Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mama's Jail ~ A Thanksgiving Story

When my son was fifteen, he did something stupid. His dad, my ex-husband, gave him the usual “Atta boy don't do that again” talk, the school got their three days without his smart mouth, and I was left with the what am I gonna do with this child? nightmare invading my dreams. In those days there was no dungeon, no chains, no rack – not that I would have used it ( I didn't even believe in spanking) – but you catch my drift.
What am I going to do with this child?

The conversation went something like this. “You know I love you so I'm not even going to preface this punishment with I love you because you've already gotten a slap on the wrist,  but OK OK I love you.”
“Yea, I know Mom.” He started to walk away.

“Well, I hope you'll still love me when I tell you what your punishment is going to be.”Although I vowed never to give the think of all the starving children speech to my child (I broke that rule many times), this time I went for the jugular. Mine was bulging. 

“What were you THINKING?! Do you think you can just go through life handling things this way? Do you know how privileged you are? (yeah Mom) Do you understand that there are kids in this world who would love to have your life? (yeah Mom) Why are you choosing to mess things up for yourself? Do you know that you can't play sports now? (yeah Mom) Are you listening to me?! If you don't get your act together young man you're going to end up somewhere you don't want to be and I'm not bailing you out. Do you hear me? (yeah Mom) You have no idea how close you came to getting in serious trouble today, do you? Do you? Well, DO you?? (a surly yeah Mom....See, I told you, listen to the smart mouth.) What you do right now in school will determine your future. And now you have a bad mark on your academic record and a three-day suspension before high school. You are out of control!”
“So ground me,” said the smart mouth.

“No. I will not ground you.”

He halted.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“Just think of it as Mama's jail.”

The smart-aleck ceased for a moment and then....."Whatever, Mom.”

I was furious with him and at my wit's end. He needed to see how the real world works. I made arrangements. It took some doing but they finally saw it my way. "You want your son to do WHAT? But he's not a criminal (not YET I thought) and we're not a juvenile detention center." (well......) "Will you please allow us to do this? I asked the nun-like administrator of this facility. “I'm not trying to teach him a lesson here, that is not the point, but he needs to see and understand with his own eyes how lucky he is and how his actions now can affect the rest of his life.”

So, for the next two months that summer, we got up at five am, drove to another town and worked in a homeless shelter's soup kitchen. It was the worst of the worst neighborhoods. I had cleanup detail (you didn't think they'd let me near the food now, did you?) and he served the line.

“What are we doing here?” he asked.
I never told him why. He didn't need another lecture.
Think of all the starving children just got real.

After one week of losing his summer sleep to ride an hour in my car every morning -with music blasting all the way - and mingle with very old people volunteers and stir canned creamed corn in a pot for an hour he said, “Why didn't you just send me to REAL jail?! I hate this!”

Uh huh, I thought. Just stir, buster.

In the middle of the second week he started to actually get up before I did. Hurry up, Mom. We have to get going.” (Oh great, I thought. He's met a pretty girl at the homeless shelter. That's the only reason he would get up at five am. My plan has backfired. Drats!) And what was this grand revelation I expected him to learn? Heck if I knew. I was just a parent with an unruly fifteen- year -old with no respect for himself or his elders or his life. I didn't even know if it would make a difference.
All I knew was that somehow the corn and pintos and no-dessert-for-you rule would magically translate into a light-bulb moment for him. Osmosis maybe? I just knew this was the right thing to do but I didn't know how or why.

One afternoon as I started to clean the tables with a large wet rag and a bucket of soapy water, rearranging the napkins and utensils for the next meal, I looked up to see my sleepy-headed son talking with a man through the narrow serving window.
Baby boy had just served lunch. There was pie for dessert that day.
Pumpkin pie.The man had returned to the window for another slice. He was dirty. Shaky.
No teeth. Scraggly. Scary. Smelly. And hungry.

The rules were clear. One serving per person. No seconds. Period.
No one was looking. And I'm thinking, “We're going to get thrown out of the soup kitchen for not following the rules. Oh great! Suspended again. And this time I'm going down with him. Oh the shame.” Until.....
The man who wanted more pie.

Up until this point he rarely made eye contact with anyone in the line. Especially not the kids. He plopped the food on the plate and reached for the next empty styrofoam sadness shuffling through. People with their entire families in tow. Hungry folks down on their luck and needing not even a hot meal. Just a meal. Families living in cars through no fault of their own. On the street. Raggedy clothes crossing elbows with his Tommy Hilfiger jeans and watch.
Pork 'n beans, wax beans, any beans. Didn't matter. Please feed my child. My little girl is hungry. I was so moved that summer. Apparently, I needed a reality check too. But that was not the point. Was it?

The man would not stop asking and he was forced to look him squarely in the eyes. I could see the wheels turning in baby boy's brown-eyed head..... “Will you shut up? I'm going to get in trouble if you don't go away.”

And a hungry stare full of embarrassment that a life-giving gesture lay in the hands of this kid he did not know and would never know- someone young enough to be his grandchild - who held something he wanted, something he had to beg for. And then I saw my son slip a plump piece of pumpkin delight (with whipped cream) onto the scraped clean empty plate. The man nodded appreciatively, lowered his head, and walked away.
By this time my wet rag had dropped to the table and the cleaning had stopped. My hair in a net, pretending to fold silverware sets, I watched what happened. He saw me sit down. I waited for someone to say something. I waited for him to get in trouble. No one saw his discretion that day but I'll tell you this: If I could have jumped through the tiny little window and wrapped my arms around that boy I would have done so.

He was shuffling his hundred dollar Nike shod feet standing with a spatula and an empty pan, trying not to look at me. When our eyes finally met, the blur of tears between us said what no lecture ever could. We never talked again about the man, the pie, or his punishment. But I was proud.

We finished our tour of shelter duty as promised and school started again in the fall. That was thirteen years ago.
Did that summer stop him from forever being a knuckle-head? No.
Did he straighten-up-and-fly-right from that moment on? No.
Were there more nightmare dreams for me through the teenage years? Yes.

But I have to believe that it shaped his understanding of the world a bit and through all his troubles that most certainly came later, I did see – and continue to see – a great compassion develop in him for people in need.

And to this day, every time I'm offered a a slice of pumpkin pie.... I see a homeless man, a prized piece of dessert and brown-eyed humility.



Travis Cody said...

Fantastic story.

Sandee said...

I think we raised the same kid. Very well done Mimi. I enjoyed every word. Have a great evening. :)

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i wish i had thought of that!

smiles, bee

Desert Songbird said...


I sooo did not need to be crying this evening.


Speedcat Hollydale said...

This is not only a great story of empathy and kindness, it is great writing. You really have a talent!
I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your page before I left... thanks!

Eric "Speedcat Hollydale"

Frank Sirianni said...

I'm with desert songbird

Now excuse me while I sneak into the walk-in cooler to get me some pumpkin pie.

Loved this one

maiylah said...

beautifully written!
had me in sniffles ... :)

Anonymous said...

What a lovely and moving story! It brought tears to my eyes... You are such a talented writer!

I am sure I will never look at pumpkin pie the same way, ever again. LOL

Actually, I am baking one tomorrow, and I certainly will be thinking of you. :-)

I was just telling my 5 year-old about homeless people and what food drives are for, after he heard an announcement on the radio, this morning.

Happy WW and Happy Thanksgiving too! :-)

Forgetfulone said...

That was an awesome story!

SandyCarlson said...

That's an amazing story, Mimi. God bless,and happy Thanksgiving.

maryt/theteach said...

Great story, Mimi! I'm sure your son learned is lesson. Thanks for visiting me at my blog. Happy thanksgiving! :)

Julia Phillips Smith said...

I'm with Speedcat Hollydale - a very moving story. I'm so glad you shared that time with your son. Obviously it did make a difference. The problem with the young folk - now and throughout time - is their insistence on learning through their own mistakes and not ours.

Schmoop said...

Incredible story Mimi. Excellent!! Have a Happy Thanksgiving and Cheers!!

Me. Here. Right now. said...

Mimi - As I sat here in my comfie window office the day before Thanksgiving, it reminded me that my own son has come so far in the empathy department though couldn't we all use some improvement there?He still gets average grades and has a well-practiced, "yeah, mom," but he's growing into a fine young man.

Excellent story.

Tarheel Rambler said...

Beautifully written, Mimi. You stirred up a lot of memories of "Aha moments" with my own kids. Two of them have gotten themselves in some pretty nasty trouble, but somehow, everything went back to these kinds of lessons and they were able to pull themselves out of the muck.

I have a degree in child development with an emphasis on counseling. It was always easier to help other parents with their children than to deal with my own kids and their issues. But one thing I learned is that experiences like you describe always did more than all of the lectures that I ever blessed them with.

Thanks for a great story!

Queen of My Domain said...

Such a beautiful story. I know I won't look at pumpkin pie the same way either now. Such a simple pleasure I take for granted.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Powerful thanksgiving post Mimi. Have a good one

Jeff B said...

The power of that story was not in words but in action. So many times as parents we want to teach or lecture our children with words that will change their perception of life, but what you did was to let your son experience it for himself.

What a beautiful lesson of loving your boy. Thank you for sharring it with us.

Mimi Lenox said...

Trav - I'm glad you enjoyed it. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sandee - Arent' you glad the teenage years are over?

Bee - We do the best we can. You did a lot of things right, my dear. You totally rock as a mom.

Songbird - I hope that was a good cleansing cry and not a sad cry. Hugs......He is all grown up now with a boy of his own!

Eric - Thank you for the kind words. You are welcome here anytime.

Frank - With whipped cream?

Maiylah - Thanks for stopping by and I hope your holiday is peaceful and warm.

Tricotine - Are you making a turkey with all the trimmings? I'll be right over.

Forgetfulone - Thank you so much. I hope you stop in again.

Sandy - Peace and happiness to you during this holiday season. Thanks for stopping in.

Teach - You have an awesome smile! I really like your blog.

Julia- So true. They won't listen to us now will they? It would save them a lot of trouble if they did.

Matt - Nice to see you as always. Happy Turkey Day to you!

Hahn - He will get there. I can see that you already have such faith in him. That's all he needs (and a swift kick in the 'yeah mom'....just kidding!)

Lee - I can totally relate! Your kids must have had the PK (preacher's kid) syndrome, of sorts. It's so true. But in the end, it's the example we set that matters most. Don't you agree?

Queen *bowing* - I take way too much for granted in my own life on a daily basis. We all need reminding.

Cheysuli - Happy Thanksgiving to you, Mr. President.

Jeff - You're welcome. My pleasure has always been to 'love my boy' no matter what he found himself in. The love, however, always guided him home.

BillyWarhol said...


that is an amazing Story Mimi*

i don't know what to think about a lot of Kids these daze - most Parents have to both work + there's way less supervision than when i was growin' up many Moons ago - + the Kids seem to have NO Respect or ZERO Respect for Authority - Parental or Skool or Cops or anything*

must be a Nightmare for most Parents + they get running with the Wrong Fast Crowd + yer lookin' at Big Trubble!

Ironically up here in Canada the Conservative Gov't just Stiffened the Laws against Young Offenders - basically b4 they would only get a Slap on the Wrist - but now they're looking at MIMI Jail Time!!


Interestingly a few people wrote in to the paper + echoed what I kinda feel that unless we Address the Root Problem with Community Programs, Education + real Opportunities of course these Kids are gonna continue to get in Trubble or involved in Gangs*


BillyWarhol said...

p.s. my Ma called me Buster too!!

same tone o Voice too i'll bet!


Mimi Lenox said...

Billy - Kids need parents who love them. Period. And who have the guts to TAKE AWAY the television, gameboys, video games, violent music and slam the door on 'kids in the wrong crowd' - else, your own child becomes the wrong crowd.

Did you get that, Buster?

Just kidding!

Scribbit said...

That really is an amazing story. Not just in plot but in prose as well.

Dan said...

Mimi, thanks for this amazing post. And a very Happy Thanksgiving to you. Yes, I'm back. It's more fun blogging out here. :)

katherine. said...

in addition to all else...you are an amazing Mama. A wonderful time to share with us.

Hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Akelamalu said...

A lesson learned well Mimi - you taught him good!


delmer said...

Very nice story. Timely. Touching.

(And, that's good parenting.)

Anndi said...

I have to go fix my make-up now...

Have I told you lately whay a priviledge it is to come to the castle and spend time with you?

Barbara said...

Hi Mimi,
Your story was not lost on me yesterday; my PC wouldn't let me comment(a bug...).
So, I'am back, just to say that you are a great Mom. Never take advantage of what we have. Because fortunes are fickle and problems sometimes can come to the best of us.
I know that your son will remember this the rest of his life.

Robin Lee Sardini said...

Once again I'll say Mimi, your stories ought to be in a hardcover book. It'd be a besteller! I can actually see them in series like the "Chicken Soup" series...I'm serious.

Mimi Lenox said...

Scribbit - Thank you. That means a lot coming from a spinner of words such as yourself.

Dan - You're back? Welcome. And thanks for stopping in.

Katherine - He is an amazing boy. And I can read between the lines of your own blog to know what a fabulous mom you are. I can just see you doing the same thing.....

Akelamalu - Happy happy to you, my little Hawaiian girl.

Delmer - Thank you. And Happy Holidays to you.

Ahhh....Anndi - Why don't you pack your luggage and come to the castle for real? We'd have a blast.

Barbara - Great advice. Never take for granted. Exactly.

Robin - Thank you. If you know a publisher, send one my way!Blessings to you.

Anonymous said...

I know a million people have already commented and said this, but it's surprising to find a blog where there is so much depth and heartfelt compassion all in one post. Your story is very touching and I am sure your son will never forget this experience. It says a lot about you as a person, as a mother. It is beautiful. Thanks for this.


One Wacky Mom said...

That's worthy of Mom of the Year Award in my book. Brilliant strategy...incredible! Just incredible.

You've left me speechless. Beautiful

Chaotic Joy said...

Today I wrote and angry, ranting post, about my own 15 year old boy, and his own frighteningly bad choices. And someone sent me here. I am glad I came. The words "You have been given so much, why do you insist on throwing it away?" have come from my mouth so many times. But this really puts it into perspective.

You should be commended, for getting yourself up at 5 every morning that summer, for doing what was unconventional and inconvenient to try to make a difference in your son.

none said...

I was very moved by this post.

Good job!

Jenn said...

a brilliant story, again. This is one I will carry with me and when those teen years creep on for our family (just a few short years away) I will remember the summer spent with your son and will hopefully create lasting lessons for my children as well.

Patti said...

Mimi, that is a beautiful and inspiring story.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a fabulous story. What a wonderful son (and mother!)

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