A Couple of Stories About Mom

Sunday was Mother’s Day, of course, and we (me and Max and Kate) spent it celebrating Tori. A movie. Max made a special dinner (stuffed mushrooms and pasta,) a gift and – best of all – when Tori and I woke up Sunday morning the house was, maybe not spotless, but really, really clean.

It was a good day.

Right now, however, I want to talk about my own mother. To a great degree, I am who I am because of Mary Ellen Baur. She’s been gone 14 years. Instead of something sappy and sentimental I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.

Mom was smart – I mean, genius smart. She hated when anyone brought it up, but her IQ had been tested at 150. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s plus or minus 15 points,” she’d protest. “Oh, so it could be as high as 165?” Might have been the only time she regretted her kids learning math. She was always interested in science. She could spend more time combing through tidepools than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a Girl Scout leader, sometimes three troops at a time as well as serving on the district council (seven of her eight kids were daughters, so …), ran “Great Books” programs in school, carpooled us to school (driving in three carpools every week) and so much more. And after she got us all in school, she went back to school, got her teaching credential and taught fifth grade at the local Catholic school for more than 20 years. (And, unbeknownst to me, she had a thing for Harlequin romances. In cleaning out their house, we found literally hundreds of them tucked away.)

When I was 7 or 8, I don’t quite recall now, I had the mumps. No one gets the mumps anymore because all kids are vaccinated, or should be, but in the ’60s they were still a problem and potentially serious. My glands were swollen and I had a temperature, and I couldn’t move around because the thinking was – I don’t know if it was real or not – that would spread them in my body and cause dire consequences. For a week I lay on the couch, all day and evening, waiting for the swelling to go down.

After the first day I was bored out of my mind and told mom so. She left the room and came back with a big book – the first volume of the encyclopedia. Now that might sound absurd, but she knew me.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing to articles on airplanes, astronomy and astronauts and the army and automobiles, animals and armor. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the week poring through the volume, and then, on through the alphabet. This was a kid’s encyclopedia, but a few years later when we acquired the World Book, I worked my way through that.

Yeah, as a kid I read the encyclopedia – for pleasure. Not every word, not every article. But a good chunk of every volume. Even into high school when I was at loose ends I would pick out a volume and thumb through it until something caught my eye, and settle down to read. Because of mom.

Once in high school I was going on about some – to me – interesting, trivial factoid I’d run across, and mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You are a font of useless information.”

Which turned out to be at least a little ironic. When Trivial Pursuits was sweeping the nation, I was good at it. Very good. I never lost. Never. Except one time. My mom beat me. Didn’t just beat me, she kicked my ass. So who had the greatest store of useless knowledge, hmm?

We lost mom to Alzheimer’s before we lost her for good in 2003. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 1999 that I learned she had the condition. What a phone call that was. I had called home to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Dad answered and said she was taking a nap, but while I was on the line he had some news. Not only did he tell me that she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but for good measure he added that the same week he’d been diagnosed with ALS. Yeah, that was a memorable Mother’s Day.

The last few times I saw her, she was already gone. The thing that made her her wasn’t there any more. But there was one more story.

Mom and dad were always a perfect match. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s still true, I never saw them argue, don’t recall a single instance when they weren’t one. If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” you’ll know what I mean when I call them a duprass. (And if you don’t, read the book.)

As their separate conditions deepened, they actually became even closer. As dad lost his physical ability, she became his hands. As she lost her memories, he became her contact with the world.

After dad died, mom was in a residential home in Denver, a short distance from my sister’s home. And she seemed oblivious of what had happened. Once she was talking about dad and some of his accomplishments and the cartetaker said, “Your husband sounds like a remarkable man.” “Oh he is,” mom agreed. As another of my sister’s commented, “She’s in denial – and it’s working for her.”

Anyway, that was mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

The Story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas

Gather round, boys and girls, and I’ll tell you all the story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas. STOP RIGHT THERE! I told you to sit down.

YOU – Will this be a loooong story, John?

ME – It sure will, and it’ll get even longer if you keep interrupting! Now stop fidgeting, pour me a little more of that egg nog – Don’t be stingy with the brandy! – and settle back. Alright then.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1960s, when Tori was just a wee slip of a girl, she and her mother and father and brother moved to the Philippines. Her mother, Janet, wanted to keep all the traditions of Christmas for the kids, but the Philippines were on the other side of the world and they didn’t have a lot of the things the family was accustomed to, including no Christmas trees with twinkly lights and glass balls and candy cane ornaments and what not. So Janet had to improvise.

She got something to decorate – Tori was a wee sprat at the time and today doesn’t recall if it was a palm tree or just a stick or what. But it was enough for Janet to decorate with local capiz shells and angels and – this is the important part – a collection of cheap plastic animals – chickens, goats, sheep, fish and a cow. Christmas was saved!

Fast forward about 20 years. That wee slip of a girl had grown into a beautiful, vivacious woman who I had the good sense to marry just as quick as I could convince her to say yes. (And that took some doin’, but that’s a different story.) We were living in Oregon, and we still had the shells from the Philippines, and fish and the angels – and the cow. It was a little the worse for wear, the garish paint had mostly chipped off and it had lost a leg (rear, right side, I believe) but we hung it on the tree every year, a tribute to family and memories and good times.

And one year – late 1990s or early 2000s – we were decorating the tree and one of the kids – Ben? – picked up the cow and asked, “Why are we putting a cow on the Christmas tree? And why does it only have three legs?”

We could have told him the real story – it’s a good story – but we’d already told it once or twice. Besides, what fun is that? What’s the point of having kids if you can’t fill their heads with harmless nonsense?

So on the spot, Tori and I made up a whole involved story about the cow being in the manger and witnessing the birth of baby Jesus. “’The cattle are lowing,’” we reminded them, from the song. “’The poor baby wakes.’ But what if the cattle weren’t lowing. Maybe the poor baby wouldn’t have woken up, so the cow saved the baby’s life.”

“But why does it only have three legs?” we were asked.

“Well,” we said, thinking fast. “It was a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then Mary had to give birth and that’s hard work, so they were tired and hungry. So the cow gave up its leg so they could have something to eat.”

We even made up a song to go with it. Join in, kids, you know the tune and the words are easy.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

You sacrificed your leg so that,

Jesus could have, his breakfast

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

Ah, good times. A few years later, when Ben moved to New York, we even recorded the song and sent it to him.

We still have the cow, of course, although it’s not currently on the tree. It’s in the box of Christmas stuff in our storage shed in Albany, Or., where it’s been since we moved in July 2008. (Yes, we still have the storage shed on which we pay monthly rent. It makes sense, but that’s another story. Get me more egg nog and I’ll finish this up.)

So fast forward again. Couple of days ago Ben was part of a live webcast for a series he’s in (These People, very funny, check it out online.) It was their Christmas special. Afterwards, the cast stayed on camera while the audience asked questions, and one of the questions was, “What are some of your special Christmas memories?”

There was a moment of silence, then Ben finally said, “When I was a kid we used to hang a three-legged cow on the tree, it was supposed to be the sacred Cow of Christmas or something. We even had a song about it.” One of the other cast members asked, “Do you remember the song?” Ben denied it. There was no way he was going to be coaxed into singing that on-camera. But I don’t believe him for a second. I’m sure he remembers the song.

But more importantly, out of all the Christmas memories he could have shared, that was the one his mind jumped to. It was pretty special. And it went all the way back to Janet trying to make the holidays special for her family, half a world away. It made the holiday for us. I get a little teary just thinking about it. But that might just be the egg nog.

Merry Christmas from the Baurs.