The smell of lilac and Bengay floating through the air. This air, confused as all visitors, is warm and stagnant, unable to breathe or roam without the swift kick of an air conditioner. Floral patterns hug plaid and hold hands with toile. The pale blue carpet wags its shags atop and in between your toes, offering comfort and coziness that the plastic-covered sofa can’t touch. It’s grandma’s house, y’all. Everyone’s welcome (but leave your filthy shoes and filthier swears at the door).
Not too long ago, my grandmother took a stand against juvenile swearing and the universally ill-tempered. With a $40 payment and a few screws, her house would forever ward off ugliness. The glaring BE NICE OR LEAVE sign’s arrival just so happened to coincide with her latest and largest wave of teenage lineage. I made a point upon entering her home to swallow spare F-Bombs and embrace terms like “Holy Ship Balls”. As I grew older, the home’s demand for my overall kindness grew simpler. I could partake in the ever-flowing box of wine and sit, rosy-cheeked and oblivious to family tensions. I also found it impossible to shoot verbal daggers while listening to my uncle create songs on everything from adjectives to bowel movements. I entered adulthood convinced that nice was easy, as basic as breathing and re-filling one’s wine glass.
But there are things that people fail to mention about fleeing the cushioned confines of childhood. For all their quirks, you are rather adjusted and in love with your family, but there are more people, outside these ranch-style walls, waiting to irk the Holy Ship Balls out of you. Wine costs money and cannot be sipped at all hours of the day. Your uncle has a job outside of merry-making laugh-out-loud diddies. Without the complimentary cup and song routine, the task of BE NICE OR LEAVE seemed downright dreadful. Much easier, I opted to formulate an Always Leave Plan that ensured I wouldn’t have to be nice so much as I would have to be ready to run… at any moment… from any hostile, angry-vein-inducing situation. I bid my flimsy flip-flops adieu and headed into my 19th year with sneakers laced and gluts stretched.
Over the next three years I booked a million and thirteen miles dodging rage-worthy situations like a champion athlete. That blind-date during which I insisted I had contracted Immediate Onset Food Poisoning? That time I jumped the bushes outside a formal dinner party because I could hear my silent car alarm going off? The heavy metal concert that so quickly reminded me that I’d left my dog on the porch, and I smelled rain coming? I became victorious in the field of fleeing the scene before the mean.
It was around my 23rd birthday that flaws tainted my once-perfect plan. My first birthday since becoming a mother, I packed up my boy and headed out for a leisurely day of errands. I awoke, 23 years late, feeling mostly generous and loving towards the world around me. A beautiful son, a cozy home, the ability to say in all seriousness “Remember when I wore pantyhose to that job I used to work?”. I adopted this sudden gratitude, packed it in the car beside the slobbering, smiley tot, and made my way into the bright and glorious world.
The supermarket, inexplicably packed on a rainy workday, proved the day’s first of many challenges. We parked by obligation in the far, far, end of the lot. Without a cart in sight, I made the arduous trek three miles (uphill both ways. Oh! And in the snow) to the store, lugging a baby I just realized weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. I staggered into the store, dripping hot anger from my person, and learned that there were not carts. We would have to make do with a basket: a basket and a hundred pound Man Child and the burdensome weight of mounting hostility and an elbow cramp. The voyage to fetch a jug of milk was swiftly morphing into a test of patience and more than anything kindness. I took to taking huge gulps of air to swallow the ugly I so desperately wanted to spew forth on to unassuming irritants. To the man parking his cart across a narrow aisle, I wanted to yell viscous things in your direction. To the deli counter missing all forms of meat and deli-related items, I fought the urge to throw my sandwich-less basket against your false-advertised board of specials. Mean, mean pairings of words swirled around my mind until Holy Ship Balls sounded like a hymn-sung prayer for lost boat wreckage. I approached the lone cashier, feeling the weight of swallowed spite. I desperately begged to run. I would ditch this gallon of milk and run, free and far away from this environment of crooked carts and coupon hoarders. I would burp bitter like the wind blows.
But then there was this baby. A little child content and unaware of the annoyances this market would one day force on him. There would be no mad dash or even high-pitched hollering. Instead, I bit a whole inside my cheek, gulped once more for posterity, and forced a wheezy “Thank You?” onto the bag boy. An asthmatic admission that motherhood kept me from kicking your dog.
The route home from the Battlefield Le Kroger was packed. Already exhausted from having to face the unpleasant and meet it with niceties, I was ready to slouch on my very quiet couch with my very peaceful kid. But there were funeral processions that begged the question “Who wiped out a WHOLE town?”. There were utility workers pruning tiny roadside bushes and taking up a two-lane street with hefty, commercial-grade Tiny Bush Trimmers. There were elderly women lurching along to nonexistent school zones, and someone told the neighborhood girl that Garage Sale really meant All Yer Junk Out In The Middle Of The Street Sale. I fought that war between nice and leaving. My foot tapped anxiously as I wondered how safely my son would fare if I were to pull the trigger on my seatbelt, a tuck and roll away from my own mean thoughts. Perhaps I could park the car first, but was there really time for safety brakes when I felt hot hollers of hatefulness swelling in my gut? I turned up the music, should the sailor’s mouth get the best of me, looked at my talented baby in the rearview mirror as he gracefully sucked on both feet with one very tiny mouth. I rocked in my captain’s chair aching to cuss or sprint and unable to do a thing about either. So I screamed the words to the radio’s gleeful tune. ” BUILD ME UP. BUTTERCUP BABY! BUTTERCUP! BABY!” to which my innocent son gave a giggle, a clap. I met each negligent driver’s swerve with a high-volumed “GOD BLESS YOU! I SWEAR TO GOD…BLESS. YOU. SIR”. By the time we reached home my son felt sure in nothing save for Mommy’s ability to serenade and bless the masses.
I visited my grandmother’s home not long ago. We stayed up swapping stories and refilling each other’s glasses. It was on a trip for a second dose that I stopped at that godforsaken sign and pondered all that it’s message had meant for me. At 24 I’ve learned to hold my fair share of boxed beverages. I’ve learned that Gahd Dahmit and Matha Flocker and Cluckin’ Cluck Face still sound just enough like cuss words to be offensive to the Sunday church crown. I’ve learned to breathe, to sing, to holler such kindness into the air that the foulest parts of life vaporize, wash away. I learned a lot in the ways of fleeing mean when I learned to be a mother.
I’ve learned to BE NICE AND STAY.
How do you deal with “the mean”, your own or that of the world?