger siblings can stick their tongues out and make faces, and anything else that would be fitting to make him feel unwelcome in our home. The next time Mr. W came over, mom wasn’t home, so he gave us a bag of something and said, “This is for your mom.”
We looked inside and saw a few bags of ripe green grapes. As soon as Mr. W drove off, we hid the grapes under the porch steps as far back as they would go. The next time he drove up, we searched for the largest pebbles and propped them behind each tire. A few sharp ones made it in too, in hopes of possibly popping a tire. We were delighted to see his frustration when he attempted to drive off and had a rough time backing up. Mom asked us about grapes. Apparently Mr. W asked her how she liked the treat he brought last time. Oops. Not.
Our home was a giant duplex-style house where technically two families could reside in, but since we had 11 individuals, we had the whole house. All the kids were sent downstairs when Mr. W was over. We took turns holding a broom and hitting it up against the ceiling, to create an annoying thumping sound for the upstairs. Since there was only one broom, any long object worked, as well as toys that could be hurled up, as long as they didn’t leave any marks or dents in the ceiling. The youngest siblings were encouraged to run up the stairs and distract Mom as much as possible, pretending to be hurt, requesting Band-Aids, being particularly loud when taking a snack from the kitchen, and if they wanted bonus points, directing insulting sounds at Mr. W. If they would be talking outside on the porch, somebody would take out the trash and place it right next to them. Of course the bag would be slightly opened to help add an interesting aroma to their setting. Mr. W didn’t stand a chance against our motivated team.
Mom went shopping for clothes one day. She usually took me along to speed up the process. The stores of choice were Value Village or Goodwill, and sometimes they had days where certain colored tags were 50% off. We would purchase only those items. Some days we would get clothes with only yellow-colored tags, another day it would be only blue-tagged items. I began to loathe the musky smell of second-hand clothes. I wanted to own something brand new, and would request to go to Wal-mart or K-Mart, but the price tags there were too high.
After we were done shopping, Mom took a detour and pulled into somebody’s driveway. It was Mr. W’s house! I was mortified. He had a giant smile on his face when he sauntered up to our car window. They had a little chat, Mom handed him something, and we drove off. She had a goofy grin on her face. I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I would explode. Was she that desperate? I mean, she could probably use some help with managing all of us kids, but she could do way better than this!
“Mom, what are you doing? Why are you bringing him food? He is an old man! He’s ugly! He’s mean! It’s only been a year!”
Needless to say, the drive home was anything but pleasant.
By far the most extreme challenge Mr. W had was when he came over and some of the kids would dare to tell him “Go away!” and “Don’t come back again!” One of the evenings I recruited a sister to walk up to Mom and boldly state,
“Mom, you need to go to work now. Do you want to be late?”
Apparently it was the final straw. Mom stormed upstairs, marched directly at me, and smacked my face. I reeled back. My cheek stung and felt hot. This I wasn’t expecting.
“What is wrong with you? You’re the oldest child here! I expect decent behavior from you! Is that so difficult?” Mom whisper-shouted.
“But, uh, I didn’t do anything, I’m just sitting here,” I tried to defend myself.
“Oh, you!” Mom shot me a menacing glare and hurried back to resume her conversation with Mr. W.
Whether it was a single incident or the combination of our childish pranks, but Mr. W wasn’t ready to handle the whole package that came with Mom. Whatever they had attempted to build eventually fizzled out and he stopped showing up at our door.
We tried to make Mom look more modern. Her funky hairstyle was usually piled up very high on her head, and coupled with the brightly colored head covers she wore, it made for a disastrous fashion look. We thought if she would change her hairstyle, she would look more put-together. The heels and skirts paired nicely but that wasn’t enough. Mom didn’t like any of our attempts at making her look more contemporary. I think she realized she needed to do something different to distract herself from her loneliness or to potentially find a partner. She began to sing.
My sister and I had to sing with her. We would practice a hymn or two, and then on Sunday we did that number at church. It was so embarrassing. We had no music, just a hymnal, and it was just us singing in front of everybody. I had a huge problem with it and made it known.
How did Mom resolve it? The one song I learned how to play on the violin came in handy: we learned that song and sang that while I played. Great. I tried to have hoarse throat excuses and those worked every once in a while.
Other than the singing presentations, Mom began to loosen up a bit. She gave in to exploring stores like Ross and Wal-mart for our clothes. My first brand-new piece of clothing that I chose myself was from K-mart. It was a gorgeous red short-sleeved shirt that had DIVA spelled out in silver glitter. I wore it every other day until the glitter rubbed off.
There was a farmer’s market we frequented. Mom noticed one of the teenage helpers glancing over and with a knowing smile she mentioned to me:
“Well, would you look at that! He’s totally staring at you!” I pretended I had no idea what she was talking about, but inside I was excited. Apparently I can talk to Mom about topics like boys? That was pretty cool for a mom.
The eighth grade graduation was coming up. Our family couldn’t be bothered with school events so I had to make arrangements for my grandpa to drop me off in the evening and to pick me up when it was over. I wore a long black skirt and a quarter-sleeve periwinkle blue shirt with the same colored designs embroidered all over. As I was walking into the building, the most popular girl in the entire grade was walking by as well, and she said,
“Hi Galina, that’s a pretty shirt.”
I froze, and racked my brain desperately for how I was supposed to reply. This sounded like a compliment, and in the sixth grade we had a lesson about compliments and putdowns and how one was to respond.
“Oh, hi! Um, yes. Uh, thank you! It is just a…” I remembered that a response to a compliment was supposed to be simple. “Um, thank you!” Wow. That was so nice of her.
Students and families mingled after the graduation ceremony. There were appetizers and project displays set up all around. Somebody asked me where my family was.
“Oh, nobody was able to make it.”
“Oh, that’s so sad!”
“Eh.” I shrugged. I looked at the art display. There was my acrylic painting that won Judge’s Favorite award in the county fair. I wondered if Dad would be proud of me. He had found a great deal at a garage sale for my first set of drawing pencils and tracing paper. Art class was my favorite class. The teacher would do a little bit of talking and the rest of the time we could create. Once a girl began talking about how her life is so sad because her mom died and how she misses her mom very much. I felt her pain and thought that maybe I could be her friend. Several people began making comments about how they felt sorry for her and began to ask questions. She talked for a little and then cracked up.
“Hahaha ha-ha! I’m just messing with you all! I have both parents. This was so funny! All of your responses! Ah-ha ha ha ha!” I wanted to punch her. I couldn’t believe how immature that was. I couldn’t wait until high school. That’s when real life would begin.
I couldn’t have been more right.