Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Fail and Brilliant Recovery

Forming and finishing concrete is truly an art form, and many of its practitioners are indeed eccentric artists.  The best concrete artist I ever knew was an old guy from Charlottesville known only as "Smitty," who, when asked what's up would reply with a loud and mostly unintelligible three minute rant that invariably included the aphoristic crux of his life's collected wisdom: "Jes' tho some dirt in the air an' walk under it so you look like you been doin' sumthin'.  We all jes' tryin' to git a sammich."

I once spent a year doing form work (basically building wooden molds for concrete) on commercial construction projects, including a seven-story building and an arched bridge/pedestrian underpass.  In the olden days, when carpenters used to do a little of everything, and construction companies didn't sub out every trade,  I also formed and poured a number of foundations, basements and garage slabs.  I built pools one summer during college, and poured concrete decks as part of the job.  In the past couple years, I've poured a new set of front steps at my own house, and a big slab under the back deck.  In terms of concrete work though, I'm still not fit to touch the hem of Smitty's garment.

Despite my limitations as a concrete guy, I thought that I would be able to successfully follow the instructions on a kit in which you pour concrete into a little form and make an impression of your kids' hands.  The kit was a very thoughtful Christmas gift from my sister, which I cleverly figured I could parlay into a Mother's Day gift to my wife 'from the twins.'  I would decorate the resulting--what? paving stone? paperweight? doorstop? whatever you want to call this hefty tschotshke--with glass mosaic tile leftover from the kitchen backsplash, and an inscription along the lines of "Happy First Mother's Day!" with the girls' names under it.   I expected no less than tears of joy in return.

Historically, I am known as a terrible gift-giver.  This is probably due to my feeling about most--well virtually all--gift-centric holidays: to wit, bah humbug!  I want to start a Christmas tradition wherein everyone writes "Merry Christmas" on a $100 bill and exchanges it with their friends for a similarly decorated c-note.  According to this tradition, throughout the season you would hug your friends and family, exchange cash, and everyone would come out even.  Other traditional occasions for gift-giving merit much less ceremony and forethought.

Back in the day, when my wife and I had separate bank accounts (and I had a job), I would buy her big ticket presents (clothes, shoes, ski boots).  When we combined our finances though, this became a pointless charade, so we simply started designating certain purchases as "gifts" if they fell near a holiday or birthday.  For example, because my wife's birthday happens to be on Christmas day, one year she got a washer and a dryer. 

But now and then, I will make something myself as a concrete (so to speak) gesture in commemoration of a holiday: a heart-shaped step stool one year for Valentine's Day, a heart-shaped meatloaf the next year; a poem for our fifth anniversary that made Dr. Mom cry in public.  It was in this spirit that I set out to make the handprint thingy for her very first Mother's Day.

Since I thought the actual work of making the concrete Mother's Day card would be so easy, I kept putting it off because I had bigger fish to fry (cooking, washing bottles, facebook, etc.).  Finally I got around to doing it yesterday, after mowing the lawn while the kids napped, and before Dr. Mom got home from her half-day at work.  But in my haste, I put too much water in the mix.  No big deal.   I left it out on the deck to set up a bit.

Then Dr. Mom came home earlier than expected.  I tried to sneak the kids out to the deck one by one to make the impressions with their hands, but by the time I did, the 'crete was too dry. 

In my defense, I have to say that there were some problems with the kit.  I found it nigh impossible to get a ten-month old to wear the Men's XL plastic gloves that come with the kit and push her hand firmly into the concrete as the instructions dictated, and I'm sure this would have been the case even if I had tried while the concrete was softer.   All  I ended up with was an angry baby with charcoal colored concrete on her face and what looked like a chunk of a prison-cell wall someone had tried to claw their way out of.  Anyway, isn't this kind of thing usually done in plaster of Paris?  It seems like a more forgiving medium.

So this one-square-foot concrete pour had kicked my ass.  And I'm not proud of the way I responded.  I don't fail gracefully, even though I've had plenty of experience.  I told my wife what had transpired, blaming it entirely on the ill-conceived kit, and she was very understanding.

"It would have been a nice surprise," she said, which should have made me feel better, but instead deepened and prolonged my petulant sulking.

By the morning of Mother's Day, I had mostly recovered from this devastating disappointment, and bravely suggested some activities with which to celebrate the day.

Me: Should we go to brunch?

Dr. Mom: Nah...everyplace will be too crowded.

Me: Do you want me to watch the kids so you can go see a movie about sexy vampires or something?

Dr. Mom: No.  I want to be with my kids today.

Me: How about a mani-pedi?

Dr. Mom: Phhht.  Fo' what?

Me: A massage?  There's that "Oriental Massage" place next to the head shop...

Dr. Mom: Nah...

Me: All right, look.  Just figure out something boring to do that only you will enjoy, and the rest of us will come along.  How's that?

Dr. Mom: That sounds perfect!

And thus Mother's Day was snatched from the jaws of doom!  We ended up going to the farmer's market in Fiercetown, and then the Asian Market (not the local one, but the big one on the other side of town where they have live carp and prawns and sometimes stuff like sheep's heads [dead]).  So although there is no concrete monument to the Mother's Day #1, we will always have the memories of the time we first bought pork belly as a family.  (Actually, that was the second time, but the first time at that market.  Whatever.  It was special.)

 Butterbean with Lobster

 The Squid and the Cobra

Just Squid

Fish Head

Dragon Fruit


Chicken Paws

Rice Bags

Shopping Cart

I realize that my wife is not my mom, and that I should be paying tribute to my own mother today.  But I'll wait for another time to embarrass her at length.  Suffice it to say (for now) that my mom grew up on a farm in Montana's "Hi-Line," a starkly beautiful tundra up by the Canadian border (Mom might not agree with "beautiful," but here are some pics--you can decide), went to college at University of Montana, and then traveled the world as an Army wife.  She taught high school English in the deep South in the fifties, was the secretary at my elementary school in Germany (which might explain why I got into slightly less trouble there than any other school I attended), was the Family Liaison Officer at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, worked for the State Department in D.C.,  and has worked as a fundraiser, grant writer and general ass-kicker for several non-profits, most recently Habitat for Humanity.  

When I was a kid, it was often necessary for me to help drive away would-be suitors who were so entranced by her beauty that they didn't notice my dad glaring at them.  One tipsy Bavarian who couldn't take his eyes off her as we ate at a lodge atop an Alp we had just summited tried to deflect attention from the fact that he was shamelessly hitting on her in front of Dad, me, and my two sisters by repeatedly saying, "You're father is the best in the world.  For sure.  No maybe.  For sure."  Another time, my friends and I tried to drive an admirer away as we skated on the frozen pathways of Gorky Park in Moscow by clamoring around her and crying, "Mama, mama, mama"--all fifteen of us.  The besotted Russian would not be deterred.  

I could go on about the withering comments and looks Mom could rain down on an unsuspecting anti-feminist, rendering him dumbstruck and emasculated; how she hauled logs down the mountain to build our cabin in Montana; or how she never gave up trying to get me to do the smart thing when I was hell-bent on playing the part of the screw-up.  But I'll stop here and just say that she was the best mom ever.  Although my wife might give her a run for her money based on her performance so far.   


  1. One of your best - loved the pix, the kids, the food, the great idea of gift giving (a c-note). If my beta dad, if I had one, wrote such a lovely story, it would be gift enough. But that's me.

  2. I know how to make those stupid kits work.
    you need:
    more concrete or plaster of paris
    kids hands
    the form that came with the kit

    Put the playdough in the form.
    Put the hand in the playdough.
    Take the hand out. leave the playdough in. Pour the concrete/plaster into the form.
    Let it dry.
    Remove plaster from form.
    Spend a long time rolling the playdough out of the dried plaster.
    Be amazed at your work.

    You end up with a relief instead of a ... um... concave? handprint. The playdough actually keeps the fingerprints and everything. plus you can reposition the hands if squirmy kid moves or doesn't imprint her very best on the first try. You can write (backwards) on it or whatever. The stuff that comes with the kits is impossible!

    oh, and you can put food dye in the plaster if you want to make it pink or something.

    I know this because I have been a mom for almost a decade.

  3. I love the pictures. "Squid and Cobra" "Just squid."

    How do you take those girls in public and not get stopped constantly. Do you bask in the attention or run the other way?

  4. I adore those pictures. Even more than wanting to have a baby, I think they make me want to be baby again.

    Despite your bah-humbug sentiment, don't you think that lots of seemingly arbitrary cultural practices carry real significance and value, even if they also play part in a larger system of economic dealings void of humanity? And without obligatory holidays, how would I ever get my boyfriend to buy me boxes of chocolate and large stuffed animals of the squirrel from Ice Age? I understand your resistance to the imposition of generosity, but think of it as a friendly reminder without which you'd have to figure out your own schedule for gifting, which is just more work and leaves you open to the stress of procrastination.
    Anyway my birthday is next Saturday, just saying. And this is completely unrelated, but I still don't have that female squirrel that Scrat meets in Ice Age 3. Doesn't that suck? Well anyways, good post!

  5. sounds exactly like very gift my husband every attempted to give me. glad you were able to salvage the day, and love the tribute to you mom. cute.

  6. Lenore,
    Thanks! Hope you had a great Mom's Day. Your kids are lucky.

    Thanks for the tip! I have a lot to learn about kid projects.

    Thanks! We mostly bask in the attention. Yesterday, the market was so crowded and the shoppers so busy we only got accosted about four times. When we went to this mall in Little Saigon, it was out of control. We were like rock stars. One old lady tried to wrest Butterbean out of my arms as I was talking on the phone to my mom and holding both the girls. I know she was trying to be helpful, but I had to shoo her away.

    I am totally onto the subtext of your incisive cultural analysis. Don't forget who is the master of rhetoric and who is the student. So yeah, I'll be happy to write you a poem for your birthday.

    It's not that men are thoughtless clods. It's just that we spend all our energy trying to make *every* day special for our partners.

  7. Rest easy - it's not just you. I fucked up the concrete handprint too. I think it's a hoax.

    Your mom does sound awesome.

  8. Thanks for the kind words... from my very best son! BTW, I taught in the 60s, not 5os. Those crafty things never work out for me, either, but it's great that you try. It is snowing here today, and we're scratching around for some touristy things to do with our friends. They enjoyed being introduced to your blog and send greetings. Dana is the daughter who is on this trip, along with husband Mike and little son Gus. Fun to see them again.

  9. But you have had a spectacular success with crafts. Remember the lanyard? That, accompanied by the Billy Collins poem, once made my year!

  10. I have a feeling Dr. Mom enjoyed time with you and the girls even more than a handprint thingy. The pictures are wonderful. When I see them, I think how I want babies, but then I realize that I really want those babies. You and Dr. Mom are infinitely better suited to be their parents though. I'll have to be content with pics, stories, and another visit.

    Your mom sounds amazing.

  11. Excellent, excellent post. The first Mother's Day saga. My prediction: next year is when your spouse starts making the request so many moms make (and totally deserve): The afternoon off. That's where we're at -- mornings are for Mother's Day poems, pancakes, blobs of clay shaped like birds or coffee mugs, and the afternoon is for my wife to go off and do whatever she wants to do, without me or my daughter asking her for anything.

  12. Other,
    Yeah. It's totally not us. Yes, Mom is awesome.

    You're welcome. I figured the lanyard evened us up as far as repaying the decades of sacrifices you've made. The shout out is a freebie. We need to sit down and make a timeline of family lore when you get here.

    Come over when ever you get a chance! But I'm afraid I can't loan the babies out.

    Thanks! I offered her the day off this time, but she wanted to hang out with us! You're right though--she'll probably change her tune by next year.

  13. Hey! We just looked at the hi-line pictures. Thanks for collecting them. There you have a clue to understanding complaints about my tedious childhood. How much fun can you have looking at grain elevators? It all changed when I began to drive (at age 15). Note the prominence of the highways in all the pictures

  14. Your wife made you take down that blog about stuff she hates, didn't she? She hates when you blog about her at length.

    I saw it.

    I read it.

    I know.

    That being said here is my comment that I wrote three times before blogger finally was like "Hey dumbass there isn't a blog to post a comment on." And you will enjoy it because it would have been the only comment you got on your lengthy Dr. Mom blog.


    Ugh. I sometimes repeat myself.

    This is partly because I tend to try to tell everyone all my funny stories, and I often lose track of who I have and have not told.

    The second part is that I have like, Alzheimer's or something and I just honestly don't remember making a comment about something.

    And my boyfriend hates when people repeat themselves. We're talking grit teeth, rolling eyes, quick to snap out "You've already told me that." He'll tolerate it from his grandmother, his grandfather, and my father (possibly out of fear? I haven't figured out my father and my boyfriend's relationship yet.)

    But me? No. Seriously, no toleration at all. But if he can't listen to me say for the sixteenth time how I don't understand how people can have glass coffee tables and glass end tables, then why are we even trying to make this relationship work, amirite?!


    So there you go.

  15. Rook,

    Haha. Something like that. It needed some editing.

    You and I have the same repetition problem. It's bad when you've told the story 900 times and you recite it the same way every time. I appreciate it when somebody stops me before I go too far. I don't think I could stand it if my wife repeated herself the way I do. But for some reason she let's me get away with it if I'm telling the story to someone else while she's within earshot.

    We have a glass coffee table. But you should still probably dump your boyfriend.


Don't hold back.


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