Annie Lane: The day our sainted mother crumbled

Published 6:06 pm Friday, April 28, 2023

My mother was ferociously fertile. Her fecundity was so powerful, all it took for her to get pregnant was to hear dad’s car pull into the driveway. Even her obstetrician agreed that on the end of her fallopian tubes there must have been tiny catcher’s mitts.

Picture this scene. Imagine a three year old child. Now look again and see not only that child but three more younger children. That was Margaret McLaughlin’s brood … girl, boy, girl, boy.

The good news was that Mom was a perfectly splendid mother. Everyone agreed she was born to glory in this role. The bad news was, however, that Mom was so busy with the four of us plus running her big home, she had no time for anything else. But miraculously (Praise the good Lord) this seemed fine with her. Like I said, she was a masterful mother and homemaker.

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I’m pretty sure I know what happened to all that fruitiferousness though. Shortly after Baby No. 4, Mom had a serious sit-down with herself. Using her way above average good sense, she decided to put a stop to this annual propagating. Through a mail order catalog—because shops in Austin did not sell such things—she ordered a chastity belt for herself. She kept the key!

Mom’s middle name should have been Patience. Her hold on tolerance would have brought madness to an otherwise stable person. It was astonishing how far the four of us kids could push our mother without her resorting to pulling out her hair. Or ours! Nonetheless, there was one time when we were 4, 5, 6 and 7 that we riled up such a perfect storm of rascally discontent that even our forbearing Mom broke.

Here’s what happened. It was July of 1943 on a decidedly sizzling, humid day. For weeks Mom had had all four of us home, 24 hours a day because, of course, it was summer vacation. Vacation for us. Not for Mom. This particular day was a sweltering, sweaty marathon-of-endurance kind of day. On top of that it was raining. Not just random wimpy drops, but the kind of gulley-washers where clouds vomit their heavy loads.

We were northern folks who were used to frozen nose hairs. This sultry business just didn’t sit well with us. And air conditioning, like plastic wrap and hair spray, was a far distant dream. We four hot, sticky, sweaty kids were fussing because we were hot, sticky, sweaty kids who longed for a snow drift to jump into.

That morning, we were barely out of our pajamas when the pestering began. For sweet, kind Mom, the day—without warning—took on a new complexion. To her it felt like the day was going to be a never-ending eternity. The grim truth was she was right. Mom was facing a miserable ten hours of tongue biting in which we kids were testing her every shred of stoicism.

But, we kids being kids, paid no attention to the slow burning meltdown that was brewing inside our mom. Instead we blithely continued our aggravations and arguments as if life itself depended on which one of us could be the most obnoxious.

That’s when, for the first time in her motherhood, Mom began to feel herself crumbling. The bands that up until now had held her so securely together were all of a sudden like the over-sprung elastic in a pair of well worn panties. Mom lost it.

True to her character, she was not reduced to ranting and raving at us. Even in this moment of extreme weakness, she knew such carryings on would have little effect. Rather, she simply stomped down the basement stairs, grabbed a suitcase and stomped back up all the while making sure we heard her stomps. About now she had our attention and we were staring in wonder at this woman who used to be our tranquil maternal figure.

Without looking at us or uttering a word, she tossed the bag on her bed and threw in some clothes. She then announced, as we drop-jawed-four looked on, that plain and simple, she had had it with us. She was leaving and we could find a new mom. With that, she and her suitcase disappeared out the door.

I’m almost 85, but I clearly remember standing at that door with my face pressed up against the screen as teensy wire squares embedded themselves in my nose skin. Incredulous with fear, I was sobbing. So were my brothers and sister as collectively great heaves of torment came burping and gulping out of us.

About then we finally got it. This was our doing. This was the consequence of our deplorable behavior. Smashed up against the screen door, we began to beg through the wire mesh. “Please, Mommy, come back,” we cried in four-part harmony, “we’ll be gooood.”

But, Mom wasn’t buying it. Without looking back, she was already down the front sidewalk and turning the corner, vaporizing before our wet eyes as fast as a sneeze. Not once did it occur to the four of us (now the newly penitent), to chase after Mom. Instead, we hung onto the door frame in a congealed glob of juvenile misery.

Meanwhile, an out-of-sight Mom was taking her own sweet time sauntering around the block, stopping to chat with the neighbors. Every one of them commiserated with her plight and waved her on to victory.

By now, we four were exhausted, our ignored pleas having faded to nothing. There we were, dehydrated and cold stone depleted. This was our first experience at being orphans. Did this mean that Mom’s gourmet cooking was about to be replaced with gruel?

Of course when Mom fled from sight, we believed that was it. She was gone forever. Visions of gray stone orphanages exploded frighteningly in our heads … our pointy heads. (Note: this was all about us, without a care in the world for Mom’s well being.) Soon our motherless selves would be farmed out to cruel step-mothers where we’d live in rags and be forced to do break up large rocks. Our beds would be on bare floorboards covered in pokey cinders in front of a cold fireplace.

Suffering in our own self-inflicted limbo, we collapsed into a trembling heap. Twenty minutes passed. Twenty years in our small trouble-maker lives.

Then one of us spotted her. Mom! She was returning. Slowly she sauntered up the driveway. We four, now reborn in the light, burst out the door, grabbed hold of her house dress and pleaded promises filled with regret, repentance and remorse.

“I give my word to never hit Peggy again,” declared Neil. “I won’t bite Neil!” cried Peggy. “And I won’t pull Peggy’s hair,” asserted David. “I won’t tease the boys,” pledged Peggy. “I won’t give Neil any more knucklies,” promised David.

“And I solemnly swear,” said the studious oldest child, Mary—who had never done a bad deed in her whole 7-year life—“that I will stop reading so many books and start watching over my younger siblings.”

Feeling lucky that it wasn’t December with Santa and his elves looking on, we miscreants purged ourselves of all our wrong doings. Yes! Self-chastisement was now the name of the new game in town.

Our vows lasted for about a week … until the next rainy, sweltering, sticky, sweaty July day.