My mom was an Irish girl who married an Italian boy. She was confident, strong, and brilliant. My dad was a child of abuse. He was angry, cruel, and insecure. Mamma collapsed under his Italian ways. She loved me, but didn’t have the mass to protect me. I learned this on my own. I told myself when I left home at seventeen, I didn’t want to be anything like anyone in that family, and then I flew away.
At eighteen I married. At twenty I became a mom. At twenty-nine, a single mom of two little girls. Single motherhood requires organization, quality time, and graceful patience. I had none of these raising my two girls alone. I was scared, lonely, and ill-prepared, but determined. I was determined to be different from anything I watched in that family. I turned to what I knew, self-made confidence. Confidence was what I had to give, and I packaged it cleverly.
One year, at Thanksgiving, my girls and I made a dozen – from scratch – apple pies for the Jesus Saves Mission. I’m not sure who Jesus saved that year, but I’m confident they enjoyed a slice of our pie beforehand. My older daughter, Nicole was driving by then and asked if she could be the one to deliver the pies to the Mission.
“Sure,” I said, “but don’t go alone; take your sister.” It was in a questionable part of town; I guess most Jesus Saves Missions are.
They carefully loaded the pies into the yellow beat-up Bronco II. Off they went into the crisp November afternoon, the smell of exhaust and cinnamon trailing behind. About three hours later, they returned.
“Why did the thirty-minute trip take three hours?” I said.
“Mom, we knocked and knocked on every single door and even tried to open the windows. No one answered and all the windows were locked. Finally, after waiting forever we put the pies on the sidewalk in front of the mission. Since they were covered with foil, we thought they’d be fine until someone came to the front door to take them inside.”
Did I teach confidence in decision-making? Check.
My mom told me to have “something to fall back on.” For her money, it was typing. With Nicole and Sandra, the fall back was selling with a hefty side order of perseverance. If you can sell yourself, you can sell anything, and as Catholic schoolgirls, they had to sell more than most. We’d practice their sales pitches before going to bed. My kids learned how to sell everything from stale popcorn to stinky lotion.
The deal with Catholics is they “give up” something for Lent, the forty days before Easter. The nuns convinced my girls to give up sweets. One Easter season, the second grade was asked to sell the hard sugar eggs that had a religious scene inside of them. These were clever little decorations that featured Jesus dying on the cross, in fondant. The egg was open on one side so small children could enjoy this celebratory scene.
It seemed cruel to me to require kids to hold, smell, and sell something made of sugar when most of them weren’t allowed to eat sweets. Sandra was in second grade that year. She was always at the top of the fundraising charts. She had a particularly likable personality, and had cute left over at the end of the day.
The sale of religious sugar eggs, though, wasn’t going well. The model, by the third week, had become soiled and cracked and featured just a wee part of Jesus dying on the cross. His entire torso had broken off – not a good selling point to devout Catholic customers.
“Hello, sir. Would you help me with my St. Vincent DePaul school fundraiser and buy a sugar egg for Easter,” the pitch was perfect. The older man smirked a smile out of the corner of his mouth.
“Sweetie, I don’t celebrate Easter. I’m Jewish,” he said.
“I think Jewish people can eat them. Catholics just look at them,” she fought on.
“I don’t think so,” the door closed.
Know your audience, kid.
Sandra was frustrated and ready to give up.
“Mommy, can’t you just buy some of these things and let’s go home.”
I checked my wallet – empty.
“Sweetie, you must learn to sell yourself. You aren’t selling Jesus, you’re selling yourself, selling Jesus.” She bought it.
Sandra straightened the front of her plaid jumper, pushed an unruly curl from her eyes, and rang the bell of the last house, in the thirteen hundred block of Dahlia Street. A middle-aged woman opened the door. Sandra went into her pitch,
“Good afternoon Madam. Can you help me out and buy some of these candy Jesuses?”
She held the weathered sample as high as her tired little arm would allow. The woman smiled, even laughed a bit. Sandra stood determined, her arm frozen above her curly haired head like a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty, if she had to sell door-to-door. The woman glanced at my face.
Anguish sells too.
“I’ll take eight, dear. The Easter Bunny won’t mind if I add these to my children’s baskets.”
Sandra walked toward me, especially tall and sure of herself that day.
In celebration, and perhaps from the pressure of sacrifice, coupled with the nearness of temptation, Sandra ate the model. A few sugary crumbs of the cross on the front of her plaid uniform were the only evidence of its previous existence. I pulled a checkbook from my purse.
You eat it – you buy it.
My mom never knew she had actually prepared me the best way possible. She died thinking she had failed as a parent who should have protected her daughter. Because of her, I guarded myself and my daughters from a future of abuse, failure, and lost dreams. As a single mom, I didn’t have much to give my girls, but I gave them the confidence to become strong, determined women who have the courage to leave pies on the sidewalk when that’s the only option.