How My Mother Used Terror to Save Me

I grew up afraid of almost everything

A photo of me as a young boy sitting on the grass with his mother. I’m wearing sandals.
A photo of me as a young boy sitting on the grass with his mother. I’m wearing sandals.
My mom and me during my sandal wearing days

In grew up afraid of almost everything. I was even afraid of the glass jars at the grocery store. So I kept my distance, careful to walk down the center of the aisles, away from the shelves.

My mother told me stories of mutilated children leaving the Acme, apparently our Acme. “It’s the falling jars,” she explained. “Shards of glass,” she continued.

“It happens quick,” she said snapping her fingers at my face.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, she’s crazy. But she was also right.

It happened just as she’d laid out. We were at the grocery store. I was seven years old and was wearing sandals. My mom disappeared around a corner. I drifted behind, bored. Turning the corner I must have bumped into a shelf. Down came a jar of mustard. It smashed around my foot. I howled. There was blood, lots of it (or so it seemed to me).

From that day forward I saw truth in her prophecies. And I never wore sandals again.

Her fears were suddenly rooted in a universal knowledge, the kind of knowledge that psychologists and authors of “be happy” books are totally in the dark about. Compared to my mom, what do they know about the true dangers of the world?

Everything was a danger to me. She was no longer an over-the-top mom full of unreasonable worries. My mother was an honest-to-God soothsayer.

I quit climbing my favorite tree in our backyard. I began wearing a sturdy bicycle helmet. I got funny looks but I didn’t care. I knew something that the others didn’t. The world was a dangerous place, violent and random.

I was a Gashlycrumb Tiny waiting to happen.

As I got older my sensibilities were thwarted by the simple fact that her worries saved me, over and over again.

There was the boy who severely broke his arms when he fell from our neighbor’s tree. There was the girl who, while riding her bicycle, hit the curb and bumped her head badly. She developed seizures.

These things all happened in my neighborhood. My mom stayed silent about them. She knew I knew and that was enough to give her a lift. I saw it in her confident walk, or the slight upturned smile she wore when she saw me connect her warnings with the news of these unfortunate events.

I chewed my food properly and drank water between each bite. I stayed away from candy for fear of diabetes. I double tied my shoelaces.

Hearing her cautions I no longer ran while flying my kite. My friend Meg tripped one day while flying hers. I was with her. She’d not been paying attention to the ground. Her eyes were on the sky and her kite and there was that divot in the ground, just as my mom warned could happen if I ran blindly through a field. I walked Meg home, horrified by the sight of her swollen blue elbow. Broken in two places.

Now my mom calls me almost daily to check in and make sure I’m okay. She worries that I’m not eating enough or that I’ll get attacked by a deer. According to her, Bambi has evolved into a blood-thirsty carnivore. She saw this on Youtube, so it must be true.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

As a middle-aged man I still fight the urge to run, or should I say walk carefully away from, experiences that I might otherwise find exhilarating because of their daring nature.

I married a thrill seeker. I didn’t intentionally go looking for someone like this but love is love and so what can you do. At first I didn’t know about her desire for pushing the limits. It wasn’t until she took me night hiking in the Cascades, January and with lots of snow and sudden darkened drop offs, that I started seeing that side of her.

She’d grown up free-range style. She tested boundaries. She bled and took plunges; She jumped off of high places into rushing water, with her teddy bear; her parents were none the wiser.

Several years ago she was invited to go ice caving in the Teton Mountains. I stayed home pretending to have strep throat. She wise cracked when the guide cautioned her not to continue because he noticed she was wearing golf shoes. He insisted on spiked crampons, the kind that are long and damn sharp looking, like saber tooth tiger teeth but made out of steel.

Later that day she slipped and went over a fifty foot drop. She laughed it off when we spoke over the phone. Listening to her I pulled myself down into the covers and thanked God for the fact that I wasn’t there trying to impress her. Surely I would have been the one to die, the one people would have talked about for years to come. Locally my name would have been synonymous with “idiot”.

It’s great to see my son Ian play varsity football even though his best friend Jack broke his leg during last week’s game. Ian shrugged it off when from the sidelines I asked him how his friend was doing. “He’s okay, I guess,” he said. I watched him pull on his helmet and trot back onto the field. I worried the change in my pocket like rosary beads as I watched him go.

Ian is a kid who tries things I never would have, like skateboarding, and martial arts, and cooking. He even owns a pogo stick. I find faith in his ability to charge ahead in life and take his lumps without shying away from the things he wants to do.

As for me, I’m trying. It’s not easy though. My mind keeps taking me back to the reality that my mom was right, most of the time.

Just the other day as I sat in my car at an intersection I watched a man riding his bike toward me. Suddenly he was in the air then on the ground. He hit his head hard. I drove over to where he lay and rolled down my window and leaned out. “You should wear a helmet,” I barked, then drove off. It took two blocks for me to realize I should have gotten out and checked on him. I guess I was in shock at seeing what happened and at the time giving him a lecture seemed the right thing to do. I was being my mother. Maybe there’s hope in my ability to at least recognize that.

The forecast says that tomorrow is supposed to be a windy day. Lately I’ve been noticing our neighbor’s chimney. It looks to me as if it’s leaning a little our way. I’ll keep away from that side of our house, incase it blows over.

And when I walk our dogs, I’ll be on the lookout for any loose limbs on the trees that line our street. I know I’ll be safe in our yard though. I had the closest tree to our house cut down when we first moved in. My mom said it was a good idea. Because, you never know…

“No rose without a thorn” — Schopenhauer

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