You can have your lacy, soft, cookie-baking mother, your mom of hugs and lullabies. In some of my happiest memories, my mother's a shit-kicker.
She's only 5-foot-2. But she's never cold -- put her in a bathing suit in a blizzard and she might suggest, "It's a little nippy." At Thanksgiving, she never needs to eat. And man, can she pack. She can pack for a two-week vacation using what looks like a brown paper lunch bag. And everything comes out unwrinkled. In short, there is something of the soldier about her. She's the kind of mother you want watching your back in battle.
A kid in seventh grade liked to torture me. Actually lots of kids liked to torture me, but Bill pushed the envelope: He held a pocket knife to my back while I was bent over a water fountain at my perfectly lovely suburban junior high in Silver Spring, Md.
There had been some questions, theretofore, about the degree of savagery to which I had been exposed. I was prone to writerly exaggeration. But on this occasion, a teacher saw him. And the tip of the knife ripped my dress. So I had evidence.
When I told my mother, she got in the car. She drove right to Bill's house. When she returned, she looked very satisfied. "I don't think he'll be bothering you anymore," she said. And he didn't.
Later, she told me she'd rang his doorbell and told his surprised mother that she needed to talk to Bill alone. She pulled him out of the mother's hearing range, then leaned her face into his like a boot-camp sergeant.
"When you see my daughter walking down the street," she said, smiling, "I want you to cross to the other side. If you see her walking down the hallway at school, you flatten yourself to the wall and let her pass. Otherwise, I am going to personally hammer you to the fucking wall."
Or maybe it was something like: "Otherwise, I am going to stuff your testicles in your mouth and serve you for dinner like a suckling pig." The exact wording varied in the retelling, but each time I felt thrilled by the Dirty Harry-ness of it all.
Yes, let children fight their own battles. My mother knew how to do that too. (I called her from a pay phone while on a bilious LSD trip my freshman year of college, to inform her that I had no idea who I was or what I was doing on the planet. She suggested that I make myself a cup of tea and get some sleep, then basically hung up on me.)
On the other hand, it's pretty cool to have a mother who is tireless in your defense against the evils of the world -- the bullies, the elementary school teachers with all the charm and warmth of nurse Ratchet, the chat room pederasts.
Childhood is a vale of tears -- always has been, always will be. I thank my mother for helping me to reach adulthood in something other than a body bag.