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Partly Cloudy

by Karen Cyson

As a child, your mom is, well, your mom. You have a mom, your friends have a mom. I don't remember thinking, "My mom isn't like the other moms.” She was just … well … my mom.

It wasn't until I was older, probably 15 or so, that I began to realize that no one had a childhood like mine. While everyone else in the neighborhood had a rather “Beaver Cleaver/Donna Reed” aspect to their family, mine was, to put a label on it, controlled anarchy coupled with creative activity.

For starters, housework was optional. This was no Pledge and Mr. Clean house. There were no chore lists and we didn't care what “they” thought about our house.

Nothing was dirty, mind you, and we had clean and pressed clothes and amazing meals, but there was no importance placed on any of it.

My mom could be in the middle of vacuuming the living room when suddenly she’d announce “that’s enough of this” and we'd all (including my friends, who always played at my house) pile into the station wagon (back when seat belts were a novelty) and go over to Como Park to feed the seals. Or go tour the state capitol. Or go on a tour of the Betty Crocker Kitchens. Or go have a picnic somewhere. Because why not?

We had dinner by candlelight every night. Because why not? A neighbor even confronted my mom about this once, asking, “what's going on at your house?” Dinner. Dinner is what's going on. And why, the neighbor went on, did we have corn-on-the-cob in the winter? (This was long before Green Giant made it possible.) Because every summer we canned and froze a year's worth of vegetables. Not because we needed to. There were three grocery stores within walking distance. But because they tasted better. Who needs Ragu when you have 100 quarts of your own sauce in the basement?

There was also a need for “back-up vegetables” due to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This was an ongoing problem during my childhood. Mom would be cooking dinner, Dad would come home and put on a Herb Alpert record, and they'd start dancing in the kitchen. Al Hirt was also frequently on the playlist. And, before we knew it, something for dinner had burned due to inattention. The ongoing joke at our house was "How do you know it's time for dinner?" "You can smell the burned potatoes." To this day, if I smell burned food, I start humming Tijuana Taxi.

We had a money jar in the cupboard. If we wanted to bike to the Dairy Queen after dinner, we took a quarter and went and got our cone. It was OK to treat our friends, too. No permission needed.

There was also a box (the kind checks came in) of large bills tucked away in the kitchen "for emergencies.” What qualified as an emergency was never defined, but we knew there was money if one happened. It was never touched.

We were in on the finances. I watched my mom pay bills and balance the checkbook. I learned through observation and had a pretty good idea how much money we had and for what. I remember being upbraided by my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson, during a unit on finance, when she told us that our parents had mortgages and I said mine didn't. We both stood our ground until a note from my mother brought a concession from her. My parents, married in 1952, saved for two years to buy a lot and then for another two years to buy materials and my dad built our house. We moved in when I was 11 months old. Ours was the smallest house on the block, but it was ours.

There was one rule during my childhood and it was enforced: No cartwheels in the living room. Apparently doing so made too much noise in the basement below where my dad had his wood shop and cartwheels at Christmastime made the tinsel get tangled. No cartwheels in the living room. OK.

I could do all the cartwheels I wanted to outside and so could my friends. Everyone played at my house because my dad had rented a grader and made the backyard perfectly level. Softball, croquet, badminton were all so much easier. We had a playground-size swing set and slide, and Dad built an 8' x 8' sandbox for which mom made a canopy. The play area was surrounded by garden borders that were my mom's pride and joy.

Mom made our clothes. And by that I mean all of our clothes, down to our underwear. I remember “field trips” to the Munsingwear outlet (now the International Design Center in Minneapolis) where she'd hold my feet while I dug deep into 55-gallon cardboard drums filled with appliqués to find matching sets, and then repeating this at the drum of elastic scraps so my sister and I would have sets of matching, decorated panties and slips. Then, back home, she'd sew for us while we sewed for our dolls. She'd also taught herself to knit (her mother did none of this) and made us matching hat, mitten, and scarf sets for our coats and jackets. My favorite garment was a jumper, and she made one for me every year, out of black wool. It was plain so that the front could be embellished with sequined, removable appliqués she'd made for each holiday — pumpkin, turkey, tree, heart, basket.

Seventh-grade Home Economics was a tad anti-climactic when I'd been embroidering and knitting since I was five years old and using a sewing machine since I was six.

It was like that was with so many things. Even school itself and the library in particular were a bit boring compared to what mom had exposed me to as a toddler. One of those “I don't actually remember but everyone tells me I did it” stories is that when the neighborhood kindergartners would come home from school, they’d bring their library books to me so I would read to them. I was three.

Always learn. Always be creative. See if you can make it yourself. Life is a party. That's how I was raised.

Were there actual gems of guidance and advice? Yes.

1) Do not put fake flowers in live green plants. Just don't.

2) If you are not 15 minutes early, you're late.

3) Do not run more than three yellow lights per day. You're just pushing your luck after that.

4) If you like it, that's the only reason you need to keep it. If you don't like it, get rid of it.

5) Light the candles.

6) Plant the flowers.

7) Play.

8) Read.

9) Have a party.

No. 4 was one of the last gems Mom invoked. Upon her arrival at Quiet Oaks Hospice in December, she took one look at the signed, numbered wildlife print on the wall in her room and said, "I am not going to die looking at deer butts.”

Oh, I guess there's one more gem:

10) Let people know what you think. Let there be no doubt.

We lost Mom to multiple myeloma January 13, 2018.

Marian Frances Manthey Bystrom, Mensa Life member and my mom.



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