Spring was my mother’s favorite time of the year. “Look! Forsythia!” she’d yell at the first sight of the yellow bushes in March. More exclamations soon followed:
“Look, the dogwood trees are blooming!”
“Is that a daffodil?!”
Her four children would roll their eyes from their various squashed positions in the old Fiat. Yes, a Fiat. For family of six. No, Fiats weren’t any bigger back then. In fact, it was a Fiat convertible. But my mother never let practicality get in the way of fun. And a Fiat convertible was fun, especially once spring came. Well, for her. Those of us mushed into the backseat rode in cyclonic winds. We regularly lost hats and stuffed animals.
We’re lucky we didn’t lose a kid. My mother, free spirit that she was, let us sit on the folded-up convertible top when summer came. She had her fears, but it wasn’t that any of us would be ejected and splatted on the pavement. “Just remember,” she’d holler back at us, “drop back down into the seat if you see a cop!”
Within seconds, one of us would invariably shriek, “Police!” Eight bony elbows and eight bony knees would collide as we all collapsed into the tiny backseat. “False alarm!” another sibling would yell, and we would spring back to our precarious perches. A trip of six blocks necessitated five hasty crashes back into legal passenger positions.
Teachers and neighbors would ask me where I got all the bruises. “We saw a lot of police cars on our way to the pool,” I would explain, thereby explaining nothing.
When my parents divorced, backpacks, pillows, and suitcases had to be shuttled between houses along with children. Even my mother had to concede that Fun Fiat couldn’t manage the job. She needed to buy something bigger and safer.
She bought a used Ford Pinto instead. A nice hatchback with wood paneling. Also, yes, the same car that had a defective gas tank that exploded on impact. (At least she managed the bigger part.) We shuttled between Virginia and D.C. in that Pinto for years. Sometimes, she’d take us on the scenic routes. It would take twice as long in the spring, of course, because she would pull over to examine flowers. Her stops and detours off the main road were sometimes violent and without warning.
It is a testament to the collective driving skills of Northern Virginians and DC locals that no one ever rear-ended that Pinto. It is a testament to sheer dumb luck that my mother never hit anything.
Even when she should have. The “way back” was the most coveted seat in the car, despite the lack of seat belts. It was the only place out of sibling poking/ elbowing range. I had the coveted way back the day my mother slammed on the brakes. I flew over the backseat, crashed into the passenger’s seat, bounced off, and landed on the floor of the car, narrowly missing future lawyer sis. I struggled up from the floor, battered and furious.
My mom didn’t even look back. She pointed out the windshield, and yelled, “Look! A peacock!”
Sure enough, there was a royal blue male peacock, lost in the boonies of Virginia (or possibly Maryland). His tail fanned out as he strutted across the road. He took his time, too. Perhaps Mr. Peacock mistook the drab wood paneling for peahen. He might have. There weren’t any other peacocks for miles. To this day, I have no idea where that demon peacock came from.
I liked to think he made a nice meal for a pit bull, gorgeous tail feathers and all.
I always thought of my mom as an impulsive mess. She dropped out of college and married my dad. Had too many kids, then went back to school and then law school. Baby Brother arrived in her second year of law school and Little Singing Sister arrived just weeks after she graduated. I’m amazed that she did graduate, but then she spent the next four years not using the law degree in order to raise a few more babies, rather than feeding and nurturing the kids she already had.
And then she died.
The day before I got on a plane (alone) to fly thousands of miles (alone) to start my freshman year of college (alone), my father took me aside. He reminded me that my mother “wasn’t cut out for college” when she was my age. He told me that if I didn’t think it was working out, there was no shame in dropping out. It was a touching speech, and a huge concession from my White Tiger father.
I responded about like you’d expect. With a snarl. “I am NOT my mother.”
I graduated in three years with three majors, summa cum laude. I followed that up with an MFA. I did not have unprotected sex, I did not get pregnant, and I did not get married. In short, I made none of my mother’s mistakes.
One spring in Los Angeles, I bought a car. A NEW car. Reliable, with a good safety rating and good gas mileage. (See? Still not my mom.) I took it out for a spin with my boyfriend, down the Pacific Coast Highway, then up into the green Palos Verdes Peninsula.
I rounded a corner and slammed on the brakes.
Tires squealed. My boyfriend’s head whipped back and he yelled, “What the hell?!”
I pointed at the road. “Look! Peacock!”
And there he was, strutting on asphalt. A second peacock glided down from the hillside above us. He landed next to the first peacock. Together they crossed the road and disappeared into the brush.
We drove on. I saw an overlook and a flash of yellow. I pulled over, then jumped out to investigate. Sure enough, there was a whole patch of flowers. I knelt next to them. “Look! Are these crocuses? Or a daffodils?”
I looked back. My perplexed boyfriend was still in the car. He’d stood up on the passenger seat to watch me, though, and his arms rested on the top of the windshield.
Because my new car was a convertible. A hard top, yes, but a convertible.
A convertible that I’d stopped, so I could enjoy spring flowers.
After risking death so I wouldn’t hurt a damned peacock.
Aw, hell. I was my mother after all.
*I have since learned that there are TONS of peacocks on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The residents hate them. The peacocks crap on the pretty red tile roofs and shriek at all hours. The peacocks are protected, however, so coyotes are the residents’ only hope for relief.