My mother was not like the other mothers.
The others always appeared at school functions clad in jewel-tone wind suits or high-waisted, taper-legged jeans designed to broadcast their devotion to Diet Coke and rice cakes. The hair at the crowns of their heads was feathered into what I now understand to be mall bangs.
Then in would stride my mother — zaftig, purple-haired and wearing a pair of men’s coveralls on which she’d appliqued orange flames licking up the legs.
“Hello, Noodle!” she would crow when she saw me, erasing any doubt that we were a unit and that she was not, in fact, a random crazy who had wandered in.
I’d scan the earth, searching for a sign that it was preparing to open up and swallow me. Alas, Gaea kept her mouth shut.
My mother didn’t even need to be present to embarrass me. While my classmates opened their lunch boxes to reveal Oscar Mayer Lunchables and foil pouches of Capri Sun, I discovered hummus and alfalfa sprouts on whole-grain bread. For a while I coveted the other kids’ lunches but was happy enough with my own. Then one day I was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of an especially outspoken girl, who saw me chewing on my fiber-rich sandwich. “You look like a goat,” she said.
It was an especially biting observation. While the other mothers had respectable careers as RNs, teachers and, in some instances, trophies, my mother raised meat goats.
And while the other mothers slipped into floral-print dresses and sensible heels for church every Sunday, my mother chose to sleep in. Our family’s absence in the pews did not go unnoticed, and my sisters and I were the targets of relentless salvation efforts. For a time, I went with it. My best friend’s church employed a bus driver to pick up young heathens like me and ferry us to Sunday school.
But that isn’t to say my mother wasn’t engaging in some form of spiritual enlightenment. To beat down the depression that plagued her from time to time, my mother purchased a djembe and joined a pagan drumming circle.
“Why doesn’t your mother come to church?” members of the congregation would ask me.
“She’s … busy,” I would say.
“She shouldn’t be too busy for the Lord,” they would counter.
How I wished for my mother to don something from Laura Ashley and sit with me at church, not so much because I was concerned about the state of her soul but because I wanted her to be seen that way. I wanted people to know we were a normal family.
A year came and went, bringing with it Comet Hale-Bopp. Somewhere in California, a group of nutters changed into matching sweats and Nike sneakers before killing themselves in hopes of boarding the mothership they believed to be riding the comet.
I was struck by the images in Newsweek. My mother did not buy name-brand clothes for my sisters and me, and I was in awe of the fact that one could be suicidal while wearing anything so glorious as Nike sneakers. I read and re-read that magazine, poring over the sordid details.
Then one day at church, the pastor got going on the topic of the afterlife. The book of Revelations was one of his favorites, so I wasn’t surprised to hear it come up in the sermon. I started to zone out, studying the shoes and handbags of the women in my pew.
“You know, in a way we are aliens,” the pastor said.
This got my attention.
“The Bible talks at length about UFOs,” he continued.
There were murmurs of amen as the pastor recited examples of horrifying beings and stellar activity.
I did not like where this was going.
The next Sunday, I sat in our living room, my stomach a knot of dread. Shortly after 7, I heard the familiar rumble of the church van’s wheels on gravel. It pulled up behind my father’s truck and idled. I stayed planted on the sofa and closed my eyes, counting to 60 in hopes that the van would leave after a minute.
Like a bad boyfriend, the driver started to honk the horn.
I closed my eyes tighter and kept counting.
The honking drew the attention of my mother, who came into the room to see about the commotion.
“Church van’s here, Noodle,” she said.
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“Then you need to go tell them that,” she said.
“Can’t you do it?”
“This is not my problem.”
The driver honked again.
“Mooom, I can’t.”
“Because they think there are aliens in UFOs coming to get us and I don’t want to die!”
The driver honked a quick series of honks.
“Oh, for Chrissake,” my mother said. She stomped to the door and opened it. Our pack of fierce terriers funneled out, snarling and barking like beasts of hell as they sprinted toward the van. My mom strode out onto the porch and waved her arms.
“Go on! Get!” she shouted.
The van reversed and sped away.
My mother turned and came back into the living room, cackling.
At the time I wasn’t literate enough to grasp the concept of metaphor. I realize now that the pastor probably didn’t really believe in little green men. Probably.
But what I came to understand that morning is that my mother is not like other mothers, and that’s a good thing.
I hope I can be just like her.