It was a Saturday in August of 1976 and I was spending a lot of time in my room. The Texas heat tends to make you a slave to the air conditioner. Softball season was over, the Wildcats had placed second…I was bored.
I had picked up a book at a garage sale, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, about the Charles Manson murders. My mother told me it would give me nightmares if I read it. So, of course, I was prone on the orange shag carpet turning the pages and listening to vinyl.
I had an early interest in crime stories, real life crime to me was the absolute scariest…things that could actually happen. The original Star Wars would be released the following May and I would actually walk out in the middle of it. No made up aliens or robots for me, give me real drama!
I played the album Chicago X over and over that summer and into early fall. As I read about the slaughter of Sharon Tate, the song Make Me Smile wafted about my room, in sharp contradiction to the words on the paper. I associate that album so much with the frightening novel, that to this day I cannot hear one of the songs without thinking about Death to the Piggies and the Manson followers.
There was a plain tan dresser in my room, probably purchased at a second-hand store. It was ugly and I needed to fancy it up a bit. I had a box of psychedelic paints and my idea was to paint mod flowers all over the dilapidated piece of furniture.
What’s that? Stickers would be easier? Remember I was fourteen and I had the urge to express myself, carelessness was my modus operandi! My mother left to go grocery shopping and I started creating my work of art…in my bedroom…on the orange shag carpet, with no drop cloths.
The blue paint splashed down on the shag and actually looked like a Jackson Pollock original. I admired it for a second, then imagined my mother chasing me around the house with the fly swatter. Lately she wasn’t catching me like the younger years. She was now 54 and losing a step or two on me. I liked my odds, but I thought maybe I could clean it up before her return.
I did, what any teenager would do…I smeared it around and ground it down to the base of the shag carpet fibers. Hmm…..maybe just scoot the dresser on top of it? No…pretty much in the middle of my room..this was going to be bad.
My mother made a bee-line to my room to gripe as to why I didn’t come help her unload the groceries. The profanities that spewed from her mouth when she saw my work shocked me…and as the seventh kid I thought I had heard just about all of it!
Mother got a bucket of cleanser and water and dropped to her hands and knees. She scrubbed back and forth for the better part of an hour until there was no trace left of the paint. I got to dust the house and fold clothes, two things I loathed to do…and I was grounded the rest of the weekend. I felt bad….and now I had a pitiful tan dresser with parts of two blue flowers on the side of it, and carpet that smelled awful. Stickers. Stickers would be good, I thought.
My mother woke up the next morning with a nagging pain in her right breast. She thought she had worked a muscle she hadn’t used in a while, as she was on her hands and knees scrubbing. The pain persisted for a couple of days and she decided to go to the doctor.
A mammogram was done and a cyst was found. The surgery that followed and biopsy revealed that it was a benign cyst. The entire family was relieved…we had escaped a breast cancer scare.
My mother had been negligent in going to the doctor for annual check-ups. Having seven kids and a job, she was like a lot of women…putting her needs behind everyone else’s…on the back-burner. Recent controversy over when you are supposed to start annual mammograms has led to some confusion. The answer is do what works for you after you have consulted your physician. Some high risk women need to start annual check ups when they reach 40 or earlier…again, call your doctor…I am a lawyer, what the hell do I know?
About two weeks after she was released from the hospital, my mother took me to M.E. Moses’ Five & Dime Store up the street from our house…we got paint and mod flower stickers. My father and I hauled the dresser to the back porch where mother supervised the “right” way to do a project….meaning “Jewel’s” way. Her way was usually pretty darn close to the right way…the dresser was an exact match to the cool vision in my head.
My father died on the 26th of September of a massive heart attack. We had survived a cancer scare with my mother, only to lose my dad at 63…he died in his sleep. After the funeral, when my older siblings had cleared out of the house to go to their own homes..my mother and I layed on the couch together. We cried and she told me that God works in mysterious ways….we couldn’t know the reason I had lost a parent at fourteen. I didn’t know what to think about religion at that age…I just knew that life seemed incredibly unfair.
I had never seen my mother cry like she was at that moment. I was so scared and wanted to say anything to make her stop. I told her I wanted her to take good care of herself, I wanted a mother for many years to come. “Please tell me you will go back every year for a mammogram!” I will, I will she said…sounding tired beyond belief…I hoped that I could trust her.
I am proud that spilling that paint was the catalyst for my mother taking better care of her health needs…that and the fact that she was now a single-parent…an older single parent. I kept that dresser for years to come and it served as a standing monument to the end of 1976, a year of loss. It served as a reminder of a kid’s carelessness….and thankfully to the end of a mother’s carelessness regarding her health.