Every Mother’s Day, I write my mom a letter. When I was little, I’d deliver it to her in bed, alongside coffee and a plate of poorly made eggs. In high school, I’d give it to her reluctantly, and in college it was accompanied by flowers or chocolate. However presented, the letter itself was always similar: it voiced appreciation for my mom as a mom — as if that function were the sole defining feature of her life.
Turns out, it’s not.
Here’s my mom on a Thursday night in 1976, standing on the side of the Wayland High School football field, chin turned up at a rising swell of expectant faces and clouded breath. It is cold, the air bodied with mist too weak to register as snow but strong enough to cumulate on the shoulders of the letterman jackets dotting the crowd, a kind of crystalline ash that settles, too, on the back of my mom’s neck––but she doesn’t seem to notice. She’s standing alongside six other members of the high school twirling team. The girls are nervous — the bleachers are full, damn near the whole school is here — but my mom is the epitome of cool. Her eyes could cut ice. She bounces on her toes, all muscle and kinetic potential. In her hand she holds a baton that has been lit on fire at both ends. She holds it as casually as others might grip a tennis racket. The New England night yawns out behind her.
A few seconds pass, the crowd waiting, the girls breathing. Then the bandleader, at left, motions with a gloved hand. He counts off — 1, 2, 3, 4! — and the small circus of drummers and trumpeters standing behind him start pounding their instruments, descending like tumbling rocks into the school’s fight song. My mom’s cue. She bends at the knee and flings her baton high into the air. The flames dance against the black. When it comes down again, she catches the baton behind her back, on beat, and spins and twirls it in front of her chest — bits of flame still lingering in the sky above. The crowd roars.
Here’s my mom at 19, sitting behind the wheel of a light blue ’79 Chevette, cruising through the floating golden light of the high plains at midday. Boxes and suitcases and trash bags full of clothes are bundled like stolen cargo in her backseat. She’s headed for Santa Barbara, where…