‘I’m on canteen duty next week.’ My Mum said it so casually, but the words struck fear into my heart. I was 14 years old, at high school in rural South Australia. Life as a teenager had come as a shock. I’d expected the physical changes, but it was the new emotions that scared me. I’d thought being a teenager would be cool and fun. Instead, I found myself in a boiling cauldron of anxiety.
It didn’t help that I was a blusher. If I spoke up in class, I blushed. If a boy spoke to me, I blushed. I wanted to be special, but I didn’t want to stand out. I spent every day in fear of imminent mortification. Overnight, I became self-conscious about my looks, my clothes – and my parents.
I wasn’t alone. One mother in town was famous for her 1960s’ beehive hair-do. Her teenage children were teased so much they probably wished they could time-travel. Another friend’s father was spotted on his bike on a rainy day, wearing a plastic bag on his head to keep dry. My friend nearly left town she was so ashamed. And now it was my turn. My mother was stepping on to school grounds, into my world.
I loved Mum. But what if she did something that embarrassed me? Started singing while making the sandwiches? Dropped a plate in front of everyone? Mum knew I had a crush on a classmate. What if she said something to him? Worst of all, what if she wore something that Wasn’t Quite Right.
I worried over the possibilities for days beforehand. The night before, I couldn’t stop myself. ‘Mum, you won’t wear anything that might embarrass me, will you?’ I should have picked up the signs. I should have noticed the flash of devilment in her eyes. I didn’t.
I did know Mum worried that I cared too much about fitting in. ‘You don’t have to be like everyone else,’ she’d say, when I’d wail about needing the latest clothes, makeup or records. ‘If they jumped off a roof, would you do that too?’
Unbeknownst to me, Mum decided to have some fun. In her wardrobe were a bright pink kaftan and a large hat covered in fake red roses, leftovers from a fancy dress party. She put them in her bag and left for the school canteen.
I can still remember queuing that morning, waiting for my first sight of her. A blush simmered under my cheeks. There she was. She looked normal. She was behaving normally. She gave me a quick wink but that was it. Only when I got home that night did she reveal what she’d nearly done. At the last minute, she’d taken pity on me, remembering her own teenage years. She’d had moments of wishing she was an orphan too, she confessed. She had? I wasn’t the only one? It helped.
On the bright side, her outfit didn’t go to waste. Three years later, at my graduation dance, we were asked to come in fancy dress – the more bad taste the better. I wore a pink kaftan and large rose-covered hat. When anyone asked who I had come as, I told the truth. ‘My mother,’ I said.
(Published in the Sunday Business Post, Ireland, 2013)
(Copyright Monica McInerney 2014.)