Mothers can relate to The Incredible Hulk.
We all have those gentle Bruce Banner moments where our lives and children are calm, enriching and fulfilling. Birds sing on our shoulder while we bake cookies and our well-mannered kids sip lemonade on the front porch. Life is good.
On the flip side are the moments that initiate the Hulk sequence. Kids fight over the remote control while the dog relieves himself on the new carpet.
Simultaneously, the brutal rainstorm outside reveals more holes in the already-leaky-roof and little Johnny’s teacher is calling to ask why he hasn’t turned in any homework for two months. Mothers lose control during those darker moments and the thrashing green monster is unleashed. It’s not a pretty sight, but it happens to the best of us. In fact, if any mother ever tells you she’s never had a Hulk moment – she’s lying.
My name is Barbara Marr and I am a mother who understands the Hulk phenomenon. I have been known to Hulk-out. But one frustrating day, not too long ago, I stumbled upon an unlikely antidote: cheese balls.
At 5:25 p.m. on that fateful day, I had one headache, two doctor’s visits to reschedule, three daughters giving me the evil eye, four piles of clean laundry screaming to be folded, and five minutes to get to ballet class which was twenty minutes across town. Husband Howard had called to tell me he would be working late for the twentieth night in a row. My pulse was increasing exponentially and the Hulk countdown had begun. My veins were turning green.
“I don’t want to go to ballet today!” wailed my usually good natured Amber, her blazing red curls accentuating her current temperament.
“Those lessons are expensive, young lady – you’re going. I was dollars away from having to sell a kidney to pay for them.” I pointed to the stairs. “Go get your bag.”
I picked up the phone and punched in some numbers. “We’ll go as soon as I reschedule these appointments.”
Amber crossed her arms across her chest, stuck out her lip and glared me down before turning to stomp away.
A woman answered after three rings.
“Schmenck, Schmenck, and Yang Pediatrics, can I help you?”
“This is Barbara Marr. My daughters, Bethany and Callie had appointments with Dr. Yang at four o’clock. You’re not going to believe this – it sounds crazy, I know – but I couldn’t find my car keys for over an hour. I turned the house upside down. That’s why we missed those appointments. I have them now though – the keys that is.” I ended with a chuckle hoping to add some levity to an otherwise gruesome tale. “Can I resche . . .”
“I confirmed those appointments myself yesterday, Mrs. Marr. You should have mentioned then that you would be unable to keep them today.”
This woman obviously didn’t understand my situation. The Hulk doesn’t like to be misunderstood. “No, I couldn’t find my—“
“Our next available appointment is October 20th.”
“But that’s . . .” I counted on my fingers. “ . . . five months away!”
“I can put you on our waiting list.”
I sucked down a deep cleansing breath to hold the Hulk at bay. “But they need physical exams before they can go to summer camp. I have to turn the forms in next week.”
“I can put you on your waiting list.”
“You think I’m lying. I can tell you think I’m lying, but it’s the truth. You should have seen me tearing the house apart looking for those keys. I finally found them in the freezer next to the peanut butter.”
Bethany, my ten year old plopped down in the chair in front of me, ballet bag over her shoulder, pen in one hand and notebook in the other. She leaned patiently against the kitchen table. Meanwhile I kept fighting with the Nazi receptionist to secure appointments sometime sooner than the next solar eclipse.
My voice was starting to shake. “I was a freaked out lunatic. Here, my daughter will tell you.” I shoved the receiver in her face. “Tell her, Bethany.”
“She was a freaked out lunatic.”
“It’s true. I would never tell my daughter to lie for me. I need your help. I’m begging you.”
“Would you like those appointments on October 20th?’
“No, you see, October is AFTER summer. We need the exams BEFORE summer camp. Isn’t there anything you can do for me?”
“I can put you on our waiting list.”
Schmenk, Schmenk and Yang were celebrity pediatricians. Women got on a waiting list to be in their practice before conceiving. Northern Virginia Monthly ran an exclusive five page article exalting their medical brilliance and business savvy. Supposedly they were the best in the area. Personally, I didn’t see much difference from our other pediatrician. I mean, they gave the same shots and the same advice. It’s not like they were handing out designer antibiotics. But I had pulled some tricky political strings to get in with these people and I wasn’t going to lose my prime status now by flipping out and upsetting the staunch gate keeper.
“Yes, thank you. You’re so kind.” I hung up the phone and squeezed my head like a melon trying to relieve the constant throb.
“Mom, I need you to answer a survey question for me – it’s my homework.”
Dropping my posterior in the chair next to hers, I peeked at my watch before laying my head on the table. We were now officially late for ballet lessons.
“They’re still giving homework?” I asked. “School’s almost over.”
“Mrs. Pratt says she’ll give homework right up till the last day. She says we have to constantly be learning because soon we’ll have SATs to take and that could make or break our choice of college which could affect our entire future.”
“But you’re only in the fourth grade.”
“Mom, stay focused. What’s your idea of the perfect day?”
“That’s the survey question? Nothing about hypotenuses or the Big Bang Theory?”
“Mom . . .”
“Okay, give me a minute.”
I rubbed my head again and closed my eyes. My perfect day. Today was not a perfect day. It was a nightmarish day. Thinking back though, so many days were like today. Running from lesson to lesson and tutor to doctor to orthodontist. There was always something and it was always important. Ballet was important for coordination and motor control – their pediatrician told me so. And piano lessons were critical for the learning process – their teacher told me so. Or maybe it was the child psychiatrist on the Today Show. Who knew anymore? With so many “experts” out there, it was hard to keep track.
Then there was Amber. She was two points under the national average on her pre-reading skills test so the tutor was imperative or she could be left behind eating the dust of millions of gifted kindergartners out there tearing through Harry Potter.
And I had my organic cooking class, “Cook Healthy, Raise Healthy Kids.” Twice a week I barely made it to class on time to learn the value of feeding my children chemical-free foods rich in nutrients. I thought my new dishes were quite yummy, but the girls . . . they weren’t so enamored. Once, I caught Amber sneaking over to her friend Penny’s house for hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.
There were just so many things to know in this parenting game – so many things I had to do right, or it would all go wrong and they’d end up homeless, cancer-ridden drug addicts begging for pennies on the corner of Despair Street and Loser Lane.
“Mommy! Callie called me an itchy shoe!”
I opened my eyes to find Amber two inches from my face.
“Shichimenchoo you dope. Not itchy shoe.” Callie joined Bethany and me for a sit-down at the kitchen table. Her bent posture and grim face indicating her teenage displeasure with the world in general. A sophomore in high school, she loved confusing us all with foreign vocabulary words, courtesy her new favorite class, Japanese I.
“Translation please.” I rubbed my temples. Hulk wanted out.
“Turkey. I called her a turkey. She stole my new purse and put bugs in it.”
Amber’s saucer eyes signified her innocence. “Not bugs – butterflies. At least they’ll be butterflies one day. Probaally”
“Okay, quiet everybody. I need a minute to think. I’m helping Bethany with her homework. Then if we high-tail it, we can still catch thirty minutes of ballet.”
“I have homework too!” Amber crawled up in my lap and started poking my nose with her chubby little fingers.
“You are such a little freak show,” Callie sneered.
“I’m supposed to count something in nature, so I chosed to count the freckles on Mommy’s face. Now I need to start over. You broke my consummation.”
“Concentration, dip brain.”
My blood pressure was escalating second by second. I didn’t want Hulk to show himself, but I didn’t know if I could stop him. “Callie. Please, let her count.”
As Amber slowly and meticulously touched and counted brown spots on my face, I watched hers. Her clear, perfect skin, just beginning to be speckled by the dots she inherited from me. Her bright, blue eyes shimmered as if they radiated light of their own. Her pink, pouty lips were perfect by all accounts. I marveled at her sweet, warm breath on my face – still a child’s breath, untouched by the ravages of time. I realized that it had been weeks, maybe even months, God forbid years, since I’d really looked at my sweet baby. A wave of calm blew through me and for a moment, Hulk receded.
“ . . . fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five . . . Fifty-five! You have fifty-five freckles on your face.” Amber leaned back, smiling proudly at her accomplishment.
I pulled her in and kissed a soft cheek, then hugged her tight.
Callie sat across from me, her face propped up by her hand. No smile on her clear, lovely face, no sense of joy.
Bethany, a thing of beauty in her own right, was next to me was glowering under a dark cloud of annoyance. She wanted an answer to her survey question.
What had I done to my children? To me? To our family? In my frantic need to do everything “right” and make their lives perfect, we had all ceased to be happy. We were scurrying around like rats in a maze, living by someone else’s rules. And nothing was perfect.
I looked at my watch. If we jumped in the car that very minute and I ignored all posted speed limits, we could make it to ballet and still get twenty dollars worth of lesson. I could still proudly tell the doctor that the girls get exercise every week and announce to neighboring mothers that my girls have never missed a ballet lesson at the Elite Academy of Dance. Ever. Hulk would have to appear to make that happen, and the girls would go to bed miserable, having seen Mom at her worst. Again.
Or . . . in what can only be described as a flash of brilliance, I got a better idea.
“Girls,” I announced. “Change of plans.”
“What does that mean?” asked Amber.
“We’re scrapping ballet. Callie, be the sweetheart I know you can be and get the picnic blanket out of the upstairs closet.”
She raised an eyebrow. “We’re going on a picnic?”
Bethany did not look pleased. “I need to get this homework done.”
“This is your homework. Trust me. You’ll love it. And everyone bring pillows. Lots of pillows.”
Amber wars liking this game. “Can I wear my pajamas?”
“Wear whatever you want. Meet me at the front door in five minutes.”
While the girls padded around the house collecting blankets and pillows and changing out of leotards, I grabbed a few items of my own and snuck them into a large brown paper bag. A Ziplock baggie finished off my list of necessary items.
At the front door, loaded down with pillows and blankets, the girls waited. I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were concerned their mother might be one step away from Loony Bin Central.
I opened the Ziplock baggie and held it out. “First, turn over all cell phones.” Callie gave me her I’m-a-teenager-and-too-cool-for-this roll of the eyes, but slipped it in the baggie anyway.
“Thank you. Now, anything electronic that plays music, video games, adds, subtracts, multiplies, downloads an “app,” pretends to be a dog, cat or alien pet from a distant dying planet.”
The baggie filled to capacity as the girls pulled items from pockets I didn’t know existed. I zipped it up and laid it aside.
“Now for the adventure. Everyone out and follow me.” I didn’t even wait for the questions and quizzical looks. I picked up my mysterious brown paper bag and marched to the backyard. The air was dry and warm. Prime for what I had planned.
I loved my backyard. The thick green lawn stretched gracefully from the house until it met up with a line of trees that encircled the house on every side. It was a major selling point when we bought the house – a large yard for the kids to run and play, private for special family times and also wonderful for entertaining. Yet we rarely even saw it anymore. Howard, mowed it religiously every Saturday, treated it with fertilizer and weed killer, then forgot about it until the next weekend. It was kind of sad, really. So well cared for, yet oddly neglected.
The girls arrived slowly, very confused, but they arrived.
“Can you lay out the blanket, Callie?”
“This is our adventure? The backyard?”
“Please – I really think you’ll like this.”
Reluctantly she laid out the used-once-only quilted picnic blanket. I moved to the center, put down the bag and sat my rumpus down.
“Come on girls. Sit.” I patted the blanket.
Bethany and Amber sat first, hugging their pillows, joined by Callie who sat on hers and hugged her knees. Ever so slowly, I pulled my surprise out of the paper bag. The girls stared, wide-eyed. They were speechless.
“What’s that?” Amber asked, breaking the awed silence.
“I know what those are – those are cheese balls,” answered Bethany. “Ashley Masters gets them in her lunch every day.”
“Correct,” I said opening the large cellophane bag. “These are cheese balls. They’re made from over-processed corn-like products, artificial colors, artificial flavorings, and MSG. None of which is good for you and probably causes cancer in laboratory rats if you feed them enough. The beauty of the cheese ball is that it’s smaller than its cousin, the cheese curl, and therefore, pops effortlessly into the mouth, just so.” I munched on the crunchy prize, savoring its junk-food goodness.
“And you’re going to let us eat them?” Bethany asked cautiously.
“Go for it.”
All three girls smiled and grabbed for the bag. Within seconds, they looked like chipmunks, their cheeks bulging while they chewed. I pulled out a second bag and joined them in the munch-a-thon.
After a few minutes, I passed around cans of soda. “No junk food is complete without two thousand grams of sugar water to wash it down with.” I gulped with pleasure. “Isn’t this the life?”
“Where did you get this stuff?” Cheese powder spewed from Bethany’s mouth as she talked.
Sheepishly, I had to admit that I kept a stash of my favorite junk food hidden deep in my bedroom closet, partaking of the delicacies only after they were all asleep or at friends’ houses. I thought the girls would be mad, but they just laughed.
“Is this supper?” Callie asked after a long swig on her drink.
“Sure. Why not?”
She looked at me oddly, then smiled. “Cool.”
“And what do we do after this?” Bethany asked.
“That’s the best part. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Amber beamed. “Boy, Bethany, I like your homework a whole lot. I can’t wait until I’m a fourth grader.”
Without caring about the clock, we lay on our blanket, heads on our pillows, watching the sun filter through green tree leaves, sparkling and dancing and it sank in the western sky. Yellows turned to golds, turned to blues turned to purples, and soon we were counting fire flies in the dark. We talked about our dreams, about fairies and leprechauns, whether trees can feel pain, what life would be like if we never grew up, and if it was really true that cats and dogs only see in black and white.
We held hands, rubbed backs and took turns braiding each other’s hair. I learned that Bethany had a crush on Max Higgins, Callie thought her Japanese teacher was “kind of cute” and very smart, and Amber thought boys were “icky.” The girls admitted they all hated ballet, but Bethany thought singing lessons would be fun. We told stupid knock, knock jokes and laughed so hard that soda came out our noses.
If the phone rang, we never heard it.
If the Department of Homeland Security raised the terrorist threat level, we didn’t know. We didn’t care.
Life was good. Life was perfect. Hulk was long gone.
And when Bethany turned in her homework assignment, she had only one answer to one survey question.
“My mom’s idea of the perfect day is eating cheese balls in our backyard until the sun goes down.”
The very next day I called our old, less famous pediatrician who gladly gave us a timely appointment. Then I called Elite Academy of Dance and told them we wouldn’t be returning for any ballet classes. The fact that they wouldn’t issue a refund didn’t even register on my Richter scale. I had a long and calm talk with my husband, who agreed to less work and more family time. And that oddly neglected backyard – we spend hours out there now.
In retrospect, I realized something important. The antidote to a Hulk attack wasn’t the cheese balls at all. It was what the cheese balls represented: love and fun.
Simple ingredients really.
After all, what is life if love isn’t fun?
Just ask the Hulk.
Karen Cantwell's novel Take the Monkeys and Run was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest (under its original title, Monkeys in My Trees). Her latest short story, "The Recollections of Rosabelle Raines," appears in the mystery/crime anthology, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had it Comin' published by Wildside Press. She is also the creator and moderator of this blog. To learn more about Karen and her works of fiction, visit www.KarenCantwell.com.