Sunday, May 8, 2011

Toni the Tiger

My mom, Toni, and I on the day it all began.

I lost my mom nearly eight years ago -- if it is possible to "lose" someone I think about every day, whose mannerisms and expressions I often glimpse in the mirror and whose words and voice, right down to that faint Point Cadet accent, tumble out of my mouth with amazing regularity.

My mother grew up in the middle of large boisterous family in a small, boisterous working class neighborhood in the middle of the Great Depression. Is it any wonder she turned out to be one tough cookie as they used to say?

She was witty, sassy and fierce. Her imagination was vivid and fertile; she spun the most wonderful stories and adventures for my sister and me out of thin air. She could have been a Hollywood screenwriter.

She loved to cook, and could work miracles in a matter of minutes with even the most spartan ingredients. She could have been an Iron Chef contestant.

She had an unerring eye for color, accessories and silhouettes. She could have been a fashion designer.

She had only to lay her hands on a fretful baby to turn it into a cooing angel. She could have run a nursery school (and she did keep children in her home for many years).

She approached life with that clear-eyed, hard-nosed, unyielding Point Cadet pragmatism that could be a little daunting if you weren't from there. She knew when you were trying to pull something over on her -- and she let you know about it with a look out of the corner of her eye that spoke volumes. She could have been a school principal or an admiral in the Navy.

She instinctively knew what to do when bones broke, noggins knocked and stomachs soured. She could have been a doctor.

She kept a cool level head during emergencies. When barely out of her teens, she single-handedly interrupted and foiled a robbery in progress after hours at the Keesler Air Force Base exchange. She could have been a police officer.

She could have been any number of things. But what she chose to be was a mother. A nurturing mother who turned feverish, sniffley nights into opportunities for midnight picnics.

And a fiercely protective mother who went by the name Toni the Tiger. One night she startled a Peeping Tom hanging around outside our bedroom windows. My sister and I stood watching open-mouthed in shock, horror and admiration as she darted out of the house into the night, barefoot and bare-handed, bellowing "I've got you now, you son of a bitch," in a hoarse unrecognizable voice.

What exactly she had him with was not then, and is not now, apparent. But there was no doubt in her mind, nor his, that she did indeed have him, and if she got her bare hands on him, the consequences would be dire.

Because you just didn't mess with Toni the Tiger.