as i write this, i’m listening to a mix on iTunes i made for my mom one year for her birthday that i named, “mimiTunes.” the current song, “Old Man River” from Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” inspires me to tell this story…
when i was little, my mom used to play a game with us. we didn’t always like the game but we bought into it being a game and because games are supposed to be fun, we were in. we are super competitive if nothing else and thus raised to win. that doesn’t mean we do actually win…
one summer day (of many) on our way home from a jaunt (also of many) up to Niagara-on-The-Lake in Ontario, Canada, my brothers and i were existing too loudly in the car while my mom was trying to drive.
my mother was what i could only describe as a “deliberate driver.” she had this habit of slowing down, almost to a stop, and veering hard right when oncoming traffic approached, even under the best of circumstances, so how we didn’t end up in the Niagara River upon any of our visits is a mystery.
Niagara-on-The-Lake is a super-cutesy tourist trap, comprising ice cream shoppes, federal-period architecture, restaurants, apothecaries, and a healthy influx of American greenbacks (back when our money had value). it also had one of the best Irish stores in a 70-mile radius, so because it was summer, and my brothers and i could not be trusted to not burn down the house without her there, mom had to take us in tow as she purchased Irish fishermen sweaters to amplify her already robust stock that she’d amassed during the school year. she didn’t fish and she wasn’t a man. but that didn’t matter.
we hated to go there because the trips were always about the sweaters, Coach handbags, first-edition books, or designer scarves. seldom was Niagara-on-The-Lake about ice cream or playing in the Queen’s Royal Park that looked over the mouth of the glorious Lake Ontario as it feeds into the Niagara River (that flows northern to reach Niagara Falls).
“i know!” mom effused from behind her tortoise-shell 1/4″-thick framed, andy warhol-inspired prescription sunglasses. her grip on the steering wheel of our swede supposed-car also known as “bil som spelar ingen fungerar tillförlitligt” (which is “car that doesn’t work reliably” in swedish) resembled that of the white-knuckled variety so often seen on grandmothers about to ride in the car with their newly minted teenage grandson drivers on the way home from mah jong from the community center across town. mom was about 41 at the time. “let’s play a game!” she continued.
“yay! a game!” my brothers and i sang in unison a capella, unless bounce-slapping the red, sweat-sticky faux leather seats, >shhh-smak! shhh-smak!< counts as percussion. this was our first time learning of this game.
“let’s! let’s! what’s-let’s-called?-it-let’s!-called-play-how-it-do-you-play-it-game-this-game?” we sang again, this time not so melodiously, clearly already elbowing and angling for best position to win. we didn’t know anything about the game but we were NOT going to lose it.
suddenly, only inorganic sounds were heard. the car’s engine and the scratchy classical music barely streaming from the AM station a good 60 miles away were it. the paper speakers installed in the doors (we had broken off the antenna) made anything sound like a band of dying crickets.
my mom had us. we were SILENT. she was already in the lead.
“the game,” she said.
“yeah… what’s-how-it-do-called-get off me-start-rules-play-it-put-that-DOWN!-play?” we asked, this time overtaking the engine’s drone.
“it’s called … ‘let’s talk like worms!’ doesn’t that sound great?!” she begged, eyebrows arched, seeming eagerly hopeful.
i scanned her smoky hazel eyes in the rearview mirror, now unsheathed from the glasses. she was engaged in transition mode and this was a critical operation at the moment: as she stopped at the light, she deftly swooped her artist’s hands to grasp her thick, mid-shoulder-length ash-blond hair as she slid one of the two-dozen size 64 putty-colored rubber bands from amongst the 14 silver bangles on her wrist to make a tight bun. she was clearly executing Leadership Mode and the efficient up-do was evidence of her determination. then she slid her Mondrian print silk scarf from around her neck to adorn her turbo coiffure. she was nothing if not well dressed; the woman has seriously good taste in classic fashion. something i apparently never really inherited…
she donned this new scarf as a helment. my brothers and i were four-years apart (eight years between my younger and older brothers). despite her refined demeanor and breeding, we were maniacs. we grew up with very little rules and oversight, so when she put down the hammer, which was seldom, we didn’t know what to do with it: do we respect this or do we laugh at it? we did a little of both, truthfully. we were loved, in the best way our parents knew how, but we were pretty much considered full-fledged adults with no restrictions as soon as we could put on our own socks. hey man, it was the 70s and from the cheap seats i inhabit as i watch “Mad Men” what my parents did was nooooOOoooOooo different from any of my peers’ parents at the time. (doesn’t mean it was riiiiight…)
“ok! sounds-ok-fun-like-yeah!fun! we-like-play-WORMS?!-good-idea-not-understand-worms-how-do-you-worms-play-game?”
my older brother, who is a very successful banker now, elbowed one of us and hissed, “SHHH, i’ll TALK” to me and our younger brother.
the light turned to green and the car started up again. TH-TH-UNK-UNK-UNK. we all slammed back into the back of the benchseats. i think she loved doing that. lurching and slamming as she pretended to drive along the Niagara Parkway.
“how do you play it, mom?” the would-be banker asked. the way he’d demonstrated his finesse and interest in rules and regulations, it seemed as though a signing bonus and performance commission were riding on the outcome.
so there we were: the three of us in the back seat area; my little brother and i rapt with attention, our very beings trembling with anticipation on the edges of our sweaty seats. i’m sure i slapped and pinched my baby brother at least a couple times due to my own inability to contain my excitement.
“well, it’s simple, and there’s only one loser.” she said, with a native lilt.
“huh?” asked my older brother.
“how can there be only one loser? there are three of us. there has to be one WINNER. you mean, ONE WINNER, mom. not ONE LOSER.” he was about 11.
“no. i’m not wrong. one loser, sweetie. that’s what’s so FUN about this game,” she said, now fake giggle-speaking, no doubt to incite enthusiasm which had quickly evaporated from the kids in the back seat of the car and who had been replaced by her new three children Apathy, Grunting and Agita. “what’s FUN [smiling voice] is that the first person to DO something LOSES.”
good feeling’s gone.
“the first person to do anything?” my brother asked.
“well, no. the first person to break the only rule loses,” she clarified.
“Only One Rule! i LIKE this!” i said, refusing any longer to be kept silent by eventual 1%.
“the one rule,” mom said, “is that you talk like worms. and how do worms talk?”
“they. don’t. say. any. thing.” growled my big brother.
“RIGHT! so ready, we’re gonna start. . . . NOW.”
“but…” said the baby brother.
“haha! YOU LOSE! LOOOser”my older brother shouted and pointed at my younger brother, who was possibly all of 3 years old and henceforth destined to be part of the 99%.
however, being the third of three, he was quite intellectually mobile due to his witnessing of his older siblings’ shenanigans. these days, he sings for his church and has become an ordained reverend professionally, so he’s got pipes. and if he’s part of the 99%, he’s got God on his side, so i’m good with that.