Monday, May 11, 2009

Pandemics, Panics and Peanut Butter

All this Swine Flu panic has made me miss my Mom so much. She died May 6, 2009 and I miss her every single day. No, she did not die of Swine Flu, but she was the world’s foremost authority on anything that might be even remotely dangerous, scary or possibly some sort of conspiracy. And my phone line would have been burning up with calls from her over this Swine Flu scare. She would have urged me to buy masks, take our temperature and worried over whether we had enough food stored up in the house just in case we needed to quarantine ourselves. She was always big on having made preparations for potential world disasters.

My Dad still bears the scars from the time during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1964 when my mom was pregnant with my brother and she became convinced that there was going to be Nuclear War and she needed to store up food and water. She made Daddy go out and buy a bunch of those huge water bottles - the 100 pound kind that go on water coolers – and he threw his back out and crushed vertebrae in his neck and had to have emergency surgery. He says he may have made sure they were prepared to make through a food and water shortage but Mom’s extensive preparations kept him from being able to help her out with any childcare duties for her 7 year old, 4 year old and newborn for the next six months while he was recovering from his surgery! Not that he would have been much help any way, this was the 1960’s after all. But it still makes a good story.

When the big SARS scare occurred in 2003 I very distinctly remember her calling me up at work one day, telling me I had to come over right away to check out this package they had received from China. She left a message for me that went something like this “Reenie, I need you to come over to the house right away. Your Daddy got that painting he ordered from China today and we are worried that it might have that SARS thing so we left it out on the front porch and we need you to come on over here and check to make sure if it is safe for us to bring in the house…”

"Right. Uhmm well, let me see, I can use my super powers and x-ray vision to check out that package and certify it to be SARS free. Oh, yea and never mind the fact that Mom does not want to touch it in case she contracts SARS, let me go ahead and open it up to make sure it is safe!” Have I mentioned before that my family is just slightly insane?

My Mother earned her degree from The University of Texas around 1945 and I think she majored in Worry with a minor in Paranoia and probably did her dissertation on Identifying Suspicious Persons. I honestly can not remember a time period of my life that she was not obsessing over something. Because worrying was a part of her genetic DNA, she unfortunately passed that along to her children – well three of her four children - I have refused to succumb to the constant temptation of potential danger lurking in every corner. My siblings on the other hand, well, let’s just say each of them has their own struggles with this worrisome gene that seems to have been passed down by Mom’s side of the family.

I remember growing up and hearing all kinds of helpful warnings and advice. Things like, “Watch out for people who drive around in cars with tinted windows. Those kind of people are up to no good.” “Never put a cat around a baby. It will suck their breath right out of their mouth.” My personal favorite was not exactly a particular warning; it was the way my Mom would take little notes on suspicious people she saw around the neighborhood just in case she found out later some sort of crime had been committed so she could turn in her notes to the police!

Now here’s a handy little tip I learned from my childhood - never put your arm out of an open window when driving around in a car. There might be a wreck and the car could tip over and land on the side that had the open window your arm was hanging out of and your arm would be cut off! According to my Mom, she saw that very thing happen so all throughout my childhood whenever one of us would hang our arm out of the window she would tell us that story. Personally, I think she made that one up because she thought it looked tacky to drive around with your arms hanging out of the window.

I can’t even begin to remember the number of times she would call me to tell me about some horrible disease or accident that had happened to the second cousin of a friend of a friend's ex-wife or some such and how I needed to now add whatever calamity that had befallen to them to my long list of things to be on the lookout for. I am pretty sure my Mom is probably personally responsible for at least several dozen of the Urban Legends currently floating around the Internet.

All of this came from the same woman who one time I found scraping mold off of some bread as she was making sandwhiches and when I asked her if she was actually going to eat the bread, she said that a little mold never hurt anyone and didn’t I know penicillin came from mold? There was really no way to understand the convoluted way her brain worked, but it made sense to her.

My mother, who when she died at 83 was still called Puddin by everyone she knew, did not like to turn left when I was growing up. Whenever possible, she preferred to take multiple right hand turns until she was headed in the direction she wanted to go. Why? Well, that was easy. Because it was dangerous! Same thing with driving on the freeway. Dangerous! There is a legendary story among some of my childhood friends about the time my mother accidentally got on I-H35 (imagine that last word being said in a horrified voice!)- I-H35. She had a car load of 14 year old girls all going down town to Town Lake to enjoy the Battle of the Bands Night at the local Aqua Festival. Well, somehow, and to this day we still don’t know how such a mishap could have occurred, somehow Puddin got onto THE FREEWAY by accident. My friends still imitate her saying “Girls. Girls. Be quiet. Did I just get on I-H35? Is this THE FREEWAY?” “Yes, Ma'am.” Next thing you know we were not only on the freeway, but we had somehow been diverted to the UPPER LEVEL of I-H35. Suddenly, she was explaining to my friends that she just could not drive on I-H35. It made her too nervous. So, she just pulls over to the side of the road near a police car that happened to be stationed there to direct the traffic flow and says, “Girls, Girls. Get out of the car now. I have to get off this freeway. You just go on over to that policeman and get in his car and tell him to drop you off at Aqua Festival.” So we did. And he did. And she got off.

Can you imagine a policeman today seeing a group of five or six teenage girls walking up to his car parked on 35 and having them explain that they just needed a ride on over to the festival area because "Mrs. Harwood gets too nervous to drive on the freeway" and agreeing to take them like it was nothing out of the ordinary? Somehow I just can't see that going over too well today, but I guess in 1974 it must not have caused much of a stir because he did drop us right off at the front gate!

You should have been with us the first few years MoPac (the freeway that was built in Austin in the early 1970’s) was built. I had to suffer the humiliation of her driving across town using only the feeder roads. THE Mopac, as she called it, just went too fast. But hey, she loved us and was determined to keep us safe, right?

She also gave me helpful advice like whenever you are traveling out of town and someone you meet in that new city asks you where you are from, you always say “Dallas.” Never say Austin. “Why?” you might ask. Well that’s simple. If you tell a stranger you are from Austin they might figure out your, name, address and phone number and send someone to rob you while you are out of town. Or even worse, travel back to your hometown later and murder you in your sleep! I will never forget the time when I was right out of college and we were in New Orleans and this darling guy I had met at our hotel asked me where we were from. Just as I was about to open my mouth and say “Austin, Texas” in my cutest little Texas Drawl, my mother shot me The Look, stood lightly on my toe and said “Dallas” in her haughtiest voice. You all know The Look. It’s the one that all mothers can shoot to their children across a room that immediately and telepathically imports into their minds words like DON’T. STOP. JUST WAIT UNTIL WE GET TO THE CAR… So there I was probably missing the opportunity to meet my future husband, all because this boy might, just could perhaps, possibly, maybe, track me down to Austin, Texas ("Please God", I prayed!)and do who knows what.

Then there was the time during my high school years when I seemed to have been involved in quite a few accidents in a short period of time and my mother and her sisters got together to discuss my many calamities. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that I had begun wearing some opal jewelry recently and that "everyone" knew that wearing opals was bad luck unless they were your birthstone. So off came my two opal rings and my opal necklace. And sure enough, all that bad luck that had been the cause of my misfortune just stopped. I ran across that jewelry the other day in my parent’s safety deposit box and thought they would make a wonderful gift for my 14-year old daughter, CeCe, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to give them to her. She was born in June.

So what does all this have to do with Swine Flu? Well all this panic over the potenial pandemic, got me to remembering last year when the Salmonella outbreak happened with peanut butter. It was all over the TV News just like this Swine Flu thing and of course my mother called to tell me about it because she knew my kids ate a lot of peanut butter. She had very carefully written down the lot numbers of the bad jars and gave them to me over the phone. Because by this time she was in the nursing home and really very,very sick and I knew that writing down those numbers must have been excruciatingly hard for her, I decided to humor her. I actually wrote them down too instead of just saying "uh, uh" and pretending that I was going to follow up like I ususally did.

Since the peanut butter in question was Peter Pan brand and Peter Pan Peanut Butter is the kind my kids eat, and since I had actually written down the serial numbers she gave me, I figured I might finally be able to put to use that ability to be on the constant lookout for possible danger that my mother so graciously passed along to me and my siblings. I decided I really would take that slip of paper downstairs and check out the Peanut Butter.

Amazingly, I remembered to take the slip of paper with me when I went downstairs to go to work, and then I actually remembered to look in our pantry, pull out the peanut butter and peruse the top to see if my jar was one of the polluted ones. I could not believe my eyes. Right there right in front of me was Potential Peril! Looming Danger! Advancing Doom! My Peter Pan Peanut Butter actually had the recalled serial numbers on it.

Finally! After 47 years of vigilance I had actually averted danger. I was so excited I even took a picture of the jar so that I could show everyone how heroic I had been. I could not wait to tell my mother how all her paranoia had finally paid off.

I then left the jar on the counter and raced out to work feeling like such a great mother for having saved my children from sure death or worse.

Later that day as I rushed back in the door to start dinner I saw Tye, our 7-year old, sitting happily at the kitchen table eating his afternoon snack complete with a huge spoon, some crackers and the jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter.

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