Mother’s Day: A Story of Redemption

Those are some of my favorite earrings. My kid chose them as a gift for me when he was a toddler, can’t recall the occasion. Hanging out on his dad’s hip, he picked them out of a glass case in a favorite store in Knoxville, Tennessee, my erstwhile hometown. I wear them when I’m wistful for him, or worried about him, or when I’m feeling sentimental. Or sometimes simply when I need yellow earrings.

The week before Easter Sunday my now man-child messaged to remind me he expected an Easter basket (never mind the thousand miles that separate us). I said, You’re 26. He said he’d be contacting child protective services, because that’s how we roll. In the end, I sent him a box of Easter treats after the fact, including his favorite Peeps (which I find revolting). But these were no ordinary Peeps: they were chocolatey-looking abominations, three outsized versions of the chickee originals, in a special edition package. A milk chocolate coating that came up to about the widest part of their girth made them look a little like they’d been bobbing around in an oil spill, because why not take something disgusting to begin with and make it evoke some environmental calamity.

I also sent him a little piece of motherly advice: Go easy, son—you’re still on the mend from sepsis and, you know, renal failure. I included some healthy treats in the box and urged him to start with those. After a while you can move on to the Peeps and Cadbury’s and the other god-awful corn-syrupy confections, I said.

My kid has a checkered history with Peeps. They showed up in his Easter basket year to year starting way back when he was a peanut, because, after all, that’s the one occasion where eating sugary gelatin coated with more sugar is okay, speaking here as a mom concerned with the welfare of my child, but unwilling to rob him of the singular joy of grazing on all that candy on Easter morning.

But there’s another Peeps story from his childhood with a tad more significance. First, a little history. My kid never misses a detail—this was true of him as a child, and it’s true now. Not sure whether he learned this from me, as I’m a micro-view kind of gal, always have been, or whether it’s in his genes. And his own genetic stew is still a bit foggy, as his dad and I adopted him when he was only three days old. Anyway. By the time he reached middle school he’d developed an impressive aptitude for finding the ridiculous in just about any human situation. Case in point: the number of Mexicans who can fit into a sub-compact car.

Before you get your dander up and decide I’m anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, or just plain racist, consider this: my kid is half Mexican, third generation. This much I know about him. The rest of him, like so many of us, is open for debate. But he started noticing the sub-compact car phenomenon around the same time Knoxville’s Latino population was exploding. Before then there were always migrant laborers who came north during late-summer harvest, but then disappeared south again when it ended. Now they were staking a claim to our city, declaring it home, and before long an entire enclave existed where there was none before. This influx introduced a wonderful, enriching cultural dimension to the existing population, seen and felt in so many places. Any reasonable person could see this new texture woven into the city’s fiber only as the good thing it was.

Many of the migrants from Mexico and Guatemala enjoyed prosperity in Knoxville through time and hard work; others were still getting there. These were primarily the newest arrivals, who leaned on the goodwill of friends and relatives who already owned a car, to get them to work or wherever else they needed to go. Hence, my kid’s occasional observation from the back seat of our gigantic mom-mobile: Look how many Mexicans are in that car!

Just a few years later my kid would suffer from a nicotine-addled withdrawal episode (after his dad and I discovered his tobacco contraband and confiscated it) that would eventually earn him a year at a residential school for boys with severe attention deficit disorder. It was a last-resort measure, after long years of trying conventional strategies to help him cope with all the challenges that are part and parcel of brain chemistry issues, and to fit in generally, goals that grew more vexing and seemingly less attainable with each passing year. The boarding school was not too far from home—only a couple of hours’ drive—which made it an attractive option. Still, he was living away from us and together with other boys who struggled with similar issues, in close quarters, under tight supervision, and with few of the creature comforts or privileges he enjoyed ‘til then. One verboten pleasure was candy. The school had a beautiful dining hall and scratch-made cuisine lovingly prepared for kids whose diets required careful tweaking and monitoring. Peeps didn’t make the cut.

But Easter week was a ‘home-stay’ week, meaning, if you’d been toeing the line, dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s, you got to go hang out at home with your family for the week. And because he’d only just started at this school in mid-winter, this was to be his first home-stay.

The boy earned it by the skin of his teeth, which is his way. And the instant he walked through the door, started asking about his Easter basket, of all things. I said then more or less what I told him a couple of weeks ago, minus the intervening decade: eh, you’re 17. In the end I agreed to buy him the coveted Peeps he wanted so badly. So off we went to browse the half-off table at our local CVS, returning home a short time later with three or four boxes. We plunked them down on the kitchen table and more or less forgot about them until the next Monday morning: back-to-school day. After his dad left for work that morning, an angry and sullen 17-y-o decided to dig in his heels: I’m not going back, and you can’t make me. Then he barricaded himself in the bathroom.

We knew this might happen, had even been warned it might, but I still felt blindsided by this eleventh-hour explosion. I called his dad and asked him to come home immediately, and then called the school and asked for his counselor, whose calm demeanor in turn helped me stay calm. Speak in short sentences, he said. Explain to him his two options: Choose to come back of your own accord, or choose to arrive in the back seat of a state trooper’s cruiser. And if he makes the smart decision to come back on his own, the counselor went on, make sure there’s no way he can unlock the car door. If you stop for anything on the way back, he must stay in the car and one of you must remain with him.

It felt an awful lot like dealing with a toddler, like the one on his daddy’s hip who picked out those pretty earrings.

These are the moments you never expect when you step into mama shoes, when you’re holding that perfect, sweet-smelling infant sleeping in your arms. And then, just when you start to question whether you should ever have chosen this pathway to begin with, because now the world is ending and your child is obviously a damaged wreck of a human, and possibly it’s your fault, he does some small thing that makes you realize the world is okay, and most likely he’ll be okay. Kind of a little tap on the shoulder that takes you out of this hell you’re living and reminds you there is always hope. This time, redemption came a few moments before we loaded his clean clothing and school books back into the car.

He breezed through the kitchen and saw the forgotten, unopened boxes of Peeps on the table.

We need to pack those, too, he said.

Nope. Remember? You can’t bring candy onto campus.

Dang. Yeah. Okay. <Rips open the first box, begins shoving the marsmallowy yellow goop into his mouth, without swallowing. Rips open second box, repeats. Etc.>

About this moment his dad arrived home and stepped through the front door.

What on earth is in your mouth? <horrified dad expression>

And without missing a beat, my half-Latino kid quipped, Mexicans.

It was one of the most beautiful and reassuring moments that passed between all of us—me, the boy, and his dad, standing there in our kitchen.

But the truth is, I didn’t see it that way until years later. For all you moms in the middle of big messes right now: hang tight. There are no guarantees in life, but there probably are signs your big work is paying off, however remote, or even invisible they are right now. I wish you peace today, and redemption when you most need it. Happy Mother’s Day.

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