Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Since I considered it a high priority to please my mother, it was obviously my duty to appreciate her cooking. The way I figured it, the more I ate, the happier she would be and the more attention she would pay to me. Like a dog chasing its tail, I could never eat enough to bring back Elaine and erase her depression, but I kept trying anyway. Physically, given the butter-drenched goodies that emerged from her oven, my eager eating made me a chubby little boy. I've since conquered the worst of such temptations, but pastries obsess me to this day. My wife jokes that if I were standing by a pastry shop when a nude supermodel sashayed down the street, I'd be more interested in the shop window. (This addiction to food foiled one of my father's plans to economize. He wanted John to wear my clothes when I outgrew them, but John was slender and my clothes swallowed him, so he got new ones of his own.)

One could argue that pigging out on my mother's confections was not the hardest duty. But that was not all I did to curry favor. One year, with Mother's Day approaching, our elementary school teacher organized a craft project in which we would make papier-mâché boxes for our mothers to store their jewelry and knickknacks.

That was not nearly good enough for me. Somehow I got hold of some alabaster. That was proper jewelry box material, and I set about carving it into what I was sure would be the best present ever. I worked obsessively, spending recesses and after-school hours carving while the other kids were playing. (Not being particularly athletic, I preferred this to roughhouse playground games in any case.) When I presented her the box, she smiled and hugged me and told me how sweet it was of me to think of her. Then she put the box away and I never saw her use it.

The depth of her loss was just too great for me to understand. Once I asked her why she never displayed a photograph of Elaine downstairs in the living room where she had photos of John and me in small silver frames on a side table. "Because I cannot bear to look at it," she said. "You see where it's hanging?" She kept the photo, the only one taken of Elaine before she died, on a wall in the staircase leading to the attic. "When I miss her and want to look at her, I come up here, turn on the light, talk to her, and cry."

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