Strangely, this story takes place on Halloween. But it is most definitely a mother’s day story.
When I was in third grade my mom had the brilliant idea that I should be Little Bo Peep for Halloween. The winter before I had been a flower girl in my cousin’s wedding. Which meant that I had a fabulous 1989 poofy-sleeved, bow-in-the-back, lace-everywhere dress that still fit me. My Aunt Louie had made matching dresses for me and my cousins Sarah and Kathy, and I felt like royalty when I wore it.
Mom, being clever and resourceful, found a stuffed lamb and asked my dad to bring home a shepherd’s staff from the Christmas costumes at church. They measured the right height for me and took a saw to the bottom of the staff. (If you ever were wondering why one of the staffs is a foot-and-a-half shorter at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, now you know.)
This costume was perfect. Mom curled my hair the morning of the school party and put a red bow to hold just a little bit of hair in the back. Then she drove me to school with the shepherd’s crook and the dress in a garment bag and went to work. But she was going to come back for the Halloween parade and party in the afternoon.
After lunch I changed into my dress, put on my black church shoes and got the lamb out of my backpack. I walked into the classroom and immediately felt self-conscious. I’m not sure why the tide turned, but what I do remember is a classmate, Tricia, walked up to me with a some other kids and asked what I was. I said Little Bo Peep. And she said, “why would you want to be a boy? It’s Little Boy Peep. Why are you wearing that dress if you are supposed to be a boy?”
My Elsie is soon to be a 3rd grader, and thinking of her being cornered like this helps me understand my own reaction much better. I felt humiliated. I didn’t correct her. I didn’t try to defend my costume. I assumed I was wrong and that she was right. I was eight years old. Tricia had some clout, it seems, and I have a very vivid memory of her, dressed as a black cat, saying cruel things.
I fell apart. All I really remember is my teacher bringing me into the empty classroom next door where I cried and cried, sitting in my most beautiful dress, wondering what had just gone so terribly wrong. Mrs. Ice went back to our classroom and tried to keep 25 costumed third graders under control while tracking down my mom’s phone number and calling her to tell her she should probably come and figure out what I was so upset about.
My mom worked a half an hour away, but came as soon as she could and found me still in that classroom with all the lights off. I silently cried as I whispered the whole thing to her. I have a feeling she was as crushed as I was. And now that I’m a mom, she probably wanted to go find the black cat next door and tell her a thing or two.
But what she did next was really brilliant. She gave me a glass of water and some wet paper towels to try to get my red face to go back to normal color. And then she went to the school librarian and asked for a book of nursery rhymes. There in the book was a picture of a blond-haired girl wearing a poofy-sleeved dress with a shepherd’s crook. The poem was called Little Bo Peep. She gave me the book and told me to keep it as proof that Little Bo Peep is indeed a girl, and clearly the other kids did not know their nursery rhymes.
I don’t remember much more from that afternoon other than a picture we have from the parade where my face is normal color and I am smiling big for the camera. So clearly my mom talked me off the ledge and I seem to have bounced back.
But today as I was thinking of Mother’s Day and my own mother, this moment came back to me so clearly. She was my advocate and comforter and defender. She was my mom. Childhood is full of these sorts of moments, trying to sort out the good from the hurtful. And now as a mom, I know that this is much of the gig I have signed up for. It’s not merely feeding and clothing these little souls, but it’s trying to make sense of a broken world, helping them to find their footing, to find their voice, to guard them from brutal words, and to teach them how to forgive when they get hurt.
I do wonder where Tricia is these days. I think she might be surprised that Little Bo Peep turned into an actual SHEpherd.
I have a lot of memories of me being worried for something coming up, or crying in bed because friendships were complicated, or feeling anxious about something because growing up is awkward and childhood has some real rough patches. But all of those memories include my mom laying in bed next to me, helping me come up with a game plan for the next day and praying for all the kids/friends/teachers involved.
Thank you for all of that mothering, Mom.