My children are weird. I have four beautiful daughters and they are quirky. They know that they are odd. They revel in it. Social norms are to be ignored or exploited. The minds of other people are playthings. Being called “strange” is a compliment. This does not worry or upset me, quite the contrary. It pleases me that my children ignore society’s call to conform. It is proof positive that they sprung from my loins. This enjoyment that comes from confusing and befuddling people is a family trait. It started with my mother.
When I was a toddler, my mom would watch her friend’s daughter Sarah who was a few days older than I. Sarah was as black as I was white. Sarah had deep brown eyes while my eyes were (and still are) blue. My hair was almost white, thin, and straight. Sarah had a black afro. One rainy Tuesday afternoon, she put us in the stroller and went to pick up my siblings from school. The crossing guards were already out and guiding people across the street. One of the guards, a woman around thirty, cooed over us while we waited for the light to change.
She looked at Sarah. She looked at me. She looked at my mother. She compared Sarah’s skin color to my mother’s pinto bean colored skin. She compared my skin color to both my mother’s and Sarah’s. As the light turned and we crossed the street, the crossing guard asked my mother a serious question.
“Which one is yours?”
“Both,” my mother replied sternly leaving the guard with her brow furrowed.
My mother passed this trait to three of her four children. We enjoy leaving confused looks on the faces of strangers and making jokes that reference the obscure. Our friends either have a similar inclination or simply have grown to accept our oddness. Our sibling who does not share our proclivity for shenanigans, among other sins, warrants no further mention.
My sister Vickie and I have been known to play “Bob and Janet” in stores. It’s a game we made up as teenagers based on an ancient (from the 1980’s) Kmart commercial. When we are in a large store such as Kmart or Target, one of us will inevitably wander away. So we will call out to each other but instead of using our names, Vickie calls, “Bob,” and I respond with “Janet.” Once we are in visual range of each other we revert to our actual names.
As teenagers, my brother Shawn and I shared a lot of friends. We would often go for rides in one of their cars. To make things interesting, we would ask for directions to the street we were currently on from another car. We preferred to find cars with only a driver and no passengers. We would get the driver’s attention and trying to look as lost as possible, one of us, usually Shawn, would ask for directions.
“Do you know where Cicero Avenue is?”
“You’re on Cicero!”
“No, where is Ci – ce – ro Avenue?”
“You’re on it!”
“No, we need Cicero Av-en-ue.”
The driver would invariably give up on us and speed away, shaking his head.
While I mostly did these types of things simply to amuse my family, my friends, or myself, there were two times that I did them to help my mother. My mother loved people individually but not in clumps. She had severe claustrophobia and could not stand having people right on top of her. When forced to deal with a crowd, she would become agitated. Her view of the world would change. Simple questions were personal attacks. Concern was obviously condescension and pity. Any attempt to calm her would anger her. Hours later, when she was herself again, she’d be beside herself with guilt about her behavior.
The first time I did something odd to help her was when I was 17. I would visit my mom €€twice a week and go shopping with her. We would shop when we knew the stores would be practically empty. Then the dollar store opened. My mother loved it, but the lines at the registers were slow moving and often extended into the narrow aisles. While we were waiting one such line on a Tuesday afternoon, people were crowding around us and my mother had a look of panic beginning to form in her eyes. I did not want to embarrass her by asking people to give her some space, so I decided to make them uncomfortable around us. I looked at my mother and stated flatly, but loudly, “I’m considering converting to Satanism.”
“It’s not that much different than the snake handling we already do, Mum.”
Everyone around us suddenly needed urgently to be elsewhere. Even the people behind us in line took a giant step back. The panic drained from my mother’s eyes and we made it out of the store without her breaking down. We laughed about it on the walk back to her apartment.
The second time wasn’t a shopping trip but a ride on the CTA bus when I was 18. We were going to Aldi’s to buy the cheapest canned goods in town. The bus wasn’t that crowded when we got on at Ashland and Division. We found a two seater bench facing the front on the bus and I sat next to the window. My mom sat next to me on the seat next to the aisle. I watched the grayness of my mom’s neighborhood sail by the window as we headed north. Each stop seemed to exponentially increase the number of passengers sharing our ride. By the time we had gone a mile, the aisle was full of people standing and holding on to poles, the backs of seats, or whatever they could find to steady themselves. My mother’s hand began to twitch. There were too many people close to her, invading her space. I had to act.
“Are you going to kill the goat or am I?”
“You can kill it, Kelli”
“If I have to drink the blood, I shouldn’t have to kill the goat.”
“Fine, I’ll kill the goat.”
People tripped over themselves to get away from us. My mother was still a little twitchy and irritable when we got off the bus. I hadn’t been able to keep her claustrophobia completely at bay, but it was not as bad as a full blown episode and she calmed down by the time we had finished shopping.
I am glad that I inherited this oddness from my mother, this joy in playing with people’s minds and refusing to conform to social norms. It pleases me that my children have inherited this quirk from me. My daughter Jovial, who resembles my mother both in appearance and temperament, will face the back of an elevator and sing “The Wheels on the Bus” until she reaches her floor. All four of my girls and I will play Marco Polo in stores, create instant parodies of popular songs when we are walking places, and speak in complete gibberish to each other. When we go out to eat, we will switch places whenever our server leaves the table. We are never bored, no matter where we are or what we do. Nor was I bored growing up thanks in a large part to my mother. She has been gone for almost a decade, but that special oddness about her lives on in me and my children.