Once, during International Food Week at my grade school, a kid in my class called me a turd burglar from across the lunch table. I was no such thing, and he needed to know it. In retaliation, I launched a handful of German potato salad at him, filling his bowl-cut hair and brace face with a blitzkrieg of greasy, bacony slop.
“ERIC IMMEL!” A howl razed the room — the hair-netted lunch lady across the cafeteria saw the whole thing. She dropped her industrial spatula, shuffled toward me, and grabbed my upper arm – the kind of Vulcan death grip that leaves streaked red hand prints on the skin. To the principal’s office I went, but not without protest. “He started it – he called me a turd burglar,” I whined, hand still slathered with the evidence of my crime. I knew there was no chance for recompense.
Our house was just minutes away by car, and my mom was there in no time. The principal judged two weeks of indoor recess as fair punishment, and Mom concurred. Tears welled behind my eyes. No touch football for two weeks. She didn’t even listen to my side of the story. When I was a kid, my mom never stuck up for me.
Sometime in late 1981, I can envision that a young couple met for a date. They started off with a few beers and discussed Ronald Reagan’s ‘war on drugs.’ They found a little bistro and shared a plate of chicken Parmesan. He got sauce on his pressed white shirt and tried to hide the red stain with his tie. She noticed and smiled to herself over his concern. Hand-in-hand, they walked along a quiet city corridor, fire-colored maple leaves crunching beneath their almost dancing feet. Afterward, those two people made love and I was in the making. Their love maybe didn’t last, but I did. Nine months later, I was born into the world and given away.
But what if that hadn’t happened? What if my biological mother had, against all odds, given birth and kept me close to her? What if it were just her and I, sleeping side-by-side in a small apartment? What if, at some point, she introduced me to a new man, and he and I went to baseball games together? What if, when I was three or four, maybe ten, I stood next to them both in an ill-fitting tuxedo, beaming up at my new dad as he slid a diamond ring onto her delicate finger?
As I imagine this, one simple, tough question sometimes bubbles up inside me: what was in her heart that made my other mother – the one I’ve never met – let me go?
The woman who gave birth to me is not the woman who came to my school on the day of the German potato salad debacle. She is not the one who stayed up with me all night when I was sick with stomach flu, not the one who caved when I begged for sugary cereal instead of Crispix, not the one who taught me how to drive a stick-shift. She is not the one I think of when I think of my mom.
There is mystery and miracle in motherhood. My mom, who has always stuck up for me, and who knew what was best when I launched that handful of potato salad decades ago. Some of the amazing young women I teach, going to school full-time and working part-time, all while raising toddlers. My friends and my sister, relatively new mothers who face the world with the responsibility of caring for their kids, even if their kids don’t agree with the strategy.
I’ll be home on Thanksgiving for the first time in five years, and I’m already planning lunch on Friday – leftover scoops of decadent goop piled high in a mixing bowl and devoured alongside some malty, winter beer, ice cold and opened a little too early in the day. My brother and sister will be there. They may call me a turd burglar. They may get a handful of stuffing or green bean casserole in the face.
My mother will sit alongside us in her tan armchair, the newspaper unfolded across her lap. She’ll adjust her head occasionally to make full use of her bifocals, navigating the difference in text size between headlines and actual news stories. She may comment about the state of American politics. More likely, though, she’ll point out $20 of Kohl’s Cash that expire on Saturday and remind me that I could probably use a new pair of jeans.
This is my life. It’s her life, too. I have always been cared for. I have always been loved. My mother – the one I sit with the day after Thanksgiving and the only one I’ve ever known – is proud of me, and my eyes soften nearly every time I think of her. At the same time, the woman who courageously brought me into the world, perhaps now married with children of her own, is and will always be responsible for my eyes, my bald head, and my heart.