When you’re a kid, your best friend’s mom is a mystery. Is she strict or permissive? A good cook, or a lousy one? With each visit, you gather clues. Dinner aromas drift into the den where you’re playing Legos. The next TV show begins and you wonder if she’ll appear in the doorway to say, as your mother would, “It’s a beautiful day. Go play outside.”
It’s a strange adult milestone to realize that you’re now the subject of such scrutiny when your children’s friends visit. Who, me? But I chew Juicy Fruit gum. And make up songs while I walk around the house. When the child-visitors focus the lens of their microscope, who do they see? June Cleaver? Roseanne? The children know nothing of these characters. But they know their own mothers–the measure of all things. I hand out snacks. Healthy ones that garner a tepid reaction. Strike one. I require “excuse me” and “thank you.” Strike two. Don’t people-please, I remind myself. This is not a popularity contest.
With time, the visitors and I acclimate to one another. I’m a decent cook, so I score on the aromas. They learn I’m particular about words. No butts, wee-wees, oh my Gods, or what the hecks. The children have artistic license to make tents and huge, messy works of art. But no standing on the sofa or throwing baseballs in the house.
Where I fall on the spectrum of maternal rankings remains unknown. The child visitors return, so that’s a good sign. My smiles to greet them are genuine. I notice their new haircuts and delight in the guffaws only they can illicit from my children. Every once in a while, I’ll get a sign that they see me as a person of merit. A tap on the shoulder to share a knock-knock joke. Or an upturned palm holding a robin’s egg found in our yard. I stop the world in these moments to turn the microscope, gently, towards them. I detect the beginning strains of comedic timing. Or callouses and cuts whose origins I can only hypothesize about. “I wonder what happened to the bird,” I say. “Maybe it hatched and the wind blew the shell out of the nest,” the visitor suggests. “Thanks for showing me,” I say. “O.K.” the child replies, scampering off. I turn, without correcting “you’re welcome.”