It all started with a gigantic leap of faith off a 30-foot cliff. Coaxed off the cliff by the “do it, do it” chants of strangers, she found herself plummeting through the air before plunging deep below the surface of the frigid Colorado River. Water flooded into her nostrils and mouth strangling her with, perhaps for the first time since taking flight, an overwhelming sense of stupidity. Panic-stricken and desperate for air, she opened her eyes, and for a brief instant registered the way the sun reflected through the water bubbles that were created by her splash. And as suddenly as it all happened, she realized she was drowning.
She was drowning for the second time in her life, and a childhood flashback jolted her out of her present reality and she became her three-year-old-self. She was drifting out to sea on a little plastic raft, when she heard the shouts of her mother calling her back to the beach. Just as she had done seconds prior, she leaped from safety and plummeted into the Long Island Sound. The sensation of drowning was just as she had remembered it, but unlike her 3-year-old self, her 42-year-old instincts told her to kick–hard. Fighting against the current, she kicked and slapped her way to the surface. As she buoyed through the barrier that separated life and death, her story was born.
She would, for years to come, describe that moment—to anyone who would listen—as the catalyst for her tale. “What Noise Annoys an Oyster?!” she would squawk in her theatrical and exaggerated Long Island accent. The moment her chosen victim would raise an eyebrow or shrug their shoulders at her riddle, she would take her cue and launch into her flamboyant recitation. Her voice would rise and fall, whisper and shout as she wove her story around her prey like an ecstatic spider with a lucky catch. Each audience member was a means to a wealthy end, or so she hoped. And thus, the more she recited it, the more likely she was to make it big.
The recitation of her poem, my brother’s and I came to learn, could rarely be predicted. It would come barreling out of the blue as she stood with the other parents at our school sporting events or at the local Irish diner where she is a well-known celebrity. At other times, however, the recitation was as calculated as a checkmate move. As her only opponents, we her children came to recognize and begrudgingly accept its inevitable occurrence.
There was the time she paraded us into the Picket Fence, a small dive bar on the lower east side of Manhattan. My brother’s and I shuffled our feet across the floor, which was covered with peanut shells, and crowded into a small wooden booth mentally preparing our adolescent minds for the performances to come. Before her was a woman dressed head to toe in white. She was indulgently wrapped in a white boa and her face was painted like a porcelain doll. “I’m a little baby doll, would you like to play with me?”, she starts. My brothers and I giggled, glad that for once someone else had ‘out done’ mom’s theatrics. But then mom took the stage in a big sweeping gesture, and we lowered our heads like dogs tucking their tales between their legs. We sipped our cokes and waited to the performance to end.
On another such occasion, she packed us into our big black Volkswagen Euro Van and drove to the doorstep of Billy Joel’s Oyster Bay mansion. We huddled embarrassed in the car, hoping that she wouldn’t be kicked out by security as she brazenly knocked on the front door. She handed Billy’s valet a copy of her poem and politely asked that it be passed along to the piano man himself. A New Yorker, and fellow Long Islander, Mr. Joel was sure to see the genius in her salty magnum opus.
Her poem grew on us like a barnacle on the breakers of the slippery Oyster Bay rocks. Because, in many ways, the poem is a symbolic barnacle; one that cuts the bottoms of our feet as a sharp reminder to me and my brothers that even our most heartbreakingly embarrassing childhood moments, were the building blocks of our characters. And, that our mother, Peigi, is a salt water pearl waiting to be discovered in her oyster shell.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. With lots and lots of love,