The Late Night Term Paper, Mona, and Me
“Wish we could turn back time
to the good dope days
when the Momma sang us to sleep
but now we’re stressed out.”
by Twenty-One Pilots
Growing up, my mother (Mona) and I used to watch old movies together. She had a love of musicals, and I came to share that love. She also loved gangster movies, and just about anything in black and white. I remember asking her to watch my all-time favorite black and white movie with me -- Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks. She liked the character of Igor, in particular.
“He has a face only a mother could love,” Mona said of the great comedic actor Marty Feldman, who was known for his peculiar appearance -- big nose, bulging eyes and thick eyebrows. With his migratory hump, he was one of the highlights of the movie.
“A face only a mother could love” -- doesn’t that summarize mothers perfectly? They are the people who love us, each of us, despite the pimples, scars, and many flaws -- both internal and external.
I have found myself shaking my head at the mothers of convicted criminals, who cry and insist that their baby is a ‘good boy’ -- all the way to the electric chair. But that would be my mother, too, if I were in the same position. I think it would be the same for all mothers.
No matter how bad, how dark, how selfish, or how embarrassing we are, mothers still love us unconditionally.
Most often, in the recollections I share with you, Good Reader, I might seem to be a wonderful guy. Sure, some of the stories are filled with pathos from a universe aligned against me, but that generally makes me a sympathetic (and hopefully humorous) character. Rarely do I share stories which shine a light on my less attractive side.
In honor of Mother’s Day, however, and inspired by last week’s piece, I am going to tell the tale of “The Late Night Term Paper, Mona, and Me.”
In the summer of 1984, after five and a half long years, I was finally nearing the end of my bachelor’s degree work at Wayne State University in Detroit. (Indecision as well as a few failures added the extra year and a half to the normal duration.) During my time at Wayne State, I worked full time -- at least 40 hours per week -- and kept ‘full time’ credits, a minimum of 12.
Not wanting my undergraduate work to take an even 6 years, I took 19 credits in my final semester. I also added another full time job to pay for car repairs (times two) to my 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel. (That’s another story, or maybe two!)
I was chronically fatigued that summer, and I took it out on those around me.
Once, coming home from work, I asked my youngest brother, David, a.k.a. Dewey, who was about 13 at the time, to toss the car keys to me from the porch. He did.
Apparently, lack of sleep had a significant impact on my reflexes, because the keys went right past my outstretched hand and clunked me in the face. It really was my fault on at least two levels, but I took it out on him, sprinting to the porch and giving him an uppercut to the solar plexus.
He didn’t say anything else, and neither did I. At the time I felt he deserved it, but that sound and the image of him doubled over and looking up at me in pain is still clear as anything in my mind. I think I have since apologized to him, hopefully more than once, but if not, let me do so again. I’m sorry for that, Dewey. Please forgive me.
That same mean spirit was not limited to family.
Mona worked for the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education at the School Center Building on Woodward Avenue. She was a secretary in the special education department, and she was a great typist. Her other skills included being able to decipher my scrawling penmanship. Naturally, I took advantage of her good nature and her lunch hour and made my way across the Wayne State campus to her office on the fourteenth floor whenever I needed a paper typed.
One day, I had worked most of the night on a particularly long paper that included footnotes. Back in those days, some professors allowed you to identify your sources using notes at the end of your paper, which made typing easier. Others, however, insisted that footnotes belonged at the foot of each page, which made typing a real challenge in the days before computers and word processors. I knew Mona could handle that with ease, so I headed to her office with 15 pages of nearly illegible notes in hand.
“Hey, Mom, do you have time to type a paper during your lunch today?” I asked, confident that she wouldn’t think of declining -- and I was right.
“Sure, just let me check with my boss,” she said. “How much do you have?”
I held up the wad of papers.
“That’s nothing,” she said. “Do you want to go for lunch afterward?”
I knew she meant that she would treat me to lunch, as she always did, but I felt I had to show some gratitude, so I insisted it would be my treat.
Mona typed the paper faster than I would have imagined, and I sat in the chair next to her desk, half dozing as I waited for her to finish. When she finished, we headed downstairs and decided to try a new restaurant in the same building.
We were early for lunch, and the place looked like it had just opened. Wait staff was running hither and yon, taking chairs off table tops and wiping everything down.
We requested coffee as we were seated. It was really the only thing on my mind at that time. I wasn’t much fun in the way of conversation to start our lunch date, and I got even worse as time passed. Mona tried pleasant small talk, but I was focused on one thing -- coffee.
There were only a few other patrons there, so I figured this wouldn’t take very long. I was mentally planning the rest of my day as Mona and I sat there -- drink coffee, turn in paper, drive home, sleep for 10 or more hours....
I watched as the wait staff ran back and forth, but nobody came our way -- with or without coffee. In fact, nobody even brought us a menu or water. We sat there and watched servers buzzing past us en route to tables near us, bringing drinks to customers who entered after us. Still no one came to our table.
Being a participant in the foodservice industry for most of my youth, I wondered how long it would take for a waiter or waitress to get to my table. I calculated the deduction in tip as the minutes went by. Like a student in a classroom, I raise my hand; I even waved my hand, but servers seemed to be wearing blinders as they walked past, on their way to serve yet another customer before us. I grew angry, and I started to complain loudly.
“I can’t believe it!” I said in a loud voice. “What kind of place is this? How long do we have to wait for a cup of coffee?”
The staff seemed to also be wearing earplugs because my tantrum didn’t even elicit a single flinch. It was like we were in another dimension, invisible and inaudible since we took our seats.
“Don’t worry, Mike. I’m not in any hurry. I can get back to work late,” Mona said. Of course, at that time, my selfishness kept me from even considering the impact on her.
“No it’s not about being in a hurry, Mom. It’s about service.”
“Relax. It’ll be okay,” she said, trying to sooth her twenty-something toddler. “We’ll just sit here and have a nice conversation until a waiter comes by...”
“Relax? How can I relax? I need a cup of coffee!”
At that point, I knew we weren’t in the Twilight Zone because patrons from the tables closest to us began to stare at me. Perhaps my Aura of Anger radiated out from our table, repelling wait staff like some invisible force field. Today, I can imagine their conversation as they glided past each other, avoiding our table.
“Are you taking that table over there?”
“Are you kidding? That’s not my section.”
“Marge is supposed to cover that area. Where is she?”
“Don’t know -- I haven’t seen her since steam started coming out of that dude’s ears.”
Mona and I sat there for nearly 30 minutes as people around us began to get first their drinks and then their food. Finally, I said I’d had enough and pulled two pennies from my pocket. I placed one where my lunch should have been placed and the other at Mona’s place setting.
I made sure to stop to complain to the manager on the way out. Later, I realized that it was a new restaurant with a new wait staff, and there was obviously some confusion about who covered which table. I also realized how embarrassing I must have been to my mother as I sat there complaining loudly from my seat, then complaining to the manager and placing those two pennies -- the ultimate sign of displeasure in the restaurant business.
Despite all that, Mona accompanied me to another nearby restaurant where we grabbed a carry-out meal, which we took back to her office to eat. She never complained about my behavior or said I embarrassed her that day. I don’t think I saw anything but love in her eyes.
At that time, with my angry temperament and ugly face, she loved me as only a mother could.
Thank you, Mona, and Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers; your unconditional love is a true gift.