Cast of Listen to Your Mother, Chicago 2016

I’d wanted a four square ball, one of the thick red rubber balls that kids use to play street games like kick the can and, as the name implies, four square. I already had the smooth kind, the wrong kind (my mother was the queen of getting me the wrong kind). I wanted the kind with grooves, the real kind that real sportsman had since I was a real sportsman. I was the only girl on a street full of boys and I played ball, all kinds. I could do a lay up and run the 50 with the best of them. I knew RBI’s, ERA’s and the rules of every game. Overhand, underhand, side arm, one arm, hitting on a fly, bus stops, double hits and punchies. These were the rules of four square and if you had your own ball, the good kind with the grooves, you got to call the rules.

So when, on the occasion of my ninth birthday party, from the wing backed chair in our living room, I scanned the floor in front of me, a floor covered with about 25 kids and as many gifts, none of them round, none of them inflated, none of them wrapped in the bat and ball paper of the local sport shop, I swore. I could swear, too, like the best of them.

“Oh crap,” I murmured.

My mother heard me. She’d been standing at the entry way, policing the guests. Back then, policing was a much more passive affair than it is today. No one needed chaperones to assist. The mother was king of the castle. She even wore a title, Mrs. In the ‘70s, you would no more call a mother by her first name than you would call the Queen of England Liz. As ruler of the roost, her mere presence commanded a certain respect and caused kids to pull it together. The upshot being that my own mother, Mrs. Arenson, had plenty of time to police not only the guests, but the guest of honor, too. “What did you say?” she said.

“Nothing,” I told her.

“It didn’t sound like nothing.”

She glared at me as only a pre-millenium mother could as I tore open the first present. A box from the local clothing store. Inside, a tube top. A white, stretchy cylinder. Instead of a name and number on the back, it had a gumball machine on the front with gumballs clustered around it. I remember the tube top as well as I remember the rules of four square not because I wore it over and over but because I received it over and over. In my current role as mother of two daughters, I find myself explaining that there were times when kids didn’t have choices, when there weren’t 18 thousand stores that catered to them, there was one. It was called the Style Shop, where we all got our stuff, where all the moms of the kids coming to my party apparently acquired the same goddamn tube top.

After about 2 tube tops, my eyes began to well up. I fought against it. But you know how it goes with tears, the harder you fight to hold them back, the harder they fall and by tube top 5, the water was flowing. My mother, instead, was the one oohing and aahing as she pressed in aggravation into my convulsing shoulders. Forget holding up the gifts for all to see, as I’d been instructed to do before the party, when we were setting up, when moods were up, when the odds of receiving a ball still seemed real, when the chances of being buried alive by tube tops seemed small. By the 7th, I could take no more, I could muster up not one more thank you.

Which was when my mother pulled me from the game. “This is a real poor showing of sportsmanship,” she told me as she did what no mother would have the balls to do today—she sent me to my room and proceeded with the party.

Try a move like this these days, and a mother like me, referred to only as Francie by guests at her own kids’ parties, risks being sanctioned by child protective services. Or worse, she risks being shunned by the other mothers. Or even more traumatic, she risks permanent psychological damage to her child due to the Fear Of Missing Out that the child will undoubtedly contract from watching on Instagram or Snapchat the fun she’s missing at her own party.

But unlike Francie, Mrs. Arenson didn’t second guess and no one second guessed her when, that’s right, she yanked me and my Pete Rose jersey out of the wingback, marched us up the stairs and into my bedroom with the instructions not to come out until she said come out. Then she shut the door and invited my guests to open up the rest of the presents, to have cake in the kitchen, to play games outside. Where, from the window of my room that overlooked our street, I saw my brother unwrap a brand new ball, the good kind with the grooves, and start a game of four square. I remember looking out with jealousy as he called the rules.

Though really, it was my mother; always on the sidelines, calling all the shots.*


*As read by Francie at Listen to Your Mother at the Anthenaeum Theater in Chicago on May 1, 2016.