The Cookie Lady
© Copyright 2023 by Maureen Moynihan
Photo by Vyshnavi Bisani on Unsplash
My mother calls, speaking in 20 point Impact Bold font, punctuating each statement with a fantastic sense of urgency:
“Maureen!! This is ya Mutha! The lady who gave you birth! Backwards!”
Lani identifies herself in case I don’t recognize the voice. I was a born breech during the pre-ultrasound era and the introduction of the epidural. She reminds me of this fact about every third phone call. I’m 48.
“Hey Mum, what’s up? Is everything OK?”
It’s 7:15 AM. I’m rearranging chairs in a school library with the bitterness of a wedding coordinator forced to collaborate with a carefree vendor. Important details about the training have not been delivered: the schedule, number of participants, the need for an LCD projector etc. Regardless, the show must go on so I roll up my sleeves and get to work. Until my mother calls.
“We’re getting a snowstorm! On Friday!
It’s Tuesday. When I’m delivering a workshop, my mother knows to call only in the case of an emergency. An emergency has been defined as a circumstance that demands immediate medical attention: if you’re lying on the floor and can’t get up. When the stove is on fire and 911 does not pick up. Macy’s One Day Sale is not an emergency. Aunt Carol’s bingo victory isn’t an emergency. If Entertainment Tonight headlines the story, it’s not an emergency. Her voice bellows on:
“Maureen!! Go to the grocery store! As soon as possible!
A New England weather forecast is about as accurate as a lottery ticket purchase, especially during my mother’s formative years when weather satellites had yet to be launched into space, let alone a human being. Power outages were certain and endured for weeks, inspiring the entire community to pummel the grocery store with a maniacal, Y2K mentality. With each forecast of inclimate weather, Mom recounts the Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle she endured: boiling water to bathe, sleeping near the wood stove, reading books by candlelight. Without a doubt, even Elsa of Arendelle would have frozen during a New England blizzard, so I breathe through her apocalyptic tone and listen to her advice.
“Get some milk and bread before it's all gone!”
A stream of teachers trickles into the library, armed with cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee and a barrel of resentment. It’s President's Day, a blurry federal holiday that shuts down mail delivery and the tax collector but enables local schools to prop open doors, should they choose. As a result, some teachers are forced to attend class while the students are dragged to household appliance sales. Therefore, I need to end the conversation before the crowd eats me for breakfast.
“OK, Mum.” I reassured her. “I’ll hit Market Basket on my way home. Gotta go.”
My mother raises her voice one octave higher, if that is possible.
“For the love of God, Maureen! You sound exhausted! Stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off! You’re going to get sick!
My breath is taken. Without a reflective filter, my mother provides consistent, explicit feedback on self-improvement alongside an occasional psychic zinger. It’s as if the umbilical cord that connected us has evolved into an intuitive energy she taps whenever she wants to read me. I haven’t told her about my cancer, but if I continue to talk, she’ll wiggle into my head and I’ll no longer have a secret.
“’K Mom. I’ll do that. Gotta go. Bye. I’ll call ya later.”
A couple teachers catch the tail of our conversation, their eyes tell me we share something familiar.
“Yup. That was my mother,” I admit. “Has anyone else received a phone call from Mom or Dad about Friday’s storm?”
Cheeks are spread with smiles and hands poke the air as we find common ground.
“My dad reminds me to check the woodpile, as if it’s going to sneak away during the the night.”
“GET YOUR LAUNDRY DONE BEFORE WE LOSE ELECTRICITY,” exclaims another teacher.
“If I’m gonna be bottled up with my teenagers, I need to hit the liquor store!” The room hums with laughter.“And I think we all could use a 3-day weekend.” I agree. Heads nod as I’m accepted as part of “we.”
It was my mother who taught me to play nice in the sandbox at work. She ran a preschool program and delivered cookies and milk to the children so teachers could take a coffee break. The cookie lady, they called her.
“Feed the teachers so they won’t eat the students,” Mom advised. So I did. I’d spend hours poring over each presentation, customizing slides to meet the needs of teachers.
“You spend too much time preparing,” Nick, my husband, advised.
Sometimes the teachers would applaud at the end of a workshop and it meant the world to me.
As directed, I stop at the grocery store on the way home. It’s evident that mothers across New England have called their adult children and instructed them to pick up provisions before the impending snowstorm. The bread aisle appears to have been pillaged by Vikings as customers storm registers like U2 fans at a ticket booth.
But I’m Michael Jackson in a gift shop, whizzing down aisles, tossing items in my cart without strategy or financial consideration. A rotisserie chicken, arguably the best innovation for mothers since the innovation of birth control, is tossed into my basket. For $6.99, the beloved bird will do more dead than it ever did alive. I add potatoes, a bag of salad and a bottle of wine then…Voila! Dinner. For a moment, I ride a wave of rock star euphoria. Until I’m stuck.
A man clogs the aisle, contemplating a box of cereal as if it’s an engagement ring. I’m tempted to ease his pain by flipping a box into his cart but consider that he may be performing mathematics while grocery shopping, as my mother did. I would rather spend the rest of my days trapped at the Department of Motor Vehicles than perform mathematics while grocery shopping. But Mom computed prices with 4 children swinging from the cart and a $100 budget to feed a family of 6 and buy laundry detergent. With the utmost respect for appraisal in action, I navigate around the shopper and head towards the register, thoughts of laundry dripping in my head.
As I line up groceries at the register, an alarm sounds in the task control center of my brain. Visions of empty drawers and overflowing laundry baskets instructing me to perform mathematics so I divide the sum of hours left in the day by the number of outstanding tasks: GONG! There’s not enough time left for laundry: I’m a losing contestant in my own game show. My frontal lobe kicks into problem solving.
“Do you sell underwear?” I asked Dave, the cashier. His cheeks fire red as if I just asked him to take off my underwear.
“It’s not for me; it’s for my daughters. They are seven and nine.” I throw their ages to desexualize the context.
He shakes his head, avoiding my gaze. I’m annoyed by Mrs. Robertson's paradigm that’s playing in his head because he probably thinks Simon and Garfunkel design office furniture.
“$26.43.” He reports to the register.
The wine costs twice as much as the chicken but this does not bother me; I’m taken aback by Dave's distress over my underwear comment. It’s a reasonable question, I tell myself. The store sells everything from pig’s feet to windshield wiper fluid and I bet I’m not the only parent who’d prefer to shell out $8.00 on a 4 pack of panties to avoid a night of laundry. Dave, I decide, is underpaid, uptight, and doesn’t have children. Disappointed but not defeated, I grab my groceries and head to the car. Next stop; parent-pick up.
It takes more effort to smuggle a child out of the former Soviet Union than to sign a child out of the after-school program. It’s not just because the front desk, AKA CheckPoint Charlie, requires picture identification and signature before releasing your child. It’s the social expectation that I must engage in conversation about topics and people that I feel tepid about at best. I don’t care whose kid still can’t open a juice box and know it's a matter of time before my cancer headlines the parent pick-up report. I'd kiss the architect who designed an after-school care program with a drive-thru option.
My tendency to worry about events that have yet to occur shuts off by the drumming of little feet on the linoleum floor. A little girl pours into the arms of her mother, having just escaped Nazi-occupied Austria by crossing the Swiss Alps. My daughter remains glued to a UNO game, her little fingers pressed white around the cards, as if she bet the house. Sienna, lifts a fraction of an eyebrow, recognizing my presence while signifying the importance of her card game.
“I think it’s great that your girls are so independent,” says the mom of #REUNITE. She plants a kiss on top of her daughter’s French braids. At 5:45PM they could be leaving for a Christmas card photo shoot.
“Thank you,” I say, faking a smile.
“Hey Mum…can I stay and play another game of cards?” Sienna hollers, looking to
have just stepped out from a Les Miserable casting call. Team #REUNITE slithers away in case we have something contagious; my maternal worth crumbles.
“No, let’s go.” I pull my other daughter from a dodgeball game and pack our collective exhaustion into the car. At the end of the school day our brains are full, stomachs empty and we’re tired of being nice to people.
as the seatbelts click into safety, a squabble erupts.
“Stop looking at me like that!” Sienna said.
“Like what?” Julia replies, feigning innocence.
“You know!!” Sienna spits.
A black Volvo XC90 carrying #REUNITE cuts in front of my Ford Escape. Secretly, I applaud myself for resisting the urge to flip the mother bird.
“Can we please not be the crazy family in the parking lot?” My request falls on deaf ears.
“Mom, Sienna hit me,” Julia reports.
“Mom, Julia was making fun of me,” Sienna counters.
I turn on the radio. Because that makes sense. No one ever said.
“I didn’t say anything,” said Julia.
“You were making fun of me, just in your head,” said Sienna.
“Oh, so now you’re psychic,” said Julia.
She could be, I think. Her Nana is.
The dew of a memory appears. I’m packed in our Ford Ranch Wagon, the value seeker’s model that lacks the exterior wood paneling side of the LTD Country Squire, with my sisters and brother, ages 4, 8, 9, and 11. While it’s a crappy car and underpowered, there’s a way, way back with rear facing seats and a big screen view of all things behind us. No one sits in the way, way back on this day; we're on the run.
She didn’t put enough ice in his glass.
“Are you retarded? " he sneered. “What kinda wife doesn’t know to put ice in a glass?” Steaming with contempt, Biff wriggled the wedding band off his index finger and displayed it on the windowsill over the kitchen sink, chalking my mother’s name in shame.
In truth, we were to blame. It’s a tall order to replenish empty ice cube trays while catching dripping needs of 4 young children. Our cups were full but at times, the ice cube trays were empty. When Mom failed to fulfill her wifely duties, Biff took off his wedding ring to disassociate himself from a loser.
Except on this day, when Mom took the ring from the windowsill and flushed it down the toilet. By the power of her own volition, she packed her children in the Ford Ranch Wagon and sped down the driveway, kicking the tired analogy clock on the dashboard into ticking.
We didn’t know where we were going but understood we couldn't be home. Nana’s house was not an option as she perceived marriage as a sacrament, an everlasting covenant to the church; my mother would be sent home to make amends. Only an Auntie, kin to spirit rather than blood, untangled from the web of the familia, could crack the dogmatic shackles of religion and challenge the echo of our cultural narrative.
Auntie Vel, my mother’s college roommate, cut her own wood, grew her own vegetables, and had a working vocabulary that could take Webster for a cup of coffee. Pragmatic to the bone, she’s a Rubix Cube master at problem solving, twisting, turning, aligning creative combinations until a solution is found.
“Stay as long as you’d like,” said Auntie Vel.
On this day though, Mom wouldn’t not leave him. The phone rang at dinner time. Vel nodded at Mom the same way a Little League coach informs a player to sit tight on second base. For 3 consecutive calls, the phone sat on the cradle until Paul, Vel’s husband, put an end to its wailing.
Biff’s presence filled the room. He speaks in 16pt Times New Roman italic font, letters standing tight and polished with an angle of annoyance; an agitated businessman forced to ride public transportation. Yet his voice hypnotizes Paul, the sleekness of a snake charmer.
Yes, Biff’s admits, his word choice was not ideal and perhaps his voice could be perceived as angry, but surely Paul can relate to the pressure of supporting a family of six. After all, Margaret Thatcher is presiding over England, so his college educated wife can probably figure out how to deliver a proper glass of water. Not to mention how the Patriots were robbed of meeting the Vikings in the Super Bowl. Within minutes, Paul is a pigeon to Biff’s breadcrumbs and gets to take a pass at owning his behavior.
It’s not unusual for men to lose their temper, Paul explains. Personally, Paul is vigilant about controlling his emotions because his wife is handy with an ax. Plus, he points out, we didn’t pack for an overnight stay and the children will not be able to brush their teeth.
“It’s more important for their mother to smile,” Vel grits.
Within hours, my mom folds from the pressure of not having money or a place to live. So as fireworks lit the sky in celebration of our 200th birthday from tyranny, Mom packs her kids and returns home.
A piercing voice calls me back to the present.
“Mom, why aren't you doing anything?” said Julia.
“Oh.. Sienna, use your words,” I said.
“That’s it?” Julia says. “That’s all you are going to do? Why doesn’t she get a consequence? If it was me then I would have a consequence. It’s not fair.”
I’m tired to the bone and I want to pull the car over even though there’s an impending snowstorm and rotisserie chicken just itching to be served. My children read me.
“Did you have a bad day?” asks Julia.
“Not bad, just long,” I reply.
“Mine was terrifying,” said Sienna.
“Did you tell the people?” Julia asked.
“Tell which people what?”
“About the cancer. Did you tell the teachers about the cancer?”
“No. Not yet,” I said.
“I have to talk to Nana first.”
“She probably already knows,” said Julia.
“What do ya mean?”
Julia shrugged her shoulders. “Just do.”
My mother calls after bath time; she doesn’t identify herself, her words gurgled by tears. The news of my cancer had spread before I was able to own it.
“Mom,” I say. “Mom. I’m all right.”
She says nothing; her silence says everything. The mother/daughter bond, buried in expectations, transcends words. It’s why I go to the grocery store before a snowstorm and worry when my daughter looks like she just fell off the orphan train.
Her tears tell the story of unimaginable pain, where the light of a mother’s love is pinched by a dirty, malignant disease. With faultless desperation, I want to hear who received a rose on the Bachelorette and how the toxic combination of alcohol and anger fueled the breakup of Brangelina. Instead, I just continue to chant, “I’m OK. I’m OK.”
love, a beautiful and bold poem, left unfinished.