Mom loved dancing.
On Friday nights, her favorite thing to do was to dress up and go to a real Texas dance hall. Not a bar. A genuine, Lone Star-sized dance hall. Wooden floors, live bands playing country music, and my little redheaded mama dancing her short legs off with two-steps, jitterbugs, waltzes and any other moves she felt like breaking out.
Any time I came home on leave, I had to promise at least one night out dancing with her.
Two problems arose from this arrangement: First, I can’t dance a lick. Never could. I can screw up both steps of a two-step, and any of my attempts at waltzing had local law enforcement convinced I needed a Breathalyzer.
The second problem arose with the attire required at such a dance hall. This is Texas, meaning guys wear boots and cowboy hats, along with starched jeans and shirts with string ties. For those who wear those duds all the time, the look is natural. It’s as recognizable as any form of fashion shown around the world.
My issue? I was born in Texas, but I was raised in Tennessee. I’m a hillbilly, not a cowboy. The only headwear ever gracing my dome has been a baseball cap or a Marine Corps-issued M1 helmet.
Nevertheless, when I arrived home to find Mom had purchased an entire outfit for me just for our dance night, I had no choice. I donned the stiff jeans, the loudly colorful shirt, the fancy boots and the big, black Stetson. I even figured out how to rig the string tie.
I looked ridiculous.
I staggered my way around the dance hall with her — she sure looked proud of me — and tried to ignore the strange looks I got from the real cowboys. My feet in those pointy boots killed me so bad I couldn’t wait to get back into my combat boots. My best moves were the ones I employed while trying to avoid stomping her feet.
When the night ended and I drove my date home, my sweet mother took a long look at me and sighed. “This isn’t you, is it?”
No, ma’am. It sure ain’t. But it was for one night, just for my mama.
A couple of years later, while stationed afar, I received a summons from my commanding officer. Those are never good. They don’t send sweetly worded invitations or save-the-dates. They send some hard-core sergeant major who only speaks in growls: “The C.O. wants to see you. Now.”
Trying to remember what I’d screwed up (the only reasons for these types of directives), I walked across the base and reported to the colonel — a man to whom my only words had ever been, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” I waited for whatever butt-chewing was coming my way.
It was a weird one. Seems I’d had a photo sent back to my mom, a picture of me in uniform. Marines don’t smile for pics. We’re trying to show what bad booties we are, so we only offer our meanest scowls to the cameras.
Mom didn’t like the pic. She disliked it so much she managed to place a phone call to a guy she knew would correct the problem: my C.O.
“Drop whatever you’re doing,” he growled — colonels only speak in growls, too — “put on your dress uniform and get over to Public Affairs for another pic. Now.” (I’m editing this for family content’s sake.)
I did it. Right then.
Then I called Mom and asked what in the world she was thinking. What did she do?
“I just called Jim and told him my baby always smiles. That picture didn’t look like you.”
“Jim.” I didn’t even know colonels had first names. I thought they all were named “Sir.” To this day, I still don’t know how she got his number.
I found out later she’d pulled the same stunt with my baby brother. He was a young sports writer, and for his first column mug, he simply looked into the camera without smiling. He’s a former defensive tackle; I’m pretty sure he ate kittens and burped bearskin rugs.
Mom didn’t care. Her babies smiled for pics. After a conversation between Mom and the boss, baby brother got a new pic. He had no more chance of refusing her than I did.
She was the strongest woman in the world. She carried a defensive tackle, a police officer (my middle brother) and a Marine all wrapped around one little finger.
Mom wanted a dogwood tree in her front yard. We’d pass stands of them out in the country, and she’d stare wistfully while expressing her wish: “I wish I had one of those. They’re so pretty.”
My leave was for just two weeks. Not enough time to plant a tree and see her joy when it bloomed.
So I went out and found one growing wild — a pink one, her favorite — grabbed a shovel and dug it up. It wasn’t a little one, and it took me an entire day of digging and replanting, but by the next day, Mom had a dogwood tree in her front yard. Had I known better, I would have realized it wouldn’t live a long time, and I wouldn’t have tried transplanting it. But it lived long enough for Mom to enjoy it. The backache and blisters were worth it when I watched her sitting beneath it.
Man, the stuff we do for moms.
I don’t care which world leaders we elect, no one holds more power on this earth than Mom. Maybe it’s because she knows we wouldn’t be here had it not been for her, or maybe she knows there’s not another person alive who will love us as much as she does. My mom never abused her power — OK, calling my commanding officer was taking it a little far — instead realizing the idea of disappointing her was all the motivation we needed to do the right things.
And when we didn’t? When we screwed up, as we often did?
She loved us anyway. We can’t get that brand of unconditional love anywhere else. Moms know that.
For a long time, I thought only my brothers and I felt that way about our own mama.
Then, a couple of years ago, I visited a prison where some inmates had earned their GEDs and were preparing to graduate. I interviewed a few, and they shared why receiving their education while locked away held such importance.
One guy I’ll never forget. Tattooed, shaven-headed and dressed in his prison coveralls, the guy told me his real reason for working so hard toward that diploma — one he wouldn’t have the opportunity to use for years, if ever.
“This is the first time I’ve ever made my mama proud of me,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to fight back tears. “I’ve been in and out of prison so many times, she stopped visiting me.
“She’s coming to my graduation, and she said she’s proud of me.”
With that, he donned his gown and mortarboard, shook my hand and walked back to his fellow inmates.
All that work, just for his mother.
Man. The stuff we do for moms.