'M' is for the many things I've found

I have an uncanny ability to spot four-leaf clovers while walking across a lawn. Time and again, without conscious effort, my eyes dart to the anomaly in the blanket of green at my feet. Bending down, I pluck the treasure and offer it to whomever is nearby in exchange for admiring gasps: "Amazing! How'd you do that?" In truth, I don't know how I do it.

And like the real-estate broker I read about who can balance anything - brooms, forks, ironing boards - on his face, I haven't found a way to get rich off this genius.

Furthermore, my cunning is confined to clover. When hunting for things that matter (lost keys, birth certificates, fingernail clippers ...), I am not so gifted. Nevertheless, as mother, I am by default our household's designated search engine, its golden retriever. And my sleuthing has resulted in some extraordinary finds: silverware in the furnace vents, mittens in the dog-food bag.

Such discoveries provide me with small swells of pride. But my husband drains my half-full cup to half empty: Finding a double-A battery in the piano bench, he says, is a dubious reason to celebrate.

Still, I will not let him snatch this victory from me. It is the search that gives value to the prize, I explain. If I'd found the battery the first place I looked (the bathroom cupboard, where I did, incidentally, find a wayward piano book once), I would not even have known the search was on.

It is after scavenging pocket debris by the clothes dryer and pillaging the toy room for a walkie-talkie or Game Boy not yet gutted that my agitation is piqued. And mounting frustration raises the stakes. By the time I'd found the battery, it had become my holy grail. I cupped it like a gem.

But not all my searches have ended on a high note.

I remember the evening of my daughter's first-grade music program - no big deal to big people, but highly disconcerting to my small stage-frightened performer, who had told me days in advance that she wasn't going.

I readied her in my gentlest manner, tenderly brushing the snarls from her fly-away hair, dismissing the thought of a bow or clip, the mere suggestion of which might slosh our precarious pool of calm. The dress she'd chosen, a sister's hand-me-down, if a bit large, was good enough. It did not warrant the potential perturbation of changing for one of better fit. After all, I reminded myself, this wasn't a fashion contest.

"Put your shoes on," I said, my voice as smooth as chamois, "then we'll get in the car."

But the poet William Carlos Williams had it wrong. It is not a red wheelbarrow on which so much depends. It is one shiny black shoe. The left one. The missing one. The one that should have been right there on the shelf by the right one, or at least in the hodgepodge basket of boots and baseball gloves on the back porch, or in the car, under a seat, behind the couch, in the hamper, beneath a bed, at the foot of the basement stairs.

At each place searched, my heartbeat quickened, my distress redoubled, my equilibrium trembled. A shoe, a shoe, my kingdom for a shoe!

The closets reproached me for my slipshod nature. Each cluttered corner jeered, "You expect to find it in this mess?" I dumped out baskets of toys, rummaged through piles of unfolded laundry as the clock ticked steadily toward curtain time. I broke into a sweat.

A rational person would have accepted defeat. But I was long past rational. It was as if the entire definition of my mother-self rested on that one black shoe. If it appeared, I would be vindicated: a misplaced shoe, nothing more, now found. Without it, my daughter was a waif, and I her derelict mother.

Suddenly, the dress she was wearing looked ridiculously huge. Her wild hair proclaimed to the world that her mother not only couldn't find shoes, but also couldn't schedule haircuts. She looked wan and malnourished, unkempt and uncared-for.

Only one black shoe could save me now.

Instead, my husband appeared, put tennis shoes on our daughter, and strapped her into the car. He put me behind the steering wheel and told us to get going or we'd be late.

Driving toward the school, I concentrated on breathing in and out: just a shoe, just a shoe. My head filled with years of my failings as a mother, manifested in the green-and-white sneakers, muddy and monstrous, at the ends of my daughter's spindly legs.

Having stood silently, my-son-John style, throughout the maniacal shoe hunt, my little girl now chattered happily in the seat beside me. She seemed unaware that moments earlier she'd nearly witnessed her mother's Waterloo.

Then suddenly she stopped mid-sentence and amazingly plucked a four-leaf clover from the weighted air between us: "No one looks at your feet anyway," she said with cheerful simplicity, offering me redemption.

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