I DON'T REMEMBER EXACTLY when it happened, my transition from overprotective, fussy mother to world-weary show-biz mom. I just know that, when I turned on the television recently and saw my first born standing in fresh manure with his arm up the rear end of a bull, I didn't reach for a Valium. I merely shook my head and wondered for the hundredth time, How did this happen?
Four years ago, my husband and I were enjoying the retirement that couples dream about. We had sold the house and moved into a condominium. Our three sons were on their own, and we were enjoying the pleasures of life.
Then came Dirty Jobs.
John and I sat in front of the TV that first Tuesday night like two wide-eyed children before the tree on Christmas morning. The record light flashed on the VCR, soda fizzed in our glasses, and the smell of buttered popcorn filled the den.
The opening credits appeared, and we smiled proudly as Mike's name appeared in the title of the little show he had created. It was good that Mike was paying tribute to those unsung heroes who do the jobs that make our lives comfortable.
Suddenly, there he was, our son, standing knee-deep in guano, surrounded by blackness and deadly fumes. As urine and other bodily fluids from millions of bats rained from above, a biologist warned Mike that the guano was filled with dermestid beetles, committed to cleaning the flesh from his bones.
At the first commercial break, we turned to each other with our mouths open, the soda and popcorn untouched.
With each episode, I am filled with wonder -- and sometimes horror. How does someone born into a middle-class home in Overlea smile when he's sloshing through human waste or make jokes while he's straddling a 500-pound sow during artificial insemination? I not only marvel that I continue watching, I marvel that the adult on the screen is such a contrast to the child I nourished.
I can still see that toddler in a high chair waving his hands after every bite and demanding, "Wash sticky fingers!"
When I learned how many millions of people watch Dirty Jobs worldwide, I thought of the shy kid who dove beneath the kitchen table or made a beeline for the hall closet every time the doorbell rang.
"I don't want people to look at me," he would explain quietly. I used to lie awake nights envisioning my child's future as a pitiful recluse. Mike's amazing transformation came in high school.
"I got the lead in the senior play," he mentioned at dinner one evening. He said it in the same voice he might have used to say, "Pass the potatoes."
"What's the matter?" Mike asked, as his father and I stared dumbly.
"Uh..." I said. "Are we invited?"
"Sure. It's Oklahoma."
We huddled together in the school auditorium chewing our fingernails on opening night.
"Surely, they wouldn't let him do this if he weren't capable," my husband said.
We were blue from holding our breath by the time the curtain rose and a rich, deep voice floated from the wings. "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow..."
We were dumbfounded. We sat at every performance, mesmerized, and before long were following our son's show business career. There were community theater productions, barbershop quartets, local TV commercials. When Mike joined the Baltimore Opera, two parents who didn't know the difference between Sweeney Todd and The Barber of Seville didn't miss a performance.
When Mike became a host on QVC in the early nineties, we subscribed to cable TV. I set the alarm and sat in my pajamas drinking tea from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. several times a week. My husband questioned my sanity. "Only a mother," he would say, rolling over in bed.
I watched my boy on national TV hawking merchandize he knew nothing about. I was horrified the night he burned his hand while cooking an omelet and worried that he was sleep-deprived when he dozed off in front of millions of viewers while demonstrating bedding.
The night on Dirty Jobs when Mike kept his composure as a snake sank fangs into his wrist and dangled from his arm, I longed for those safe QVC days.
I don't know what's around the corner for Mike, professionally, or for us, his most avid fans. I do know that I was especially proud of myself the night he was in a sewer with rats and roaches scampering over his body. I remained calm and didn't cover my eyes once. My son was unflappable as men in the sewer laughed at him.
I remembered a similar incident when neither Mike nor I had remained quite so calm. He was a teenager, helping his brothers stack firewood on our patio, when he noticed a nest of young mice embedded in a log. He carried it to the backyard and tapped it hard against the ground whereupon an entire litter of mice emerged and immediately shot up his pants leg. I was nearly as frantic as Mike as he whooped and hollered, dancing around the yard.
"Somebody help him," I yelled.
Family and neighbors laughed hysterically when Mike dropped his jeans and pulled a mouse from his crotch.
Mike and I have both come a long way.
Peggy Rowe is a former schoolteacher who lives in Perry Hall with her husband, John.