Life with Lois: A tribute to my eccentric mother

I caught the boy's remark as I was heading up the hill to the parking lot of my sprawling high school.

"There's some lady wandering around the parking lot in lederhosen," he smirked to another boy. "Some weird lady."

A bolt of mortification shot through me. There were almost 3,000 kids at my school, which meant, in theory, that it could have been any of thousands of mothers wandering around in strange pants. But I knew in an instant that the object of the boy's ridicule had to be my mother.

Other mothers were better trained. They knew to wait in their cars. They didn't own lederhosen, or if they did they wouldn't wear them on a March afternoon in San Diego. I also knew the boy was wrong about the pants. They were not leather lederhosen, but woolen knickers for cross-country skiing. My mother wore them when she longed for a cold climate.

I wondered what kind of shoes she would be wearing. Then I wondered what would happen if I turned and ran back down the hill and hid in the gym bathroom for 20 minutes. I quickly dismissed that option. If she didn't see me in the parking lot she would come down the hill onto campus and look for me, and everybody in the world would get a good, long look at her.

"Whose mother is that?" they would whisper, and who could blame them? I soldiered up the hill with a knot of humiliation in my gut.

My mother loves all humanity, and one of the ways she loves it is by arguing with it. In her world, there are no unworthy opponents. Once, during a trip to the Santa Monica Pier when I was 8 or 9 years old, I watched in terror as she argued with a huge, shirtless biker over whether the starfish he had gripped in his fist had the same number of points as the Star of David.

"The Star of David!" he exclaimed to nobody in particular, thrusting the dead creature toward the sky and careening across the planks of the pier.

My mother walked up to him.

"The Star of David has six points," she said.

"Five points!" he roared.

"Six," she said.

"Five!" he shot back.

A crowd gathered. I worried that the biker would take a swing at my mother, but she stood her ground and he staggered off down the pier.

Then there was the time the man at the local produce stand called her a young lady.

"I am not a young lady," she told him indignantly. "I am 68 years old."

She stomped off in a huff, then regretted her petulance and came back to apologize. After that, they got along famously.

"You're losing it, mother," I told her at the time.

"Probably," she said. "But I am not a young lady."

Not long ago, a friend of ours, a gerontology student, asked her if there was anything she didn't like about getting older. She didn't miss a beat.

"The only thing that bothers me is that I can no longer skip," she said. "You just hate to lose that."

At a certain age, children imagine that everybody is staring at their parents, but in my case it was true. When I was little, our family drove an old Ford that our parents let us paint with pictures. "War is not healthy for children and other living things," it said in colored block letters on the passenger door, my mother's side. My mother wrote earnest folk songs and insisted on singing them in public, forcing out the high notes in a quavering voice. Did I mention that her name is Lois?

A few years ago, nine Tarahumara Indians spent four days in my parents' tiny house when they were visiting the States to run 100-mile races in bare feet to raise money for their starving families in the interior of Mexico. Most had never seen indoor plumbing before. My mother cooked vats of stew and tried to fill them to the gills. One afternoon, she drove them to a city beach to see the Pacific. She snapped a picture of them, in their bright traditional shirts and white wrapped shorts, standing on a bluff, looking out at the sea.

My mother's kindness can be unconventional. When Janet Reno was attorney general she sent her a scarf. She didn't like the look of Ms. Reno's collarless suits and thought it might soften her appearance. She got a thank-you note on official stationery, and for months we scanned the news reports, but we never saw a scarf around Janet Reno's neck.

"It's a shame," my mother sighed. "A nice scarf can make a world of difference."

My mother knows how to make a lasting impression. Years ago, I ran into an acquaintance from high school who had been to our home just once.

"How is your mother?" she wanted to know. "Remember when she did that interpretive modern dance for us in your living room - the one where she was a hunter who killed a deer and then became an alcoholic because of the guilt?"

She shook her head.

"I don't think I have laughed that hard since," she said.

Another friend recently told me that he was thinking about selling his television.

"I thought I would spend my evenings at your parents' house with your mom and dad," he said. "It would be more entertaining than cable, and cheaper."

Lately, I have been trying to come up with a gift for Mother's Day, but it's difficult because my mother puts increasingly small claims on the material goods of this world. She uses a salad spinner to drain her dishes because she can't see the sense of investing in a new $6 dish rack. Last summer I threatened to buy her one. She turned and looked me in the eye.

"Don't you dare," she said.

I didn't.

I have lived 1,800 miles from my mother for the past decade. I used to think that what I missed most about California were the mountains and the sting of dry air in my nose, but I confess those things have slipped down the list. It's my mother who's the biggest attraction.

On dull afternoons, I dream up wild schemes to import her to our Southern town or export ourselves back to San Diego. I haven't come up with anything concrete yet. For now, I have to settle for her visits.

The last time she came she was wearing a fanny pack up around her chest when she stepped off the plane. No matter, I thought, and rushed at her with open arms.

Sara Bongiorni is a freelance writer.

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