My mother never had nice leather purses with fancy compartments for keys and things. Both she and my father were journalists and never made enough money to buy quality accessories. Though we didn’t have money, we had all we could dream of and more in the form of cloth tote bags from minority journalism conferences. My dad, even though he’s of Irish, English and German descent, liked the minority journalism conferences the best because they had significantly better food and music. Our closets were full of bags with slogans like “Paving the Way to Parity” or “Freedom of the Press, Freedom of the People”. I thought they were cool and still wear them every now and then, but I take care of mine so they last.
None of my mother’s bags lasted very long because she would stuff them full of papers to grade, magazines and enough pills for a summer concert tour. There were no compartments of any kind and what resulted was a sort of bag soup. Whenever she had to find her keys, which was often, it was a big production. As a child, this is what I thought life must be like for adults – constantly burdened with having to do such stressful things like keep track of your keys so you can just start up the car instead of emptying out your entire purse on the frozen ground of the Grand Union parking lot. As an adult, I have found a simple solution to this problem. I never stop worrying about where my keys, cell phone and wallet are. It’s a bit of a chore but I prefer it to my mom’s way.
My mother’s disorganization took on other forms, as well. I have never seen a person with more lipstick on their teeth than on their lips. When she smiled at me, it looked as though she was bleeding. I was always reminding her that she needed to use gloss instead, but she never listened to me. Mom also seemed to always tuck her long hippie skirts into her underwear after she had finished going to the bathroom. I don’t know if she liked the look or what, but it was pretty common to be walking in the mall and suddenly realize mom was clothed from the front but showing everyone her ragged underwear from the back. “Mom, your skirt is in your underwear and you have lipstick on your teeth again!” I said many times. “Sorry sweetie,” she’d reply as she yanked her skirt back down and rubbed her teeth with her shirtsleeve.
One day when my brother and sister and I were all teenagers, my mom bravely decided to clean out her purse. This was risky because my father was at home and he didn’t care for her disorganization.
I was on my way to my room when I saw my mom smoothing out a few crumpled receipts on the dining room table. She reached back in her purse; her face tight and lips clenched as she pulled out a plastic baggie of makeup and breathed out a sigh of relief. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Organizing my purse,” she said. “Go away, you’ll only make fun of me.” As I was heading back, I heard my mom scream out “Owy Zowy!!” which in her language means she’s hurt.
I rushed into the dining room and found my mom sucking on her pointer finger. “What happened?” I asked. “Something poked me,” she said, scowling at her 1997 Unity Convention tote as if it were to blame. “Let me help,” I told her. “No way, you’ll just make fun.” She had a point. “I promise I won’t. Come on mom, I’m really organized!” I tried to persuade her. “You’re really OCD is what you are and you need medication.” She was getting upset. So I gently took the bag from her and emptied it all out. My mom covered her eyes and let out a little scream.
What came out was bad even for her. I wouldn’t want my garbage to look like this. Pens, exploded pens, an empty book of stamps, coins and pills of all kinds, an old plastic baggie of Cheerios, an issue of Vanity Fair, a small sewing kit, tampons, a prescription, a mix tape I had made her, an old plastic baggie of rotting grapes, two term papers and the poky culprit – an antique brooch from her grandmother Nettie Silverstein. Nettie was a very organized woman who had owned a dress making business in New Orleans throughout the depression. I highly doubted her bag had ever resembled her granddaughter’s.
“This is nothing,” I lied. I sat down with my mom and started sorting everything out into neat little piles based on what the object was and whether or not it was covered in blood. Pills and blood covered pills, receipts and blood covered receipts, loose dollars and change, pens that had exploded long ago and pens that still were usable. After a little bit, my organization started take shape and my mom’s finger was feeling better, as well.
Just as I was explaining the concept of keeping all loose bills together in a wallet, my dad came in and saw the dining room table with all my piles. “What’s going on here?” He asked. My mother and I simultaneously threw our bodies over the table and extended our arms to hide the mess. “Nothing!” we screamed. “Nothing to see here!” He got curious. “What exactly are you doing?” he asked again more calmly. “I’m helping mom organize her purse – don’t look, it will just upset you.” As I said this, a blood-covered benzodiazepine lazily rolled off the table and bounced on the floor. “I don’t want to know,” he said and left the room. “Thanks sweetie,” my mom said, “you don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t mind at all, I like organizing.” I told her truthfully. I do like organizing, but I love my mom. As the poet Sharon Doubiago wrote, “My mother is a poem I’ll never be able to write though everything I write is a poem to my mother.”
Sometimes I wish everyone were as OCD as I am but not her. I like my mom just the way she is. Lipstick on the teeth, skirt tucked into her underwear and always searching for those mysterious keys.