The Wake-Up Call
“Rise and shine, sugarplum,” my mother sang. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Mom was a schoolteacher who supported us after my parents divorced in 1963. Now it was 1972; I was nine.
In the minutes I had until her final reveille, I would lift my head to the “window” between the headboard and bedpost of my canopied bed, and watch her start the toaster oven and fill the teapot. I called out “Through the window, please!” and she passed me my vitamin. After I chewed up one of the Flintstone family, I laid my head back down on the pillow, turn sideways, and a few minutes later, there she would be, visible through my other door, at her bedroom armoire, filling her pocketbook.
In 1972, my mother’s new husband Arnie arrived, and the routine changed a bit. We “all” agreed to shut my door that allowed me to see mom at her armoire in the minutes before I fell asleep at night. Arnie was a construction worker who left the apartment pre-dawn; my mom said he did not want to disturb me.
One sunny morning, I heard her “Rise and shine sugarplum” tune just once. The usual intervals between my mother’s melodic wake-up calls passed. I did not smell toast and I never heard the teapot whistle. The absence of sounds and smells made me sit upright. I opened my door.
First I saw the pocketbook. It was unsnapped and gaping on her bed. Her keys were splayed out in front of my toes. I looked toward the window.
That is when I learned we had ourselves a sunny morning. The sunlight shining over my mother was so bright that it was difficult to see her head denting the window screen.
I just stood there, my big toe barely brushing the key to “The Pumpkin”, our orange Vega.
I saw my mother’s beautiful black ringlets against the windowpane, and I saw Arnie’s furry hands around her neck. My mother’s bankbook was nearby, crushed into the white shag rug.
Who knows how long I stood there until Arnie was done choking my mother. At some point he noticed me and snarled; I had disturbed him. He lifted up his new bride and gave her a final shove against the wall. He snatched her bankbook and smacked my shoulder with his forearm as he blew by. The doorbell rang because he slammed our front door with such fury.
I watched my mother slide up the wall, rub her neck, fluff her hair and straighten her
dress. She tried to smile but her lips barely moved. It was this attempt at a smile, this gift for me, that made me realize the majesty of my mother.
She stroked my cheek. “I have to get to work and you, my darling, must go to school. Life goes on, sugarplum,” she said.
I believe we grow up when we will ourselves to smile and survive, all in a day’s work.
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