Thursday, March 18, 2010
“So, what was it like growing up as the Mayor’s daughter?”
I must have had this question asked of me hundreds of times in my adult life. I typically gave the standard response: “well, it was tough. Since my mother was the Mayor of a semi-small suburban town, everyone knew everyone else and that included keeping a watchful eye over what I was up to. I never really got into trouble in high school, never drank stale beer at keg parties in some field somewhere, never got below a 3.6 grade point average in fear that the entire city council would find out about it and pass some ordinance that required me to put homework before any other priority in my life, and never stole lipstick or stayed out past midnight on a weekend. My between-the-lines behavior was strictly motivated by fear of exposure. It was pretty uneventful from that vantage point.”
My real answer is as follows:
My mother got bored a lot. When we moved to Livermore, she had to have her hands in everything. She started the shelter for battered women when I was just a little kid, but that effort was short lived. After the shelter was up and running successfully, she was on to her next big project “Once you find yourself without a life challenge, you might as well close up shop, cause there’s no use living, just put me out of my misery at that point.”
Life was never mundane in our household and I say this with some distain, for having some downtime every once in awhile might have had an actual calming effect on us children. But with any other “hobby” my mother had, the excitement of running the shelter eventually wore off and she was off on her next adventure: the city council. “I have a lot to offer this fine community. It needs some fixing up.”
As the campaign kicked into high gear, I was summoned to walk precincts, dress in clown outfits while passing out flyers at grocery stores and putting up lawn signs. I was exhausted on the weekends, but my mother said the work built character. Sitting in the back of our blue pinto, clown makeup on my face, waving Cathie Brown for City Council signs out the window and having people smile and wave back was fun, absolutely. But what wasn’t fun and albeit rather stressful was getting kicked off of the grocery store property and having angry constituents slam doors in our faces – character building, my ass. “Look at it this way kids, if you don’t experience these things, you’ll never know how to recognize who your opponents are”.
When my mother was finally sworn in to public office, I almost half expected that her manic, crazy side would be pared down a bit, that her unconventional ways, her insatiable attraction of everything “weird” would either cease or be significantly reduced. But, really, what was I thinking? This new identity almost encouraged my mother to act peculiar and get away with it. “Just put me down now if I can’t stir it up with my family and still be a public figure.” And with that in mind, she declared that half of Saturdays and all day Sundays were officially branded as family time. This declaration didn’t necessarily affect my father’s daily life because he had “family time” every evening by cooking meals, helping with homework and becoming the sympathetic yet way out of his league sounding board to my boyfriend troubles.
But because of my parents’ limited income – my mother received a small monthly stipend and my father’s steady paycheck was stagnant from his early departures for home, our “family time” was nothing like the theme park, cinema, ski trip weekends that I had hoped for.
The family would typically choose Saturday night to venture to San Francisco. We would travel by way of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which was a thirty minute ride to the City, and once there, we would walk and walk and walk. I do not remember my folks ever splurging for a taxi cab ride. It was either the train or our feet. Our only stop for the evening before we strolled around Pier 39 and Fishermans’ Warf was a magic store right on the main drag, where we would load up on cheap gag gifts – hand buzzers, squirting nickels, fake flies, gum that stained your teeth blue, and our personal favorite, Snappy Snot.
Who would have ever thought that my mother, along with a seventy-five cent, twelve inch piece of silicon could provide pure entertainment for an entire evening? It went something like this: we would load up on Snappy Snot, stake out our victims (typically someone with a vulnerable stomach), and have our way with them. Following my mother to places like fudge shops, all you can eat diners and all night donut shops was always the most exciting part – Inspector Clouseau meets Candid Camera.
And then we would wait. We would wait behind garbage cans, trees, even walk behind people, and then when we spotted our victim, my mother gave us a little shove on the back to indicate that it was show time. We would then walk in front of our victim who was typically walking out of the fudge shop, stuffing their face, and as we had practiced a million times before, fake a sneeze that would inevitably get the patron’s attention, letting the Snappy Snot fling out of our hands and dangle in our noses. I wondered during those family times if my mother would be spotted, if her mayoral duties would be called to the carpet, but they never were in San Francisco. Her infamous “off campus” philosophy worked wonders in the anonymous City. “If they recognize me here flinging Snappy Snot, I might as well hang up my mayor hat, because this is what life is all about kids.”
Was it, really?
Other weekends were often spent in various populated places which would spurn my mother into one of her crazed fits of goofiness. I have a vivid memory of her walking out of a public restroom with a toilet seat protector around her head, claiming it was awfully sunny outside and she sure wished she had remembered her sun glasses, “but this little contraption will do just fine. Look, it even has a visor.” As I stared in horror, she proceeded to stroll past us down the busy tourist street. I would often plead with my father for some sort of assistance, please do something! But he just shook his head, puffed on his cigarette and told me to pretend I didn’t know her, “pretend she’s someone else’s mother.” Everyday, Dad, everyday.. That advice actually made me enjoy my mother’s behavior – listening to people a couple of yards back talk about how crazy that woman was, or how they have never seen anything quite so innovative. My mother, innovative?
A couple of years later, as I barely managed to maintain a “B” grade in my high school Spanish class, I was panicked about a presentation I had to do in front of the students. It was a “how to” and I had no idea how to do anything, let alone teach how to do it in Spanish. So, my mother, in passing, recommended that I teach people all the different ways to use toilet seat protectors.
Next thing I knew, we were planning covert operations to pilfer about forty toilet seat protectors from the Denny’s down the street from our house. “We’ll order sodas at the bar, and then you go in about 10 minutes later and stuff as many as you can into your jacket. I will follow after and get the rest.” Could one get arrested for stealing bathroom supplies? I hadn’t a clue, but somehow if we got caught that would be the least of our worries. Headlines: Mayor gets nabbed in ass gasket burglary.
It was a little surprising to learn that my “101 Uses For a Toilet Seat Protector” project not only got me an “A”, but it also created quite a new fashion statement at Livermore High. And little did my classmates know that the Mayor was the brains behind this operation.
But my mother couldn’t always hide her loony side away from the outside world and have her daughter be the buffer. During those weekend family times, they slipped out even when we were in the dangerous boundaries of city limits. In fact, when my parents broke down and bought a ping pong table, it became our new obsession. These ping pong games were never leisure pastimes, they became all-out competitive wars which inevitably included loud yelling, outdoor spot lights when the sun went down, and the occasional shedding of clothing. The biggest challenges were always between my parents. My father never let up - his slam shots would leave bruising on my mother’s neck, arms and chest, leaving him victorious and bragging for weeks about how no one could beat him.
Never being one to lose, though, my mother got tricky and began stripping off pieces of clothing with every shot she won, which left my painfully weak father missing serves and stumbling over himself. One day, I had some of my high school friends over. We were playing Atari video games in the living room when I heard the all too familiar shrills coming from the patio. Being rather inquisitive, my friends would ask what was going on in the backyard, to which I replied, “oh, nothing. My parents are just arguing” assuming that most parents argued while playing games, that this was somehow normal. But as the shrills turned to panicked shrieks, my friends popped their heads up to peer outside and what they found was their mayor, my mother, in her Birthday suit beating my father in ping pong.
Aside from this being a concern for the obvious reasons, I felt nervous about my friends going home and telling their parents about my mother’s secret and that it would soon be discovered that she was hiding her real side, and again, the dreaded newspaper headline popped into my head: Jay Bird Mayor, Victorious in Table Tennis. Instead, my loyal friends never said a word to their folks, instead, they would call first, asking if they could come over and if my mother was fully clothed.
I knew her luck would eventually run out someday, and that one of her loony episodes would be exposed, and unfortunately, I was there to witness her final fall from grace.
For fun, I used to attend my mother’s council meetings as a teenager. I think my motivation for going was to witness this professional woman who I didn’t really know that well. It fascinated me to see my mother as a completely different person, speaking with such serious conviction. I often wondered how, after these meetings, she changed back to being goofy mom again - was it during the car ride home? When she arrived in the driveway? Did she morph while dressing for bed that evening? And how did she keep her alter ego from slipping out?
My mother had this horrible habit of snapping her chewing gum between her molars when she was annoyed. And during this particular council meeting, it appeared as though she was about to lunge out of her seat and go for the throat of one of her fellow council members. The snapping in the microphone was unbearable, and when staff caught her attention, they motioned for her to take her gum out. Her motions were always exaggerated as she exhaled loudly and stuffed her gum inside a tissue and put it in her purse. Instead of snapping her gum, my mother then began chewing on her lip. I sensed that this was one of those rare times she was going to lose her cool and I really wished I hadn’t stuck around to see it.
As the meeting dragged on, and my mother’s patience wore thin, she took out a tissue from her purse and began blowing her nose rather loudly into the microphone, that is until she realized that it was the same tissue she used to deposit her gum.
The gum became permanently stuck to her nose hairs. It was bright pink. I could see it. Instead of excusing herself, she began to laugh as she tugged on the gum with her thumb and first finger, and then began putting her whole fingers up there to get it out. When she noticed the entire crowd staring at her, she made a joke about how it smelled like cinnamon in the room. The chambers broke out in hysterics as the press began scribbling on their pads. I, on the other hand, was horrified and bolted out the backdoor, racing home on my bike.
And all of those fears that one day those ridiculous events would somehow find their way into public were realized the following morning, where I found my mother, hunched over the kitchen table reading the headlines: Mayor Cathie Brown – Her Nose in the News. She looked up from the paper, defeated, and said, “Let this be a lesson to all of us. Not everyone is like us Browns.”
No, Mom, not everyone is like you.