I recently received…

I recently received an e-mail from my best friend, Ken. It contained only four cryptic words: “My boys can swim!”
At least they might be cryptic to anyone not aware that he and his wife, Rhea, had been trying to conceive for a while. In less than nine months, I’m going to be a pseudo-uncle, and that scares me. I started looking back on my own upbringing and decided that I had turned out more than a little strange. What was the source of all my eccentricities? Would they rub off on Ken and Rhea’s child? I pondered these questions and realized that everything pointed back to one source: my mother.
It started before I could have even known she was playing games with my head. My family went on vacation every summer, piling into the car and driving for endless hours from Cleveland to some destination on the east side of the Mississippi. As we passed through countless rural areas, my mother would identify the flora and fauna for us. “Look at the horses, kids,” or, “Do you guys see the cows over there?” Horses, cows, pigs and sheep were all drilled into my young mind. Then I started going to school.
One of the first days of kindergarten, Mrs. Riccuto quizzed us on the animals and vegetables of America. She held up a flash card with a picture of a dog, a cat and then a horse. Our little hands would shoot up in the air as she asked who could identify each. I felt confident when I saw the horse and my arm must have been slightly faster than all the others because Mrs. Riccuto pointed to me. “It’s a horse,” I said. Everyone started laughing, but I didn’t get the joke.
Caught between a grin and a frown, Mrs. Riccuto politely informed me that, “No dear, it’s a cow.”
“But my mom told me that that’s a horse.”
“Are you sure? This is definitely a cow.”
“Um, OK.” I then realized the world was confused. Couldn’t they tell the difference between horses and cows? I remained silent while we were shown a picture of a cow everyone thought was a horse, a sheep everyone thought was a pig, a pineapple everyone thought was a pumpkin, ad nauseam.
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed that the meaning of a word is how we use it in a language community. What counts as a “game”? Precisely those things everyone agrees makes “X is a game” a properly constructed sentence. Philosophers, being the types to come up with strange reconstructions of an originally simple theory, have since wondered whether there can be a language community of just one person. In my case, the question is whether there can be a community of just two.
I hear about people going horseback riding, but when I see them in action they are on cows. I still don’t understand why there is a horse on the milk carton or why we carve pineapples for Halloween. My mother and I can carry on a conversation with no difficulty, but when I’m in the car with anyone else, my brain must do a little extra processing. I have to constantly remind myself to say “cow” whenever I see a horse, just to make everyone else comfortable. It’s annoying, but the confused masses need to be humored.
Of course my mother passed on more than farm information to me. I inherited some unique communications tools.
Nothing is out of bounds when talking to her. During my junior year, some friends and I drove to Cleveland for a weekend concert. We hadn’t been in the house for more than half an hour when my mother cornered a freshman named Steve in the dining room. I sat nearby, sadistically eavesdropping, as my mother put him on the spot. She started casually with the normal stuff. What was he majoring in? Did he like school? What was it like growing up in southeast Ohio? Steve glanced over at me with a she’s-not-so-bad look on his face. Then she dropped the bomb, “So, Steve, what kinds of drugs have you taken?” Steve’s jaw dropped.
The thing is, you can’t lie to my mother. Ken once described it as her being able to bore into his soul. She will ask a question and look at you in a way that demands honesty. It drives my friends crazy, and when they catch me doing the same thing, they get even crazier.
A conversation with my mother is paradoxical. After the first time, people tell me they fear the next encounter. Yet at the same time they anxiously look forward to it. Somehow, despite the discomfort of the process, my mother is a “cool” person to talk to.
For a while I theorized that my friends felt liberated speaking to someone older than themselves and always telling the truth, but that can’t quite be it because, although she is more open-minded than many mothers, she will be judgmental. If you smoke or chew tobacco, you’ll get the lecture. If you have a tattoo, you’ll hear what a terrible mistake that was. That Steve had tried several different drugs didn’t phase her at all. No, the source of their pleasure had to be something else.
Fortunately, my mother and I are immune to each other’s soul boring. There are a lot of things in my soul I don’t want her to know about, and I’m sure there are things in hers that I’d rather not discover. That doesn’t stop her from talking about them, though, and her own brutal honesty may be the thing that makes my friends smile when they talk about meeting her.
I spent last summer at home, and one night I returned from the bar to find Kristie and Brian, two of my fellow graduate students, sitting in their car in front of the house. They were on their way back to Minneapolis and had decided to visit for a couple days. I tried to prepare Kristie and Brian for my mother before my parents returned from a short vacation, but to no avail.
The night they got back, my mother, Kristie, Brian and I sat on the back porch talking about this and that, until the conversation turned to the trip itself. While visiting North Carolina, my cousin, who lives down there, had obtained some marijuana for my parents and their friends. Sure, my mother had grown up in the ’60s, but she had never experimented with drugs. With the kids grown up, it had been time. She proceeded to describe the entire experience in detail to us. We heard how both her and my father had gotten high, how they had stumbled up the stairs and how they had had the best sex of their lives — A fact you never want to hear from your mother.
Kristie and Brian were dumbstruck for a second and then started laughing. I was just in shock. This was a part of her soul that I did not want to see. But such blunt honesty makes her entertaining and offsets her soul boring. Kristie and Brian still laugh about the incident and look forward to seeing her again.
A world in which people conform their behavior to acceptable norms needs soul-boring and blunt honesty. It needs a little bit of craziness to make life more entertaining for everyone. The mildly crazy aren’t born that way, though, they’re constructed. I don’t know who made my mother, but she made me. Come November, when I’m a pseudo-uncle, I’ll be sure to do my own construction work. Ken and Rhea’s child will learn what a horse is and what a cow is. He or she will know that pigs are those white fluffy things and sheep are those pink things rolling in the mud. I’ll be passing on a legacy. I hope I’m still welcome at their house.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears on Mondays. He welcomes comments by e-mail to [email protected]