Lived Through This

That Time My Mom Sprayed Mace in a Bakery

Or, why I grew up thinking all adults are miserable

A person walking toward the right side of the pic against a colorful, motion-blurred background.
A person walking toward the right side of the pic against a colorful, motion-blurred background.
Photo: Bim/E+/Getty Images

I never met any happy adults when I was a kid. My parents were miserable, my parents’ friends were miserable, my friends’ parents were miserable, and that was pretty much all the adults I knew. I didn’t know that happy adults were even a thing until I went to college and met people from Oregon.

As a kid, the only real variable I ever noticed among these various miserable adults was the degree of flamboyance they used to express their unhappiness. Some people were low-key about their misery while other people were Don Henley about it. And at the peak of that mountain, existing entirely in a world of stylized absurdity, unacceptable emotions, and screaming meltdowns in Chili’s parking lots, was my mother.

It might seem unfair to tar baby boomers as a whole with the same brush I use to paint my mother. After all, she was genuinely unstable while baby boomers overall are a group of honest, hard-working folk angry at their children for not owning houses or something.

But the various cultural crises that enveloped the boomers hid my mother and her problems in plain sight for a long time. The way boomers swapped out their love beads for business suits suited my mother’s shaky sense of identity. The boomers’ aggressive discomfort with growing older successfully masked my mother’s aggressive discomfort with everything. But the boomer confusion about how families should operate in the divorce-and-working-mom-filled ’80s—that was my mother’s greatest camouflage.

There was a moment at the dawn of the George H.W. Bush years when America got confused about the difference between a whimsical, liberated, modern divorced lady who was finally letting her hair down and a straight-up deranged person. Were you serving your kids ice cream for breakfast and pulling them out of school for an impromptu road trip to Canada because you were a free spirit who wouldn’t be oppressed by a society that expected you to put everyone else’s needs first? Or because you were legitimately unstable? My mother rode that confusion straight into the sunset.

Some of my friends saw all this and were jealous of me. They were envious that I got to put Sun-In on my hair and see R-rated movies instead of having a bedtime or learning to respect my elders. And I agreed. I thought they should be jealous of me. No part of me longed for a piece of their tragic little lives that seemed constantly marred with chores and homework and not being allowed to watch Risky Business. Their neat, orderly homes and neat, orderly parents seemed like a nightmare to me. My mom may have looked a little like their moms, worn the same shoulder-padded blouses as their moms, and taken the same corny vacation photos as their moms. But she was nothing like their moms. Inside our home, the world of rules didn’t exist. There was only us, making it all up as we went along.

So I could eat cookies for dinner or ice cream for breakfast as long as she hadn’t suddenly decided I couldn’t. I could eat every meal in front of the TV, go to the movies on a school night, and stay up as late as I wanted as long as I turned off the TV before bed. I could shoplift as long as I didn’t get caught. I could sleep in my mother’s bed till I was 10 and wear whatever clothes I wanted, as long as my mother thought my outfits were cute. I could throw a chair at a classmate if I had a good reason (I did have a good reason). I could dye my hair green but only if I also waxed my upper lip first. We could yell at anyone who wronged us — some asshole at the grocery store, some bitch mother on the PTA, a teacher who didn’t understand anything because they were too stupid, what do you expect in this town, okay?

The rules that governed the wider world, I learned, were for suckers, weak people who lacked the imagination and drive to actually do what they wanted. In a word (in fact, her word): wusses.

When people talk about their troubled moms, they seem to always use phrases like “magnetic” and “larger than life” — as if they were describing, say, Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon and not a person who loved to run very complex price-tag-switching schemes at the local baked goods outlet. But my mother was not larger than life or magnetic or any other words you might use in a dating profile. She was beyond good and evil. She did whatever she wanted, which meant I could do whatever I wanted because I was an extension of her, an extra hand she could do whatever she pleased with.

I thought there was a war between parents and kids, a war waged with the ammo of nutritious meals and reasonable bedtimes. And I had somehow lucked out and found myself living with a conscientious objector. I ate my ice cream, went to bed at midnight every night of elementary school, and adored my mother, the fascinating, angry woman who blew a gasket in the grocery store parking lot whenever she felt like it. I saw the great power in her unpredictability, the way she got whatever she wanted, the way she terrorized the wusses of the world. I wanted to be just like her. Sure, we couldn’t be happy. And we would never be the richest people around or the chicest or the most well-traveled family on the block. But goddamnit, we could be the most out of control!

But as I got older, I began to notice other things about my mother.

We’d be regularly seeing a doctor and then abruptly stop and never speak of them again. It turned out my mother was getting in such aggressive arguments with their billing departments, we literally were not permitted to come back. Other mothers wouldn’t allow their daughters to join any Brownie troop that I (and my mother) were a part of. I met other kids with single mothers and learned that none of them had to spend their Sundays traveling across state lines to spy on their dads. I learned that my mother, with her fidgety hands and permanently wide, sparkling eyes, kinda freaked people out.

And when I became a teenager, my mother and I entered into a very different war than the kind I had previously thought kids and adults were engaged in.

We competed every day to say the most hurtful things to each other. We’d fight until I ran to my room crying and my mother sprawled across her bed, theatrically guffawing while watching an episode of An Evening at the Improv. I’d come in a few minutes later, and she’d ask why my face was red. “I was crying during our fight,” I’d say.

“What fight?” she’d say.

I felt like I had lost my mind every time. Had I actually made up the entire thing? I wasn’t sure. There was no one else to ask.

This fear would be compounded the next day when I would bring up something she had said the night before, and she’d tell me that none of it had happened. She’d say, “You’re crazy. I never said that. You’re having some real problems, aren’t you? You know, your father is crazy like that, and those kinds of problems are hereditary, so we’re really gonna have to keep an eye on that. Now eat your ice cream, or you’re going to be late for school.”

Which brings us to the time in the late ’90s, when my mother Maced these ladies at the Au Bon Pain at the mall.

My mother liked malls because, as a middle-aged white lady with some money to spend, she could do literally anything she wanted in a mall. Middle-aged white women with disposable incomes are like the Kennedys of malls: absolute freedom, zero consequences. She could have strangled a junior sales associate with a pair of Spanx and still qualified for a Macy’s Preferred Customer Card. It was the only place where she felt truly free.

So, one day, while my mother and I were at the mall, feeling free and drinking unlimited-refill French vanilla coffees, she got into an altercation with two women while waiting in line at the self-serve coffee station at Au Bon Pain. Maybe they drank the last of the French vanilla, maybe they called her a bitch. I’ll never know. I didn’t hear it. I only saw her stomp back to our faux French bistro table.

My mother was mad. And when my mother got mad — genuinely mad, not the half-mast anger that was always bubbling through her and softly splattering onto me — no one knew what she would do, including her. So she sent me to go wait in the Contempo Casuals across the way while she figured out what she had to do to these women.

I didn’t have a watch on because I was 13, and I didn’t have a cellphone because it was 1996, so I can’t tell you how long I waited in Contempo Casuals. But I waited a long time. Long enough to get bored with all the neon pink fake fur coats and start wondering if my mother was ever coming back.

My mother and I tormented each other endlessly back then, but she wasn’t the kind of mother who’d leave me behind while she went on the lam. I mean, we’re Jews; we like to be able to personally witness the pain we are inflicting on each other.

But maybe this was the next level. Maybe I’d taken things too far — no matter how many times she came after me, yelling that I was a liar or lazy or ungrateful or a sociopath or a wuss, I never backed down. Maybe this is what I got for wanting to break away from her. Maybe this is what happened to traitors, people who didn’t want to be part of the unit anymore — they got left at the mall forever, surviving on the kindness of the people who worked at the Pretzel Time kiosk. Maybe this was real war.

Is that what I wanted? I had long thought I wanted to leave her and had made countless detailed plans to run away (all of which I was too big a wuss to realize). I had learned there were sometimes reasons to be part of the world instead of just scorn it. I wanted to try to be a happy adult even if they didn’t really exist.

But now, I wondered about how much I meant any of it. Did I want to push her? Or did I just push her to get her to push me back because that felt normal? Perhaps I had pushed too far.

For hours, I was consumed with my own panic, unsure of how to tell a security guard what had happened without sending my mother to jail.

Then, moments before closing time, my mother breezed into Contempo Casuals, wearing the same beige scoop neck T-shirt and dusty pink capri pants she had on before only now the outfit was topped with huge sunglasses and a silk scarf draped around her head, like Jackie O if Jackie O was only allowed to shop at Chico’s.

“Where have you been? I looked everywhere for you,” she hissed as she pulled me out into the mall’s parking lot. Once I got in the car, I found out that “looked everywhere” meant that she had called Contempo Casuals and asked them to put me on the phone, which they wouldn’t do, which meant I wasn’t there and also was a bad child and a liar who had disobeyed her instructions. But she was too buzzed on all the chaos to really get mad.

As we drove home, she told me everything that happened on her mystical voyage of vengeance: She had sprayed the two women with a can of Mace she kept in her purse. Well, she had sprayed near them; she wasn’t really looking. So maybe it got them, maybe it just hit the table, she wasn’t sure. Also, the Mace was 20 years old, and the only person she had ever used it on was my father, in the early ’80s, when they were arguing outside a Boz Scaggs concert. But she was pretty sure she got her point across.

After the Macing, she ran out of the mall, drove all the way home, called Contempo Casuals, and did some laundry. Then she draped her head in a silk scarf, made the half-hour drive back, and set her personal safety and well-being aside to come hunt for me inside the bowels of the mall.

I was too caught up in my own relief to even question the details. I wouldn’t have to decide if possibly, maybe, potentially becoming a happy adult was worth losing everything else. I wouldn’t have to figure out whether to stay or leave her today. I still had time to figure out if I wanted to be something else.

“I was feeling very depressed, which is how most stories start.” —Amy Heckerling * buy my damn books:

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