“Momma’s boy,” pronounced a classmate.
Nothing more needed to be said in the hall outside the middle school cafeteria. That was enough. The kids all laughed, so it had to be true. I was exposed for what I was. The girls laughed, clutching their books to their new chests. The boys laughed also, dangling their books at their hips. It explained everything. The hallway was busy with kids talking in groups before the bell rang for the next class. For the life of me I never knew what kids had to talk about, but I did now. They were talking about me.
It all started on the first day of kindergarten. I cried rivers because I didn’t understand what was going on. I missed being at home. My teacher, Miss Shafer- we called unmarried women Miss back then- told me to go to the water fountain and get a drink of water. That was her answer to everything: go get a drink. She forgot that, on the first day of kindergarten, a kid has never seen a water fountain. So I didn’t go. She dragged me down the hall to the water fountain and said, get a drink. I didn’t know how to get a drink from the water fountain and, besides, I was trying to tell her, I didn’t want a drink. But she held the faucet open and pushed my mouth into the water. She pushed it too far and I smashed my teeth on the faucet, blood blending in with Miss Shafer’s water down the porcelain drain. She ended up calling Momma that day who sat with me at my desk until school was out. She signed up to be lunch monitor and, from then on, came to school every day. Every day from that first day of kindergarten to middle school she sat and had lunch with me in the cafeteria.
This harsh label warned me of the gravest danger I would face in my young life. It was better for a boy to be eaten alive by lions than to be swallowed up and consumed by the will of his mother. A Momma’s boy devotes his life to his mother, and she to him. He never leaves home. He remains attached to her apron strings. He lives life vicariously, watching it shyly at a reserve while munching on her cookies still warm from the oven. A Momma’s boy has no friends aside from her and no work aside from making her happy. He gets good grades in school because that is what makes her proud, but he has no interests. He would not even think of getting into trouble. He walks on his own, but he is not yet born. Norman Bates was a Momma’s boy until she died, then he went psychotic without her.
Being the Momma of a Momma’s Boy is no picnic either. I saw it all clearly that day in the school cafeteria and I knew I must take action to protect my Momma. Just as sometimes parents have to practice tough love for the good of their children, sometimes children have to practice it for their parents. A Momma’s Boy has a Momma who possesses, but does not love her child. She needs her boy more than he objectively needs her and she must keep him around to feed her growing narcissistic maw. She is a smothering mother who does not allow her child to take chances and make mistakes. She enforces no rules because that may drive him away, she disciplines by throwing fits that draw him near. It is not clear whether Momma is the adult or the child because she will be neither. No, I had to take steps because I alone saw what both she and I were becoming.
From that day onward there would be no consorting during lunchtime. Even if it meant I’d ride in a crowed bus, I would not allow her to take me to school. I would not snuggle, even in the safety of our home. Snuggling would only serve to make me weak. I would break minor rules whenever I could. But, above all, I would never, never call her Momma. In time, I discovered that Mommy was just as dangerous and Mom only teased her. I could never say Mother without thinking that I was calling her to smother. Better to call her as little as possible and, when I could not avoid it, call her nothing at all. I gave her a title that told her unmistakably to keep her distance: Mother of Mine.
Mother of Mine was not to give in without a fight. The toughest fight came the day after Christmas one year. We were a family that opened Christmas morning, but Mother of Mine let us open one present on Christmas Eve. We could not choose it; she would because she always had something very specific in mind to make this Christmas a good one. Every year we would stare longingly at the presents that relatives brought and laid under the tree. Santa’s came later we she thought that we were asleep. We would stare longingly at the wondrous shapes and sizes that we came to interpret as toys, not clothes, and Mother of Mine would invariably thrust into our hands a flat box that could be only one thing. I had been fooled for many years into thinking that I’d open the Christmas appetizer and it would be a marvelous plaything that would keep me amused through the long hours as I waited for morning, but I was not to be fooled this year. Her gift was a pair of red and green pajamas and I knew it.
She did it every year, red and green pajamas. We were supposed to get dressed in them on Christmas Eve so we would look Christmasy the next morning when she took pictures of us opening our presents. I was not going to wear her red and green pajamas this time. I was not even going to open the box.
“You have to open the box, ” said Mother of Mine, “it’s Christmas.”
“No, I want another box.”
We went around and around like that for a while till she saw that the night was wearing on and we were not getting anywhere. Then she took the conflict to the next level. “I’m going to tell Santa that you are a naughty boy and not to bring you any presents, if you don’t open this gift.”
No, I thought, don’t do that. No, don’t go there. Don’t push it. No.
“No,” I said.
It was then I ceased being a Momma’s boy. She slapped me in the face.
I called her a child abuser and ran into my room.
The red marks on my cheek were not faded before she came blubbering in my room holding a picture of me she from last Christmas in that year’s red and green pajamas. She was saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you. I was just looking at this picture from last year. You were a good boy then and you loved your Momma.”
She might have softened me if she had just come in crying and saying she was sorry. Sometimes explaining too much does you in. It did her in that night. I might have just put on her silly pajamas and be done with it. I might have humored her for the night for the sake of Christmas morning, but she had to go and open her big mouth and say that word: Momma. With that one word she tipped her hand and I knew what this was all about. She wanted me to cave, to be friendless and to be hers forever.
I was not about to do that. I made like I had fallen asleep. She sobbed for a while and went away.
It was a long night hearing the hushed movement of the parents down stairs getting ready for morning. Grandma and Grandpa and a couple unmarried aunts and an uncle arrived to spend the night and I knew Mother of Mine was not going to risk a scene by telling Santa not to leave me any presents when they had come in just to see me open them. She was also feeling bad about the slap and I knew that two could play at the guilt game. Furthermore, if Mother of Mine gave me any trouble, I could always mention a little something about the slap to her mother-in-law. I was sure that this was going to be a great Christmas and I fell asleep certain I was going to rake it in.
At first light my little sister was pounding at my door. She had already awoken the adults who were assembling in the Living Room and now she was getting me so we could make our entrance. Father was probably right now setting up the floodlights for the movie camera and the relatives were staking out positions on the sofa and chairs. On cue my sister and I were to enter the living room to be filmed and gapped at while we squealed with delight, ran to the tree, and tore into the gifts. The adults would all laugh at our greed and by the time the coffee was brewed and Mother of Mine was serving Danish, we’d be kneeling bewildered amid the litter of wrappings and new stuff. Then would come the over stimulated testiness that passes for Christmas Day. We struggled to master the new toys, Mother of Mine yelled at us to pick up our mess and the relatives grumbled about how the true meaning of Christmas was lost to children these days.
I knew that was what was in store for us that moment when my sister pounded on the door and woke me up. When I woke up, in that early light, what to my wondering eyes did appear but the evil red and green pajamas stretched on my bed with a note that read:
“Please put these on for me before you come down, Son. Love, Momma”
No, was all I could think. Leaping back aboard that train that I had ridden on so far last night. No. I shouted through the door to my sister, “Tell my mother I’m not putting on the pajamas.”
“He’s not putting them on, Momma.”
“Then I’ll call Santa right now and tell him to take all the presents back.”
My sister wailed, “We won’t have any presents for Christmas!” She had a fit right there in the hallway.
“Listen to what you are doing to your sister,” said Mother of Mine.
I caved, “All right, I’ll put them on.”
My sister’s tears stopped as quickly as Miss Shafer’s faucet when I opened the door. She was so filled with excitement that she never turned around as we went down the stairs and waited for our cue.
My sister flung the door open and ran in to the tree. I saw on one side of the room, the Christmas tree in all its splendor, and, on the other side, the floodlights blinding out all the relatives from me. I could not see the look on their faces as my sister ran from in front of me and left me standing in the doorway with a morning erection poking out of Momma’s precious, precious pajamas. The aunts gasped and the uncles laughed. My grandfather said, “I think your boy’s getting too old for Christmas pajamas, Martha.”
- Tell Us the Worst Christmas Gift You Ever Received (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Butt Carols (blogher.com)