My mother was the first woman commissioned to the United States Army from the University of Mississippi’s ROTC program in 1977. Before that time, women could only be in the Women’s Army Corp. The chip on her shoulder was heavy, for it carried the weight of feminists all over America – perhaps everywhere.
Still, my mother’s strong shoulders held up, reinforced by Fort Gordon’s basic training camp. My mother was made for the military – “Reveille,” “Retreat,” and “Taps” were her siren songs.
Mom’s bed was made every morning within a breath of her feet hitting the floor. Tight-cornered sheets you could bounce a quarter off of led me to believe, when I was young, that she commanded a company of fairy soldiers who did it for her. They must have also poured the cereal that greeted me each morning as I shuffled into the kitchen, groggy and starving.
Breakfast was made and cleared before my brain even recalled eating it. Those tiny soldiers were well-trained, because I blinked and the dishes were gone.
“Off to school!” my mother would say in a harried voice. “Mustn’t be late for the bus.” I’d see the white rabbit in my mind’s eye hopping through Alice’s meadow, and think vaguely, He and my mother would be good friends.
I headed for my school bag she packed the night before. It was placed neatly beside her typed grocery list on the counter, next to the can of perfectly sharpened pencils, every one of them standing at attention. I’d salute her, too, if I could, but I’m a civilian and a daughter, so I’d just quietly admire and go on my way.
I left the house in my tattered sneakers, ripped jeans, and untucked shirt. I’d walk past the American flag attached to our porch, and it was usually still dark enough for the spotlight to be on.
I recall the time she cursed a neighbor from the safety of our Volvo when she saw their flag flying at night – unlit.
“What’s the big deal about that?” I had asked her.
“It simply isn’t done! Disrespectful!”
I shook my head at her disparagement of our 80-something-year-old neighbor, who probably couldn’t even change a light bulb anymore, let alone keep up with the proper way to show respect for the flag, but I appreciated her principles and commitment to the U.S. of A. and the regimented order of how things should be done, even then.
When I was in the third grade, my teacher scolded me for being less than a good student. “I know you can do better than this,” she said that day, voice stern with that hint of I’m trying to be motivating at the same time. “Your handwriting is sloppy at best, illegible most days. I’ve seen what you can do when you put your mind to it. I’ve seen how careful and clear you can write when you take your time.”
I called up my best chastised expression, nodding appropriately at the end of each sentence. But I was only half listening. My mind was on the huge Arizona Ash tree I had been climbing for two days. I intended to go to the next branch today – the one with barely any knots to hold onto, if I got up the courage…
I was listening just enough to catch the last bit of the lecture though: “I’ll be calling home to your mother today.”
The beautiful tree faded from my mind to be replaced with my mom’s face, the brows drawn, the mouth flipped in the wrong direction.
When I got home later that day, I lay spread eagle on the bed and stared at the clock ticking closer to 5 p.m. – the time my mother would arrive home from work. We’re talking about Lieutenant Colonel Mom (a.k.a. White Rabbit) here, so I had exactly 15 minutes and 22 seconds to wait. My tummy flops around from time to time when my mind conjures the look. You know the one – the one mothers use when they’re disappointed with a capital D.
So there I was, waiting patiently for the grounding. The sound of keys rattling in the front door down the hall from my bedroom had me scrambling to a sitting position. I heard the door open with a squeak and close with a firm thud. What do I do? Should I grab a book so I look like I’ve been studying? I thought, desperately. Would that help my case?
I was just about to snag one from my discarded, unopened backpack nestled between Blue Bear and a pile of dirty soccer clothes, but, too late.
I didn’t say anything to her as she made her way over to me, dodging stuffed animals and Barbies scattered across the floor. I just waited for it, eyes on my holey-toed socks. She sat down at the foot of the bed, waiting for my eyes to look up. I couldn’t will myself to look into her face, so I glanced instead at the American flag on the right sleeve of her camouflage uniform. It was backwards. I remembered this symbolizes going forward, as if charging into battle.
Will I lose this battle? I wondered.
“Katie.” That one word in that voice would have been enough to keep me straight for at least a week, but she continued on. “I know you don’t like school. I know you would rather be outside playing all day if you could, but school is important. All I expect from you is to try your best. And you have not been trying your best, have you?”
“Well…no…but who cares about writing anyways? It’s stupid! School sucks. My teacher should just mind her own damn business.” I muttered the last sentence under my breath, just loud enough for her to hear, but quiet enough so she could pretend she hadn’t.
She patted my leg in sympathy and I followed her gaze around my room. Her eyes scrutinized my rock collection exploding out of baskets on shelves, and a glimmer of a smile touched the corner of her lips when she saw I had given my dresser chickenpox.
“Those Strawberry Shortcake stickers were put to good use, I see?”
She sat quietly for a moment…deciding. “You’re grounded for two weeks from the television, young lady. And I expect your writing to improve or the punishment will be worse.”
Mom left me to my messy room and crossed arms. We both knew I didn’t watch TV.
The Lieutenant Colonel in my mother was more than capable of drilling her children when they did something wrong or failed in school. Family wasn’t immune from being whipped into shape if they deserved it. But what this mom knew was that I would learn to write well someday, and I had more important things to think about than perfect cursive or tidy shelves…like which muddy puddle would make the highest splash.
I like to think her training in the Army taught her there are some battles you fight with everything you’ve got, and some you back down from because they’re not worth the casualties needed to win them.