Normal is not something you aspire to; it’s something to get away from. Jodi foster
(For my mother on her ninety-third birthday, September 29, 2011)
My mother’s father ran a tight ship. Despite his mystic Swedenborgian upbringing, he strived to be normal. You knew that Monday was leftover lamb and Wednesday was roasted chicken, and, in the Boston household of my mother’s childhood, you knew that Saturday was good old-fashioned baked beans and brown bread. And if you were my mother, you knew not to stir your ice cream with a spoon, even if you did it because your head hurt when you ate it cold and hard. You knew not to stir your father’s wrath. A generation later, I remember his leather slipper, how he slapped it on the stairs at bedtime during his visits to our house in Maine. “Quiet!” his slipper shouted. “Keep yourself tucked in! Keep yourself on a schedule. Be normal!”
My mother is the one who left normal. I’m not sure how long it took her, perhaps through a first marriage and widowhood in her thirties. But by the time I arrived on the scene when my mother was thirty-eight, she was moving off the charts. No drugs for her in childbirth. Breastfeeding, of course. And sherry and wine, how good they taste. My mother found the taste of bourbon and whiskey. She found my father and his quirky family. She found paintbrushes and canvas. She found Euell Gibbons and wild asparagus. She found the ocean at low tide, a grocery store of new tastes. She found a dropline, a rowboat, a smashed periwinkle. She found her inner fisherman. She found a filet knife. She found fish guts and blood. She found the wild wind, the thrill of a hurricane, a carpenter to flirt with. She found an outdoor shower and the chill of the sea on her breasts. It’s my mother who left normal, the normal my grandfather, who probably was far from normal, tried to instill.
My mother found my father and they raised us and nothing seemed normal to me. Our grandfather, a softened version of the one with the leather slipper, and my Grandma Helen, who cooked the normal food, they moved in with us, and so did my never-normal and now senile Grammie Emma and we lived in a huge rambling sea captain’s home and we ate artichokes which were not normal in the carrots and peas New England of the sixties. And every Sunday, we attended our Swedenborgian church and that was definitely not normal, except we didn’t even go to church in the summer because the whole congregation, including the minister, took three months off – and who does that?!? It’s not normal. And I had a half brother and a half sister and that wasn’t normal and my mother learned to swear and she laughed at dirty jokes after a drink or two and we drove an old old car – we being my mother because my father’s eyes were bad and he couldn’t drive. Not normal.
My mother couldn’t make something turn out normal. She’d left normal on another planet. When our eighth grade class was studying Scandinavia, my mother was excited. She dug out her Better Homes and Garden Cookbooks from around the world and created a pickled dill-laced potato salad with creamed herrings on the side. And she brought it in to school for the whole class to enjoy. I was mortified; it wasn’t normal. I never had to leave normal. I inhabited the quirky land of not-normal from the moment I slipped drug-free from that mother who had left normal far far behind.