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Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763

Tom Purcell

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My mother's house | While so many kids are growing up in high-pressure homes these days, I can't help but realize how lucky I was to grow up in my mother's home.

I was raised the only boy with five sisters in a home that was the opposite of the overly structured, overachieving homes a lot of kids are living in. Whereas many kids these days are driven to succeed, my mother drove us first and foremost to laugh.

Don't get me wrong, mother ruled with a firm hand. While father put in long hours of overtime to fund Purcell, Inc. mother was the director of operations, purchasing, accounting, inventory and ethics. And she ran our house with the finesse of a Wharton MBA.

Keeping a house clean when you've got that many people milling about is no easy matter, so mother established a simple rule: don't leave your stuff lying about. But I left my stuff lying about anyhow. She would remind me of the rule, and I'd STILL leave my stuff lying about. That is when she got out the green bag.

She'd usually strike when we were at school, going through every room of the house to collect the things left lying about. She'd stuff them in her green bag and hide it. This effort was followed by intense negotiations and only after agreeing to some penance would we get our stuff back.

Mother was equally skillful in minimizing our household bills. My sisters had long hair then and spent lots of time in the shower applying conditioners. Mother instituted the short-shower rule, but it was ignored. So mother learned how to work the master plumbing valve down in the basement. When a shower continued beyond a reasonable time, mother would shut off the water faster than you can say drought.

One thing I still marvel over was how she managed to feed us all on a tight budget. Using her creativity, she was always able to patch together some kind of leftover delight. I'm reminded of something Calvin Trillin said on the Johnny Carson show years ago. His mother served only leftovers, too. He said a crew of archeologists was dispatched to his boyhood home in an attempt to uncover the original meal.

But though she ruled with a firm hand, mother allowed our house to be a place of chaos amidst order. Yes, there were clear rules and boundaries. We were expected to do our chores and our homework. But beyond that we were free to play and interact and grow on our own terms. That meant things were as likely to go wrong as to go right.

Our dog Jingles ran away every couple of months, which brought the household to tears. This forced father to drive around all night shouting, "Here, Jingles. Here, Jingles. Here, you #$%@@$$ stupid mutt."

And things would break. Doorknobs and windows and plumbing were in a perpetual state of breaking. But we had a reasonable plan for dealing with such contingencies. Every time something broke, my sisters would blame it on me, and everyone was happy.

And there was the time I flushed an apple core down the toilet. I was too lazy to toss the core in the upstairs garbage can and instead threw it in the basement toilet. Six months later, when that toilet experienced the mother of all clogs, my father was saddened to learn that his only son - his only hope to carry on the family name - could be so stupid.

But each of these mishaps was eventually followed by great fits of laughter, which was the centerpiece of my mother's child rearing and homemaking strategy, a strategy which I now realize was brilliant.

Unlike the rigid homes so many kids are living in these days, our house was a place of freedom. All individuals living there were expected to respect some basic rules of law but were otherwise equal and encouraged to express themselves and to pursue happiness as they saw fit. Nobody was any more important than anybody else, and there was no greater sin than self-importance.

When my sisters and I get together, we often tell stories about our childhood years and we can laugh long into the night. We laugh because my mother built us one heck of a terrific home that produced six fine human beings.

It's too bad every child doesn't get to grow up in such a place.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell