Where Mother-Love Burns Strongest

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Where Mother-Love Burns Strongest

I lay in a feverish curl, dressed in footie pajamas while Mom watched mercury rise in a thin glass tube.

With one hand, she held a thermometer under my tongue, and with the other, she stroked terrycloth – damp and cool – across my throbbing brow.

Today – four days from Mother’s Day – this is the place where my memory of mother-love burns strongest: right in the middle of my childhood sick days at home.

It was nothing serious, just the flu or a cold. But mother-love felt like this: arms cradling a bent body. Love smelled like Vicks VapoRub and calamine lotion and liquid amoxicillin. And love sparkled fizzy, like 7-Up in a tall Daffy Duck glass, sweating onto a metal TV tray.

Mother-love sounded like feet, padding double-time on creaky oak-planked floors, to help a whimpering child reach the bucket in time.

That’s why I never minded being sick as a kid. Because it meant that love was about to come dancing into the room, popping its head through the doorway and wearing a crazy Halloween mask, or singing a silly song in exaggerated vibrato.

It’s not that Mom didn’t love me on the days when I bounded through the house healthy and happy. But the sick days? Those were the best because she stroked my cheeks and tucked stray strands of hair behind my ears.

Mom would wrap me in an afghan cocoon on the couch – she called it a davenport -- and turn on the Zenith color console. I watched through half-open eyelids as Big Bird tried to convince his friends that Mr. Snuffleupagus was real.

And Mom would love the sick right out of me.

By the time I traded in Muppets for Maybelline, our relationship skidded. I don’t know how it happened, really, but we started to argue. A lot. About everything. I became Queen of the Eye Roll. Which paired nicely with my favorite word: Whatever.

Sure, I still loved Mom, but I didn’t act like it.

The things that seemed to charm everyone else – her silly pranks and her tendency to be the very last person out of church – were the things that annoyed me most.  She once chased my friends through the house while wielding a cow liver. They, of course, found her hilarious.

I was eager to leave home for college, away from rules and Mom’s harping, which always began with these words: “You have another thing coming.”

But even college girls catch colds. I remember dialing her from the dorm, wishing she would bring me 7-Up, with ice clinking against a cartoon glass.

Now I’m all grown up. I’m the mom. I stroke sweaty foreheads and deliver carbonated drinks with straws and silly songs.

And I’m also pretty sure that time is turning over on itself.  This spring, Mom, 71, fell ill. She has lost weight and energy and, sadly, some of her zippy humor. We’re still waiting for a diagnosis.

A few days ago, Dad called: Pray hard, he said. Mom’s getting sicker by the day.

Our youngest daughter, Anna, came in the room and saw me crying as I stuffed clothes in a duffel bag.

“I know why you’re going to see Mema,” she said. “It’s because when you were little, she always helped you when you were sick. And now you want to help her when she’s sick. Right, Mommy?”

Anna was right. I had to go home. I just had to. There was a long overdue favor to repay and a sick mama who needed to hear a silly love song.

Image by Kelly Sauer. Used with permission. Post by Jennifer Dukes Lee.