Sunday, August 5, 2012

Please Don't Be Weird

The helpful usher at the children's theater was standing beside a big orange bucket, which I assumed was there to hold her torn ticket stubs. But after I'd asked for directions to the bathroom and we'd started walking away, Maren offered up a side-of-the-mouth, Groucho-esque aside:  "Whew. I thought she was going to tell us we had to pee in one of those buckets."

And I was off. I leaned against the wall and laughed. I hooted. I howled.  I told her, appreciatively, "You are so funny!" and she beamed with the pleasure of making a grown-up act like a moron, right out in the open.  Basking in the glow of her pride, it took me a moment to realize that one emotion was missing from my emotional soup-of-the-day right now:  shame. 

I am the mother of teenagers. For the past several years, any outward display of emotion on my part, any words delivered at a louder-than-average pitch, and especially -- most dreaded -- my hearty laughter, are  greeted with icy disdain. I've grown to fear what's becoming the constant refrain of my old age:  "Mom, you're embarrassing me!"

I can even point to the moment when it started.  That December, Emma was nine, Mary Katherine was six, and we were at the downtown Dayton's department store, on our annual Santa-and-show trek.  The Muzak was letting loose with a rendition of The Dance of the Snowflakes from The Nutcracker. Looking at the trees and the overpriced Christmas ornaments, I decided to try a bit of a humalong, accompanied by a clumsy pirouette. In years past, this would have been an invitation for the kids to join in, and we would have made like a trio of prima ballerinas in the department store aisles. This year, I felt a tug at my sleeve and heard a hissed "Pleeeeeese."

Emma pleaded, clearly mortified:  "You're acting weird."  Just as I was thinking, well, that's the whole point of the thing, isn't it, her younger, better self took over, and she decided to set her request to the music of the dance. She sang (quietly): "Please Don't Be Weird, Be Weird, Be Weird ... Pleeeeeuhz Don't Be Weird."

We all laughed. But I didn't take up dancing in public again, at least not unless I felt it was absolutely necessary. And the Please Don't Be Weird song became a staple part of my daughters' Mom-control strategy.

Which is why I take my friend Maren (age six) to the children's shows instead of my judgmental girls (ages 17 and 14). And, along with a host of reasons, it's why I'm still volunteering at the Crisis Nursery, all these years later. Let's face it, I need the audience.

Last week they sent me to the baby room for my shift, and I had four tykes under a year old in my charge. Here's one of my ugly secrets:  I think babies are boring. But still, it's my job, and I take it seriously -- or goofily, as the situation requires.

On this shift, the staff member had to run to the laundry, leaving me alone, so I propped my four charges against bits of wall and furniture, and, for a brief moment, they were all happily drooling and shaking rattles. Then I found that great rarity at the Nursery, a toy with working batteries. Even nicer, it played something a bit upmarket from the usual baby swill -- classical music hits in 30-second digitized formats, including (hurrrah! a favorite) The Toreador Song.

I took a break from nose wiping to deliver my best flamenco dance for the kiddies, along with a few improvised lyrics along the lines of  "I Am A Baby, I Am Really Swell."  The babies looked up, temporarily intrigued (with babies, everything is temporary). With that, the door opened, and an especially humorless staffer looked in to to find me, arms raised, lacking only a rose between my teeth, as I executed an especially snappy set of kicks.

"You okay there, Miss Julie?" she asked skeptically. (They prefer this form of address at the Nursery, so I continually feel as if I'm trapped in a bad Tennessee Williams play.) I lowered my hands.  I held up a pink rattle and shook it half-heartedly in the babies' general direction. "I'm fine," I mumbled. As least she wasn't singing the Please Don't Be Weird song to me.

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