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Columns by Sharon

The Suit

by Sharon O’Donnell , in 2008


“Mom, I have to wear a suit to school tomorrow,” my 13-year-old, David, informed about 11:00 one night last month. He and I had just gone through a few hours of studying for his science test the next day on natural selection, about how species adapt in order to survive.

“What?” I replied groggily, lifting my head from my pillow where I had fallen asleep, exhausted, still in my clothes, stretched across the entire bed since my husband was out of town.

“The basketball team dresses in shirts and ties for home games,” he reminded me. It was the first game of the season for his middle school team, and the game day dress code had slipped my mind.

I sighed loudly. “Don’t your khaki pants still fit you?” I asked, my tired eyes pleading with him to say ‘yes’.

“They’re too short.” He stood at the door to my bedroom, looking forlorn. “And I can’t tie a tie, remember?”

Perfect. My husband Kevin wasn’t home, and nobody else, including me, David, and my 16-year-old son, Billy, could tie a tie correctly. I groaned. “Can’t you find one of those clip-on ones?”

David shook his head. “Mom, they look weird.” I looked at him, realizing he’d grown quite a bit since 14 months ago when he last had to wear a suit at my niece’s wedding. They only make those clip-on ties just so long, and I bet even the longest one we had would indeed look pretty strange on David now. He usually wore a collared Izod or Polo shirt to church, so I hadn’t noticed he’d outgrown the ties. And probably the dress shirts, too.

A decade of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and knot-tying and yet neither one of them could tie a darn tie???? Sure, maybe they could tie a rope around a tree and throw it out to rescue someone in the water, but they couldn’t tie a tie neat enough to wear in public. Neither could I, but that was one thing I thought Kevin could take care of for the guys. I thought briefly of him sleeping soundly in his hotel room.

Surely there were some hand-me-downs from Billy around somewhere in some box in some closet or some garage loft. I dragged myself off the bed and went in Billy’s room where I opened the loft door behind his bedroom door. This area was the only storage area in our entire house, and was unlit and cold, floored in with only cheap plywood. Yes, searching for hand-me-downs in the incorrectly marked plastic boxes was actually a death-defying feat at my house. I sighed. “Where is a flashlight that works?” Ten minutes later we finally found one in the garage behind the garbage cans. I got down on all fours and climbed feet-first into the dark, square-shaped hole. “I’m going in,” I whispered bravely to Billy and David.

Ten minutes later, I emerged from the loft with nothing to show for my troubles. I could find another size 18 suit, but not the size 20, which David needed. Somehow there was a gap in the hand-me-down supply. I knew the size 20 suit was probably somewhere in our house, but where, I had no idea.

I checked my watch and saw it was 11:20. I knew what I had to do. Kohl’s was open until midnight, thanks to the holiday hours, so off I went to buy some pants, a shirt, and a tie. Searching wildly for these items, I raced through the young men’s department, finally settling for a pair of black pants, a shirt that was probably too small, and a regular tie because I couldn’t find any long clip-on ones.

As the teenaged boy working the cash register rang up the items, there was an announcement that it was closing time. I realized then I was the only customer in the entire store. I’m sure they wanted to hurry and get me out of there so they could close up. As he put the tie in the bag, I asked sheepishly, “Do you know how to tie one of those?”

“Sure,” he said, nodding.

“Uhm,” I stammered, embarrassed by my question. “Well, could you tie it for me,” I asked. Then I explained to him my predicament, and he laughed. He asked me how tall David was and then tied a perfect knot in the tie. I carried it to the car carefully, painstakingly so as not to mess it up, like it was a precious treasure or a bomb I didn’t want to explode.

The next morning, David went off to school dressed appropriately, thank God (and the guy at Kohl’s). A few weeks later I found a marvelous thing while shopping at Crabtree one day: zippered ties in all lengths. Thinking of my three sons, I looked at the sales clerk and said firmly, “I’ll take ten.”



Field Trip Chaperone

            When my youngest son, Jason, was five, his class went on a field trip to the Museum of Science in downtown Raleigh.  I’d signed up to drive, and I knew it was a possibility a teacher might ride with me.  That meant, of course, I must vacuum out our SUV so the teacher wouldn’t be totally appalled upon stepping into our family vehicle.  With three sons, I never knew what I’d find in there.

I’d planned to take the SUV by one of those auto spa places beforehand and make sure it had a good cleaning.  But, in the interest of time, I decided to focus on the front of the vehicle since the teacher would be sitting up front.  I picked up major items like empty Gatorade bottles, hardened chewing gum wads, and discarded kid’s meal toys.  I gathered up dirty socks and DVD boxes (you haven’t lived until you drive to Disney while your five-year-old repeatedly watches “The Return of Frosty the Snowman”).

In the other seats, there were still pieces of trash in the carpet and gunk in the little holes where the seats were adhered to the floor.  But the teacher would never see that since she’d be up front.

We had to drop off our children as usual and then those driving on the trip would come back an hour later to pick up everybody.  When I dropped off my son, Jason, the teacher gave each of the drivers a list of who was riding with them.  I scanned the list and stopped cold in my tracks.  BOTH teachers were riding with me.  Holy cow, that meant one of them would have to sit in – (insert music from “Psycho” here) the middle seat. The middle seat where they would have a perfect angle to see the melted lollipops stuck in the cup holders and Skittles imbedded in the carpet.

When I got back to my SUV, I jumped in and immediately headed to the car wash down the street.  The huge vacuum cleaner there only took quarters but thank God, I had a ton of them.

I had to work fast.  I popped in two quarters and crawled in the back, pulling the enormous vacuum cleaner hose behind me.  A few minutes later, the vacuum stopped so I had to climb out and put in two more quarters.  After fifteen minutes of twisting and turning throughout the SUV and squeezing underneath seats, I’d worked up a sweat.  But, my work was productive.  I found a long-lost athletic cup wedged under the back seat.  I sighed, remembering the hour-long search we had for the thing before my middle son’s baseball game.

Back at school, both teachers and some children got into my SUV, and I held my breath as the teacher who climbed in the back seat glanced briefly around as she got in.  Her facial expression didn’t show disgust so I’d pulled off the impossible. 45 minutes earlier the place was a pigsty.

As we neared the museum, I turned on my blinker to turn into the parking lot only to see a sign saying the lot was full.  I suddenly felt nauseated because this meant one thing – parallel parking, not one of my particular skills, especially with others watching.

I pulled beside the car in front of the empty space and backed up, turning the wheel until, to my surprise, the SUV was parked perfectly in the space. I felt like a little league baseball outfielder who dives to catch the ball and doesn’t realize the ball landed in his glove until the crowd starts cheering.          “Nice job,” one teacher complimented me, as I did a double take to make sure the car really was in the parking space.

The museum that day offered many wonders of nature, but none more amazing that the feats I pulled off:  a clean SUV and parallel parking.  Field trips are educational for kids, but sometimes parent chaperones accomplish a thing or two, also.



Mom Knows Best . . . Eventually

When my oldest son, Billy, moved into his North Carolina State dorm room in the fall of 2009, his roommate’s mom and I found ourselves in the odd role of being a visitor in our son’s room. We wanted to stay and help organize things, but yet it became clear that the guys wanted us to leave: this was their own turf now. No matter how cool you ever were before at home, no parents – or their advice — are cool at college.

One mistake I made was buying an erasable memo board for Billy to hang outside his door. He pulled it out of the bag and asked, “What’s this for?”

“When I was in college,” I explained, my voice filled with the wisdom of  experience, “everybody had memo boards on their door so if someone came by and you weren’t there, then they could write a message that they had stopped by.”  I looked over at Billy and realized he was trying to politely suppress his laughter. I was obviously a source of amusement for my child. “What?” I asked, defensively.

“Mom,” he said, smiling broadly, “now we just text each other.”

“Yeah, but,” I started to reply and then stopped, knowing I had no response. Yep, there had been some advances in technology in almost thirty years. “Well, it was always exciting to come back and see if you had a message on your door,” I told him, defiantly. “You’re missing out.”

“Do you still have the receipt?” he asked.

Yet another mistake I made was on the third day he was there and I’d just completed another merchandise drop from Bed, Bath, & Beyond and Target (By the way, it’s so obvious at these stores which moms have daughters leaving for college and which ones have sons. The ones with daughters actually have their daughters shopping with them and they are discussing towel colors and room décor details, while the ones with sons are by themselves with forlorn expressions and are just buying the bare necessities like towels and a laundry basket.) Anyway, as Billy was impatiently waiting for me to leave the dorm, I went to the laundry room to see if the washer only took quarters or if it would accept his ATM card. I discovered it would only take quarters or the special all campus card, but not ATM cards.  I attempted to share this information with my son, but he cut me off with an “Okay, Mom” and an exasperated glance. I offered him some quarters, but the look got more exasperated. It was time for me to leave.

A few days later, my husband happened to call Billy, who at the time was walking to Hillsborough Street to get quarters since the laundry room wouldn’t take his ATM card; his dormitory office and the student store had no quarters left, due to high student demand for them. There he was scouring campus for quarters, surely regretting that he’d disregarded good ole Mom’s advice. To his credit, he apologized for not listening.

Ah, sweet validation.

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