I was riding in a car to my grandma’s house with my father and sister when we stopped off at the dime store. It was Mother’s Day and my dad was buying flowers for my mom.
Can there be a better place in the world for a kid than a dime store? Comic books, candy bars, plastic toys, pink superballs, squirt guns, and a mynah bird in the back that said the store’s name over and over. “Ben Franklin… Ben Franklin… Ben Franklin…”
It was like a paradise. You could not have invented a store more designed for me.
And then, as we slowed for the big curve that told me without looking that we were about to enter the neighboring town, my father asked if we remembered to bring our cards. Our Mother’s Day cards.
“Of course,” said Ellen, bored. Without looking up from her book she held up her construction-paper heart. Somehow it had lace around it. It looked perfect.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM
My cards never looked like that. Mine looked like someone dropped glue and glitter and construction paper and a magic marker into a blender.
Her cards looked like a machine made them. Mine looked like the product of a sneeze.
But in this case it was even worse, because I had no card. For Mother’s Day! Her day.
She had two kids. I was one. And I had forgotten to make her a card. I was about to let her down.
I started to cry. I could sign my name to Ellen’s card, but that’s what I always did, and lately I’d begun to suspect that people saw through it. Certainly Mom would know. She saw through everything.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said my father. “What’s going on?”
I shook my head, unable to speak. My face had melted into tears. My mouth was stuck open.
“He forgot to make a card,” said Ellen, my interpreter in these moments. I hadn’t said a single word about the card. Somehow Ellen operated by big sister ESP.
“Oh the heck,” said my father. “Well, don’t worry. You can buy her one at the dime store.”
Buy her one! This was a treat! I could pick out something fancy, a perfect card. A card better than Ellen’s card.
I cheered up immediately. Vanilla cokes or cherry cokes (another dime store bonus), plus a perfect card, plus the flowers.
I was on my way.
The dime store and its Xanadu charms did not disappoint. I tried not to be too distracted by the comics, noting for future reference the new Batman, Flash, and Archie that were coloring the rack (later, later, later, today was Mom’s day, not mine), and headed to the greeting cards aisle. Suddenly I stopped short.
Before me was a wall of kitchen trinkets. Dishes, potholders, and a narrow section of spoon rests.
We had a new stove, which was sleek and black and had a smooth top instead of electric coils like the old one. My mother was thrilled. But I had heard her complain that the old spoon holder, a chipped dish, was an eyesore.
I had heard her say that yesterday. And now: here they were! Spoon rests! Brand new!
It was rare that I knew what Mom wanted. Dad always seemed to know, and if he didn’t, he’d ask Ellen, who could tell him. No one ever asked me. How would I know?
This time was different. I knew, I knew, I knew!
My heart was pounding. My mouth was dry.
My dad passed by and attempted to steer me toward the cards because he assumed I’d been distracted by other things, things I wanted for myself. Not this time!
“Mom wants one of these!” I blurted out. “She needs one for the new stove the old one is an eyesore and—”
My dad nodded. “Okay, good. We can tell her they have some here. Maybe she’ll swing by on the way home.”
“Can I buy her one now?” I said in a rush. “For Mother’s Day?”
My father looked closely at me. My face felt hot. I was desperate. Nothing seemed more important to me than getting this approved. I had forgotten to make a card!
“I’ll use my allowance,” I said, the magic words for any purchase. This was treacherous because I had not yet checked the price. Five dollars? Ten? I had no idea. Twenty? That would break me.
But she wanted one. She needed one. I knew that. And it was Mother’s Day.
“Oh, I spose,” said my father. “If you can pick out one you think she’ll like.” He told me to bring the spoon dish to the counter when I was ready and wandered off to the batteries aisle.
I turned back to the shelf and took a deep breath. There were a lot of choices. I eliminated a half-dozen right off the bat. A chicken? A seashell? Those didn’t seem right. I found myself drawn to ones that had words. We had things like that around our house, and they seemed like her. I had just figured out the cleverness of “We aim to please. You aim too, please” sign that we had in our bathroom. Slogans. Words of wisdom. Gentle reminders. That was Mom.
Two stood out. One was white with blue trim and bright black letters that said:
SUPERMOM works here!
That was good—very good. Supermom! Could there be a better compliment on Mother’s Day?
The second was decorated to look like a lemon, with a yellow background and green leaves. The slogan said:
When life gives you lemons…Make lemonade!
Wow! This was new to me. It sounded wise and philosophical, optimistic but with a note of wistfulness. I was dazzled by the feeling. It felt like Mom. It was the sort of thing she’d say. Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t fair. We make do. Those were all Mom’s quotes.
Then again, this dish looked like a lemon. Sure, that fit the kitchen theme, lemons were found in a kitchen after all, but wasn’t it too sad?
A horrible thought struck me: I would be giving her a lemon! Life and little boys give you lemons…
No, no, that was the point! You make lemonade! THAT was the point.
I swear this expression was new to me, but it had the ring of eternity to it. It felt grown up and mature.
And Supermom! What was that, anyway? She didn’t care about Superman, and she didn’t go around calling herself Supermom. In fact it felt more like a comic book, like something more appealing to me than Mom. I had made that mistake for Father’s Day, when I’d forgotten to get my dad a gift or make him a card. I had literally given my dad a comic book from the floor of my closet, which had made him chuckle in a way that did not make me feel great.
He was grateful. But it had been transparent. Supermom might be the same deal.
The fact that Supermom worked put me over the edge. Mom did not work like some employee at a restaurant, or maybe she did, but she certainly didn’t need a constant reminder of that. It seemed slightly presumptuous of me, who did no work at all, to give her something that informed the world (and reminded Mom) of all the work she did in the kitchen, in this jokey way.
Lemons it was. We would accept our lemons but then transform our misery into something beautiful and joyous. Lemonade, lemonade, lemonade!
I carried my spoon rest—soon to be Mom’s spoon rest—to the counter. I was so excited I didn’t even notice the price and the hit my savings would take.
Four bucks, within my range of dollar bills without even needing to tap my stash of quarters. Doable. I’d have gotten a card too if I’d had time. But Ellen was already at the lunch counter, sipping her vanilla coke, and I couldn’t miss out on that.
As I drank the coke I gripped my brown paper sack. Even Ellen couldn’t say anything. She just had her card—a perfect card, yes, but still.
I had a gift.
The excitement of my own generosity mounted, and by the time we arrived at my grandmother’s house I could hardly keep myself from singing with joy. Finally we pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. Ellen was ahead of me, as always, but I was close behind. It was a hot, sunny day. Grandma’s flower boxes were full of pink and white and purple wood violets and tulips. All in all, it was a perfect day for Mother’s Day: the best I could remember.
I could see Mom through the screened-in porch. She had come up early to be with her mother. I forgot sometimes that that’s who grandma was: Mom’s mom. For a second I wished I’d gotten something for her too. Oh, right. The flowers. Dad had it covered. Man, it was a good day to be a mom. Sunshine and flowers…and my gift!
I jumped out of the car and hit the driveway running. And tripped.
What had happened? I had stubbed my toe on nothing at all. My sandal buckled forward and I fell flat on my face. My knees and nose skidded along the concrete. But that was not the worst of it.
My arm had windmilled around to break my fall. The weight of the bag had thrown me off, pitching me forward, and as I fell I heard a terrible sound. A crack and a tinkle. A smash.
I didn’t break my fall much. Instead I broke the contents of my bag. A lot.
I managed to get to one knee. My sister was shaking her head, disgusted.
I opened the bag and peered inside. As I feared, my gift was in a million pieces. I clenched the bag shut and started to cry. I could feel my mouth hanging open again, but that couldn’t be helped.
Mom had emerged from the porch and was walking toward us.
“Jacke had a present for you,” Ellen said, handing Mom her card. “He just dropped it when he fell.”
Mom looked at me. “Oh…sweetheart…are you okay?”
I nodded. My jaw could not close. Just wide open. I was lucky a bird didn’t fly inside and build a nest. I would have had no means of stopping it from happening.
“He probably broke it!” Ellen said with what sounded like glee. “I bet the present is smashed!”
“Well, let me see,” said my mother, reaching for the bag.
I thrust the bag behind my back. I did not want her to see what was inside. I wanted to give her an unbroken, not-smashed present. Why, why, why did everything have to turn out so badly?
I knew what Mom would do if I gave her the bag. She would glue the stupid thing back together, and it would probably be usable, it would probably be just fine—but it would live in our house, a testament to my debilitating presence, just like the end table with the ruined finish that served as a reminder of the time I sneezed on the varnish and my mom tried to clean it with the wrong product., marring the table for eternity.
“Let me see, sweetheart…” she said in her gentlest voice. “I’m sure we can fix it.”
“No you can’t!” I bawled, because I didn’t want her to. And she couldn’t fix it in the way I wanted. She couldn’t make it new and whole and perfect.
“What was it?” she asked, trying to circumvent me.
“A spoon rest,” I blurted out. “Just like what you wanted.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I need one of those, don’t I? For the new stove. How thoughtful.”
“Tell her what it said,” Ellen said.
I don’t know if this was my clue. Maybe something in her voice triggered something in me. A new awareness. I knew what would happen.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!
And this, this broken gift, was the lemon! And my mom, being reasonable and generous and caring would suggest that we do just that…make something positive out of this disaster…and Ellen would smirk, because her card was not a lemon. Only my stupid broken gift was.
It was too much to bear. I had brought Mom a lemon. A broken present. And she had to make lemonade out of it. On Mother’s Day!
Some birds flew by. My mouth closed involuntarily, in self-defense. Now it felt like it would never open again. The cool breeze made my knees sting. Behind my back, my hand tightened around the opening of the paper sack.
“It said, ‘Supermom works here,'” I lied.
Ellen snorted. “It did not.”
I stared at my mother, trying to telepathically inform her that she should not ask further questions. I saw kindness but confusion on her face. We were entering a different zone, one where she needed more information in order to understand what to do.
“What did it say?” she asked.
I clenched the bag tighter. “It said that!” I said.
“No it didn’t! It said, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,'” Ellen said.
“Oh, well,” said my mother. “Then that’s what we should do, shouldn’t we?”
Just what I had feared! Exactly what I thought she would say!
“It says ‘Supermom works here!'” I insisted.
“It does not,” Ellen said.
My mother was thoroughly confused now, baffled by the discrepancy. How could her two kids have such different views of something so simple? Ellen was the superior reader, of course, and by far the more reliable. Mom frowned. Had I forgotten? Had I not read it correctly? She did not discern my dilemma.
“It does,” I said. “I bought it. Because you’re Supermom!”
And as I lied my mind raced with plans to throw the bag away. No one would know! They’d all forget! Maybe I’d take it home with me and stuff it in a trash can. Or put it in Grandma’s trash can. I could put it under some newspapers, and hide it, and no one would ever—
With feline power my sister snatched the bag from my hand. The spoon dish fell out. It had not broken into a million pieces after all. Four pieces clattered to the driveway.
Ellen picked up the piece that said:
I was caught.
“You lied!” she said. “You lied to Mom. On Mother’s Day!”
Mom had had enough. My tears were hard for her to take sometimes. And my broken gift. And my lies.
She returned to the house and told my grandmother what had happened. Grandma chuckled and went for the glue. She was even better than mom at this kind of thing. The two of them fixed up the spoon rest in no time, and I had to pretend that everything was okay, because to do otherwise would only have prolonged my agony.
I lived with the spoon rest in our house for the next several years. Then, when I was older, I slid it into my jacket pocket and jumped on my ten-speed. I rode to the parking lot behind the hardware store on the edge of town. Some of the dumpsters around town were fair game for kids to climb into and scavenge for cool junk, but this one was tall and remote and no one ever bothered. Still on my bike, I hurled the stupid thing over the green side wall, glad that no one could see into it.
I hated that spoon rest. Destroying it made me feel like a liar all over again, and a thief and a vandal on top of that, but now I was old enough not to cry, because now I was old enough to wallow in the pain of my own bitter imperfection. The thing had haunted me with its cracks for years.
Its cracks….and its wisdom. Yes, I lied, but so had it. Life, lemons, lemonade – it was all a big lie. It seemed like my life was different from everyone else’s, because I knew a truth that the people around me didn’t. Sometimes life gave you lemons and you should NOT make lemonade.
Sometimes you just needed to accept your lemons and snarl and fume and jam them in your pocket.
Because sometimes lemons were your gift, and sometimes you’d be lucky if that’s all you got.
Oh readers! Poor young Jacke, trying to do the right thing. That kind of thing happened to him SO MANY TIMES. One disaster after another. Ah well, it’s been a good run.
And what else? Getting ready for New Year’s! How about a run through the entire 100 Objects series? Or at least a quick look at some of the more optimistic, fresh-start, new-beginnings stories. Maybe My Roommate’s Books or The Motorcycle or The Tickets to the Premiere.
And of course my books are still priced at holiday prices. Why not? It’s my present to you. And unlike my other present, these won’t arrived cracked and in pieces, although I did have one reader who said she enjoyed my book on her Kindle even though she dropped her Kindle and the screen was shattered. A twenty-first century problem.