In fourth grade, it became apparent to me that certain things I had grown up with were not normal, at least not in Wisconsin. Exposure to other kid’s homes in the form of slumber parties provided an intimate, if jarring, introduction to what I had been missing in my own life, which was helmed by my creative and hippy-ish single mother.
Time spent in the realm of these normal children left me with lots of questions.
Why, for instance, did our house contain no wooden plaques with the words "Gone to the Cabin" next to a carved approximation of Largemouth Bass jumping over a snowshoe? Why did we not take our shoes off and place them on a mat next to the door? Why was our kitchen not stocked with a drawer full of Gushers and Little Debbie treats? (I didn’t even want to eat them; I just wanted to have them. I wanted cabinets with smooth sliding drawers full of individually wrapped things you could count and lord over people like currency when they came over to play.)
I learned things like, Rice-A-Roni was the name for something most children in my town ate. Vegetarian burritos topped with alfalfa sprouts grown in a jar in the cupboard were not, and children from my neighborhood were not comfortable around them because refried beans "smell weird."
Ironically, the things I found humiliating as a child are considered cool by today’s standards. Our compost heap and homegrown vegetables -- the precursor to the foodie movement. Our mismatched painted furniture and owl wall hanging were an Etsy dream. Now we would be considered progressive. But back then we were just weird.
I made it my mission to change that. I dreamt of breakfast nooks. I asked for slipcovers for our mismatched 70’s era furniture as Birthday presents. At Shopko, I steered my mother toward the home improvement section, introducing her to floral rimmed plates, ruffled chair cushions and potpourri holders.
“Look, isn’t this beautiful,” I’d exclaim, putting a hand to my chest in bedazzlement, while holding out in the other a furry toilet cover and matching bathroom rug set.
"How cute,” I’d squeal, my voice raising several desperate octaves as I threw a plaid ruffled Kleenex box holder into the cart. My mom nodded numbly, mystified by my sudden interest in home décor.
Her major influences at that time were Jim Henson and Fleetwood Mac. While listening to the later at top volume, she had turned to puppet-making as a hobby. Our surfaces were littered with open notebooks, purple fur, googley eyes and multicolored feathers. I suppose she considered my newfound interest in decorating a part of my creative development.
Her interests, on the other hand, were obstructing my progress. I’d often come home to find her crouched over a hot pink fleece body, the office lamp tilted to provide direct beam of light as she worked it over with the hot glue gun.
"Can you keep its mouth open a sec?" she’d call to me and I would dutifully go over and hold the monster’s head still while she installed a heart-shaped tongue. They were quite cute, her creatures, but as I looked down at their gaping, species-less faces, I wished silently that my mom would take up something less embarrassing -- golf perhaps -- for at least the next decade. It was when she changed our answering machine message that I realized I had to give up on fixing our house.
“Welcome to the home of Puppet Pause Theater” she trilled on the tape in a rather Muppety voice. My mom had gone rogue.
This was mortification on its basest of levels. There was no way to make my mother normal unless she wanted to be and she clearly had other plans. Namely, training as a puppeteer and traveling back in time so she could prevent Jim Henson’s premature death.
I loved my mom desperately and had no desire to confront her shortcomings head-on, preferring the more passive method of introducing her to new, more socially acceptable ideas and home accessories through example so I wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I could see now that I had failed.
If I were honest, I could see that my decorating skills were not particularly good either. The chair cushion I had convinced her to buy was already coated in cat hair and puppet fur. It was time to move on, and by move on I could see only one option, which was to lock myself in a closet until I became an adult.
I had hoped being normal would be like having a cloak of invisibility. If you were average-looking, it meant you could be odd inside and no one would ever have to know the difference. Later, I realized this was true. I discovered that many of my neighbors had been normal on the outside as a way to keep things under control, covering up their own insecurities, battles with addiction and unfaithful partners with scented bathroom decorations and pot roasts.
Had I known this at the time, I might have realized that all families are a little odd ... and that having a couch shaped like a giant pillow and a mom who painted the house lime green in her sports bra were a fair trade for a stable family.