Meek inherit the world, but Mom rules it

August 11, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

I AM THE QUEEN," she said. "Everything you need to know starts with that fact."

Standing over her kitchen sink, her anger and agitation churning the soapy water, she was washing dishes and recounting to me the moment when her relationship with her children had changed.

Not right away, perhaps. It occurred to me that they might have recognized the scene she was describing as the periodic price of doing business with Mom and kept their heads down until it was over.

But for this woman, it was life-changing. She was Copernicus, telling the world that the sun did not revolve around it, but it around the sun.

"I am not a doormat or a domestic servant. I am not a helpmate or a handmaiden. I am not your own personal cheerleading section," she had told them.

"I am the queen of your world. I am She Who Must Be Obeyed.

I am the straw that stirs the drink. I am da man. I am the be-all and end-all for all of you."

That is what she told them the morning she found all those clean clothes in the hamper, the results of sartorial indecision someone was too lazy to return to the dresser.

The morning she found the cap missing from the root beer and the carton of melted ice cream in the cupboard where she keeps the drinking glasses.

The morning she found all those plastic sleeves from freeze pops littering the carpet in front of the television like freshly cut hay.

The morning she realized that her family, like that of the heroine of Anne Tyler's novel "Ladder of Years," might not be able to describe her for a missing persons report. That they might only be able to describe her in the negative, by listing all the things that were not done when she was gone.

"I am the reason there is always more toilet paper under the bathroom sink," she told them. "I am the reason there is always more ketchup in the pantry.

"I am the reason none of you has measles, mumps or rubella," she said. "I make it happen around here. I grease the skids in your happy little lives. I feed you, I clothe you, I comfort you. I sign you up and then I drive you there, and I am not waiting any longer for you to notice.

"You guys will worship the ground I walk on, and it will start now."

She demanded that they do what she could not get done and express their gratitude for what she did. She no longer asked for "help" because that implied the job was hers, done by them only as a favor or an act of generosity.

So she assigned tasks, and if they whined, or did them too poorly or too slowly, she assigned more tasks. They were indentured servants for weeks before they realized that she wasn't kidding.

They were teen-agers, for goodness' sake, and if they could not manage the clothing in their lives, she would pack it away until they could, leaving them with two choices: the clean outfit or the dirty one.

These were not chores, they were responsibilities. And there were no cash bonuses, no praise, no good-job kisses for their completion.

For years, she had hustled to meet their expectations of her. Now, they would live up to her expectations of them, or no one would ever go to the movies or horseback riding again.

Her face turned the color of her hands in the hot water as she remembered the scene from months ago. It had been no outburst, but an epiphany, the moment when she realized that she was a parent, not a character from "Remains of the Day."

She would no longer spend every day postponing her existence until her children left for college or volunteered to load the dishwasher.

During a weekend visit, I saw that the queen's new law had been written on the hearts of her people. Tasks were done without complaint, and the family machine worked relatively smoothly.

I also saw a mother who was no longer a martyr but a manager -- delegating, not doing it all.

My own children, the little prince and princess to whom I had played the part of chambermaid for so long, did not see these things, and they flinched with surprise when, upon returning home, I declared:

"I am the queen. Everything you need to know starts with that fact."

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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