I have been thinking a lot about my parents lately. They drove each other crazy for fifty years. Now, I can hear my dad clearly. “Carol, I knew it. I knew you couldn’t live without me.”
And my mother’s reply, “Oh, Fallon.” My mother always called my dad by his last name. There were times in my childhood when she emphasized it like a curse word.
My mother enjoyed simple pleasures immensely. She loved tending to her backyard, chocolate milkshakes, a good story, and my mom loved a nickel bet. My parents used to bicker about everything, and if my mother felt extremely confident in her position, she would slap her hand on the kitchen table and bark, “Fallon, I’ll bet you a nickel!” Over the years, they had thousands of nickel bets. They never had much money; I think it may have been just the one nickel they passed back and forth.
Growing up Fallon was a unique experience. If I had to describe my parents each in one word, I would say my dad was no and my mom was yes. My mother had an original parenting style. Her philosophy was basically this: if it doesn’t involve any broken bones or gushing blood. And if it doesn’t cost any money. You can pretty much do whatever you want. There was the time when my brother sent my little cousin down a steep hill in a homemade go-cart with no brakes, so the broken bones, gushing blood rule was always more of a flexible guideline.
My mother rarely said no to me as I grew up. Looking back, I am amazed at some of the things she said yes to:
At my childhood home, we had a rec room, which at one point in the houses history had been a two-car garage, but had been converted into a great big room.
My brother, Neil, and I had a giant ball of yard about the size of a basketball. We used to play a game called spider man where we would take one end of the yarn, tie it to a piece of furniture and proceed to twist and wind the rest of the yarn around the room until we had a giant web and then we would crawl our way around it. I actually remember hammering nails into the walls to create better anchors for our web.
Whenever we played grocery store, we tipped all the living room furniture over. I don’t know why Neil and I thought tipping the furniture over made grocery store more fun, but trust me, it was more fun. We used the wide backs of the sofa and chairs as shelves for the canned goods we took from the kitchen.
My mother let us use her spices to create science experiments. She let us take the blankets off of the beds to make forts, and I remember clearly the time I asked to prepare a box of cake batter, not because I wanted to eat cake, but because I wanted a whole bowl of batter all my own. It brought licking the spoon to a whole new dimension. There was the time she let my brother and his best friend attempt to spend the night sleeping on air mattresses floating on our pool. I don’t believe they made it past ten o’clock. My mother said yes every time the ice cream man came into our neighborhood, She said yes when I wanted to get a crew cut my Junior year in high school, and she said yes every time I wanted to borrow the car. (By the way, the crew cut in high school was a terrible idea)
I think it was around 1975 when my brother and I spent an entire summer digging holes in the backyard. And by “my brother and I” I mean Neil dug the holes, and I brought him popsicles and anxiously awaited a turn with our singular shovel. I know you are thinking, “That’s cute. Carol let him dig a shallow trench.” The vision in your head of a shallow trench is a completely inaccurate one. Neil dug four gigantic pits that summer. There were tunnels that led from one to another. These holes were so deep that if I were to stand at the bottom, I couldn’t get back out without help. Not only did my mother let him dig these holes, she was oddly proud of them. When my dad got home from work she would be, like, “Go check out the progress on the holes.” “Way to persevere with that digging.”
My mother always seemed so genuinely proud of both Neil and I. There was the time that Neil convinced me that if we melted down candles we could make our own crayons. I don’t think mom was so proud when the pan caught on fire and we almost burned down the kitchen, but neither of us actually got in any trouble the botched attempt.
There was only one thing my mother consistently said no to, staying home from school. If you were Carol Fallon’s child and you wanted to stay home from school, you had to have a fever of at least 732 degrees and proof that you had vomited up your own spleen.
As a mother myself, I know two things. Saying yes all the time is exhausting. Saying yes all the time is messy.
My mother never complained about being tired. She never complained about spilt paint, broken furniture or crashed go-carts. She never complained about soup pots full of burnt candle wax.
When my oldest daughter, Meg, was almost three, we were at my parents’ house for dinner. Mom had made a 9 X 18 pan of strawberry Jello. She didn’t make this Jello to eat. She made it for Meg to play with because my mother felt, and rightly so, that squishing Jello between your fingers was way more fun than a Barbie doll. So the giant pan of Jello was prepared, but it had not quite solidified, it was still pretty syrupy. Meg was too excited to wait, so when no one was looking, she took the casserole dish out of the frig, walked across the kitchen and proceeded to dump the entire tray onto the family room rug. I was yelling, Meg was crying and strawberry Jello was everywhere. My mother came across the disaster in her family room, she looked at Meg, she saw the mess. She looked at me and shrugged. “We’re raising children, not carpeting,” she said.
For me, my mother was like a lighthouse, protective and reliable. My mother had a certain predictability about her that was immensely reassuring for me.
I remember a time when my two oldest children were small. I needed a babysitter so I could go get a haircut. I asked my mom if she could watch them. “Shoot,” she said. “I have a dentist appointment that same morning.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said, “I will just reschedule the haircut.”
I hung up the phone and five minutes later my mom called back. “Did you reschedule that hair cut?”
“Not yet,” I replied.
“Good. I just cancelled my dentist appointment.”
That is how reliable my mother was. And when my life was foggy or stormy or the year after my first husband died when I was lost at the bottom of a pitch-black pit. My mother was steadfast. I marvel now at the strength of will it took for her not to jump into that pit with me. I can say with certainly that if she had, we would both still be there. Instead, she stayed put. She stood strong. She was a beacon for me with a simple faith. A belief that I would work it out. I would find my way back.
I believe she was a beacon for many people. She was authentic in all she did. She approached everyone in the same way. Whether you were a priest, a teacher, or a custodian. A person of wealth and power or a sixteen-year-old kid. To my knowledge, she never wasted one ounce of energy trying to impress someone. You could take Carol Fallon or leave Carol Fallon and either way she was simply just fine with your decision.
For those of us who loved her, she was a vessel and a vault. An amazing listener, she was unconcerned with problem solving, lectures or advice. She was interested in our stories. She enjoyed the process of hashing things out, of mulling it over. With my mother, you could vent, you could unburden, you could confess. Mom was an introvert, she hated crowds and social gathering. She was a private woman who valued her solitude. And perhaps because of that, we felt safe to whisper our secrets. In her quiet way, Carol Fallon connected to people.
When I was in my thirties, I popped by to visit my mom. When I pulled up, she was standing in the driveway with young man. Mom introduced me. “This is Jim,” she said. “He just got a raise, but he’s not sure if he is going to take the raise or quit. He wants to move to California to be with his girlfriend. It’s a big decision.”
We chatted a bit and soon Jim left. As Mom and I were walking into the house I asked, “How do you know Jim?”
“He reads my gas meter.”
“So, Jim was here to read your meter and he ended up telling you his life story?”
“No,” Mom said, “He read my meter last week. He stopped by to tell me about his raise.”
My mother might be the last of the good ole’ broads. A woman you could go out behind the garage with, have a cigarette, and tell her about your wife, your husband, your boss, your kids. My mother tied herself to the world one story at a time.
My freshman year in college, I had growing pains, one symptom being that I couldn’t decide on a major. Over the next two years, I changed my major eight times. And every time I phoned to tell my mom what my new major was, she didn’t say, “Hmm, is there a lot of demand for a job in that field?” Or “Well, do you think that career will support you when you graduate?” She never even said, “Katie, I think you should pick something and stick with it or you won’t graduate in four years.” When I phoned my mom to tell her I had changed my major, again, all she ever said was, “Oh, you will be so good at that. You will be so good at that.” Even when I said I wanted to major in art and paint watercolors for a living. I’m a terrible painter.
Lately I have been sitting quietly and trying to hear my mom’s laugh. It was loud, encompassing, unapologetic. It was a bark, a burst, and a cackle. On one of her last days, she was checked into ICU and a nurse came to ask her some questions. After a short conversation, the nurse said, “Do you smoke?”
“Well, yes, I have smoked,” Mom said.
“OK,” the nurse replied. “When did you quit.”
“Today,” my mom answered and then she laughed. In that one brief moment, she was the woman I had known all my life.
It is comforting to me to picture my mom as an angel in heaven. I think about the cloud, the wigs, the halo, the whole vision, and all I can think to say is, “Mom, you will be so good at that. I’ll bet you a nickel; You’ll be so very good at that.”