Sunday, July 30, 2006

Buckeye statement.

I went with my mother to Ohio this weekend.

Ohio's not that interesting, and, when I'm there, neither am I.

I beat my grandpa at checkers, which was impossible to do before he had a series of strokes. He's not so much himself anymore, which bums me out because he's always been a stubborn, mean, condescending, take-no-prisoners prankster. The way he'd teach you how to play a game was simple. He'd beat the hell out of you every game and badmouth you to your face until, years later, you caught on and didn't take every defeat so damn personally. (Of course, should you beat him at a game, he'd take it hard, which was fun in its own way. But he rarely lost.)

My mom used her "They may die before we're here again!" tactic for getting family members to visit elderly friends in her hometown, but I was largely immune to most of her guilt trips this time. I mean, any time you see someone, it could be the last time you see them, so you shouldn't plan your trips around potential mortality. And how rude would it be if my mom's friends knew that was why she came calling?

"Hi Doris, it's so nice to see you ... ALIVE," my mom should say.

On the first night of the visit to my mom's hometown of Paulding, which she says is the site of "a famous crop circle," I retreated with my cousin Holly and her husband to this trashy dive bar we've discovered in town. We stayed there until 1:30 a.m. playing bad songs on the jukebox ("Look, it's Nelson!") and talking about how good our relatives have become at fake-smiling and pretending to be happy.

I spent much time reading my book while aunts and uncles circled around me, talking nonsense. I had a really good conversation with a favorite uncle about playing Sudoku.

I barely had a moment alone with my mother, which upset me a bit, for this was the first year in a long time where we travelled someplace alone. (My brother's wife is giving birth in two weeks, so they couldn't come with us. And they couldn't do their usual schtick of smuggling their small dog on the plane.)

On the flight home, my mom ended up in a conversation with the woman sitting next to us on the plane. She talked to that woman more than she talked to me the entire trip. I listened some, getting jealous, for it was that stranger who got to hear how my mother really felt about watching her father's health get worse. It was that stranger who got to hear how genuinely excited she was about the new baby coming. It was that stranger who got to hear about how I was, in my mother's words, "an eccentric" who writes funny essays about Waffle House and read them at pop culture conferences.

The strange lady was equally as confessional to my mom. They talked the whole flight about how her 18-year-old daughter's car was hit by a drunk driver. The stranger was also in Ohio visiting her sick father. Her 15-year-old son, apparently, has been experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

I became involved in the conversation only after the woman asked my mom if she'd ever tried marijuana. Mom said no. She said she'd been around some people using it at parties a couple times, but she had never indulged.

So, because I enjoyed being included in their conversation after hearing it for an hour while trying to read, I told this strange woman and my mother the truth about my experience with the demon weed.

"I have several friends who do it, but I never have," I said. "One of my friends said that it would probably go badly for me, for I'm already a complete paranoid, so he told me never to do it outside of an extremely controlled environment."

My mom laughed. The stranger first wanted to know why I was a paranoid eccentric, and I wasn't able to answer her.

Then, she asked me, "Do I see a wedding ring?"

"No, I'm gay," I said quickly. (I already knew that this woman had gay friends and worked at Starbucks, based on what she'd told my mother.)

I don't think my mom even flinched, though that's the first time I've just told some stranger in front of her. For once, I wasn't trying to push my mom's buttons. I was just answering the woman's question. "Gay" speaks more volumes than "eccentric," I thought.

"Do you have a partner or boyfriend?" the woman asked.

"Nope," I said, "I've not had any luck there."

At this, my mom piped up and said, like she was bragging, "Benjie went to his best friend's wedding a couple weeks ago in Massachusetts. His name's Lupo, and he's a film professor. He's really nice. And his partner - or husband - got a master's degree in furniture design from SCAD."

This tickled me. My mom uses people as status symbols. Marriages, salaries and grandchildren are her conversational currency, and I've provided her with none of these so far. The fact that I'm single, poor and childless doesn't make her look good in conversations with strangers. If I don't have a girlfriend for her to brag about, my mom will apparently brag about any boyfriend I might have. And if I don't have a boyfriend or husband for her to brag about, she'll apparently brag about the fact that I'm close to people who do have boyfriends or husbands, as if the accomplishment were somehow also mine by proximity.

I called up Lupo after the flight and told him that he was my mom's favorite.

The more I think about the flight home, I'm less jealous about the time that stranger spent befriending my mother. After all, my mother broke the magic of their mutual confessions almost immediately after we left the plane.

"I think that lady was drunk!" my mom whispered to me.

I replied, "Well, if everything she said about her family was true, I don't blame her."

The moment couldn't last, I guess. At least my mother was open to someone about her real feelings on the trip. About her family. About me. And I got to feel close to her, by proximity.

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