Lately, I have been sifting though some of my old “mom-oir” pieces. This one sent me into a nostalgic giggle. My son, Matthew, didn’t go through the terrible two’s until he was four. During that tumultuous year, I learned more about the inability of men and women to communicate effectively than I did from the previous ten years of marriage. Every conversation was about power and control, but I didn’t realize it until it was over. I fell for it every time, like a child that is continually surprised to see the Jack in the Box explode from the can after five cranks of the handle. A perfect example was a cloudy day in March when we went to Safeway for a few groceries…
After circling the block three times in my navy blue mini-van, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that Matthew had finally calmed himself. He gazed at the tree-lined street, one pudgy index finger tracing circles on the window as the other twirled a chunk of sweaty blonde hair into a knot. I exhaled with relief knowing that the dreaded Phase One of Every Car Trip was complete. Weeks earlier I had resigned myself to the reality that every excursion would begin with a wrestling match that would result in my pushing against his rigid little body of steel with all of my might to get him to bend to a point that I could buckle his car seat. Without fail, it would leave us both out of sorts and screaming.
Heading toward the grocery store I put in his favorite tape, the one where his name had been electronically inserted into every song. Both of our moods lifted as we sang together about Matthew going to the moon on a magic rocket ship, and Matthew sailing the high seas with pirates.
The third song was about to begin when he called my name.
“Is stupid a bad word?”
I turned and gave him the exaggerated head nod and wide eyed stern look, “Yes! Stupid is a terrible word. You should never call someone that.”
“What about shut up?”
“Shut up is awful! An insult to the person you are talking to. Never, ever say shut up.” I saw him pondering my words, his blue eyes shifting left and right as he thought about what I was saying. It felt so good being able to impart manners and social skills to my little guy. Mother of the Year, that’s who I was.
“What about jerk?”
My jaw dropped with another dramatic expression of horror as I looked back at him again. “That could be one of the worst words of all time.”
“Where are you getting these words?”
“I don’t know.”
“They’re all bad. They hurt people’s feelings, and we don’t use them in this family.” I turned off the music for the remainder of the trip so my motherly wisdom could sink in. Finally, he was listening to me. I hadn’t connected with him on such a level in days. We were forming his conscience together. He would grow to be a fine man. A priest, or the president.
We pulled into the Safeway parking lot and he climbed into the cart without incident, an event so rare it made me grab the handle with sure hands and whistle while I pushed him up and down the aisles. I even took my time for a change, scanning the shelves for new products and the usual staples.
When I rolled the cart down the cereal aisle, I could sense a mood shift.
“Can we get Captain Crunch?”
“You know the doctor said no sugar cereals.”
His hands tightened around the cart’s handle until his knuckles and fingernails turned white. “I want Captain Crunch.”
“We’re getting Crispix.”
His heels pounded a slow, tribal rhythm against the cart. “I-hate-Crispix.”
“You love Crispix.”
His kicking picked up speed and the sound of the vibrating metal turned heads toward us. Our empty aisle was now crowded with carts. Where did these other shoppers come from?
“I want Captain Crunch! Captain Crunch! CAPTAIN CRUNCH!”
“WE’RE GETTING CRISPIX.”
“I WAANNT CAPTAINNN CRUUNNCH!”
Like a freeze frame in an action movie, time stood still as I looked up and down the aisle. Staring eyes to the left. Staring eyes to the right. Everyone was unabashedly waiting to see how Mother of the Year was going to handle this.
I took a deep breath to regroup, flashed my best fake smile to my growing audience, and dropped my voice to a gravelly whisper, “With that attitude we are not getting Captain Crunch or anything else today, Mister. We are going home right now.”
Matthew looked me straight in the eye, and at the top of his little lungs he screamed with the utmost confidence, “SHUT UP, YOU STUPID JERK!”
My mouth dropped in unison with all of the other mothers in the aisle. Shocked that he would string together all of the worst words he knew against me, I pulled his rigid, screaming body from the cart, and carried him over my shoulder, like a writhing sack of potatoes, toward the door.
Humiliated that all of the other mothers saw me as a failure, I gave them a final glance. Imagine my relief when I saw them clapping with looks of sympathy and understanding as Matthew screamed unintelligible sounds and pounded his fists into my back.
“Go Mom!” were the last two words I heard as I stepped outside, thankful that my cheering section wasn’t coming with me to witness the upcoming wrestling match at the car seat.