“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” she said.
She may have been washing the dishes at the time, or ironing shirts, or defrosting the freezer. Or maybe she was engrossed in the latest infidelity on Days of Our Lives, or trying to figure out which of the three contestants on To Tell the Truth was the real submarine captain. I was probably working in my coloring book, and asking her if I had picked the right shade of yellow for the canary, or an acceptable blue for Paul Revere’s hat. Whatever we were both doing, I had said something that compelled her to declare this physical limitation.
As usual, my struggle for a suitable reply was long and fruitless. I had never entertained the possibility that my mother might have another pair of eyes anywhere on her body; they certainly wouldn’t have done her much good beneath all that thick, black hair. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would have eyes in the back of their head. This was five decades ago, and I don’t think even the most terrifying monsters had such a feature. And that’s too bad, because it would have helped King Kong in his disagreements with Godzilla, who weighed fifty-thousand tons, had the ability to regrow lost limbs, and could exhale radioactive fire. Kong was tall for a gorilla, but he didn’t seem to have any special gifts, other than a tendency to beat his own chest — a pretty puny response to atomic breath, as far as I could tell. As with proofreading or searching for a dropped earring, when you’re up against a giant dinosaur that’s eating your city, a second pair of eyes can prove useful.
Some time after my mother’s unexpected admission, my teacher issued a related statement. However, its message was dramatically different, and was delivered more as a warning: “If anyone is thinking about trying anything funny,” she said, “remember that I have eyes in the back of my head.”
I believed her. For one thing, she was a nun, and nuns didn’t lie. For another, she was writing on the blackboard and was facing away from the class when she said it, yet somehow she seemed to sense that the girl to my right was bugging me to pass a note to the boy on my left. I didn’t know if Sister had thick, black hair because all the nuns wore a habit that covered their entire head. But if she said she had eyes back there, I had no doubt that it was true. I ignored the note. I’m sure that annoyed both the girl and the boy, but it also very likely saved me from the unspeakable throttling I would have gotten if Sister happened to be looking my way – or directly the other way.
* * * * *
Catholic school was a place where behavior was paramount. What you did and said, and even what you thought, could land you in big trouble – in this world, as well as in the next. The list of infractions was long, and somewhere near the top was the sin of swearing.
I have no memory of my classmates uttering a curse word. It was as though the tongue that formed the blessed prayers in Latin every weekday morning, confessed its transgressions on Saturday, and received Holy Communion on Sunday was incapable of sharing its place or function with profane language.
And then there was my aunt, an enormous woman who struck fear in our hearts, but who also brought us delicious pastries and cookies from the Italian bakery. She would sit at the kitchen table and tell stories about her life, punctuating every point with a string of words I wouldn’t dare repeat, even to myself. Sometimes she’d stop, glance over at me, and say, “Pardon my French.” This was more shocking than the actual swearing. I had heard people speaking French before, but had no idea there was any connection. When I entered junior high school and the guidance counselor asked me if I wanted to take French, I was still worried about my immortal soul, and said no, without hesitation.
* * * * *
On countless occasions, my mother felt the need to explain why she couldn’t help me untie the knots in my shoelaces – as I’d requested – at the exact moment she was putting away the groceries. Or why she was unable to adjust the vertical hold on the television for me while she hemmed a dress or fed the cat.
Again, I didn’t understand why that was a problem. Two hands seemed to be the limit for every person I had ever met. The octopus in my coloring book had eight, but there was a lot to do, even in the ocean. Maybe you could never have enough hands.
* * * * *
Once, I told my father that I couldn’t find my baseball glove. He asked me where it was the last time I saw it. This was an impossible question to answer. That was the very thing I didn’t know – where it was. If I knew where it was, it wouldn’t be lost. I had to conclude that I would likely never see my baseball glove again. And then my father said another one of those things that I hadn’t considered, but that would, from then on, subtly haunt the edges of my mind.
“Your glove didn’t just get up and walk away.”
“I know,” I said. But I didn’t know. I couldn’t recall ever seeing inanimate objects walking around, but things did disappear a lot, especially from my room. Armed with this new suspicion, I developed a technique for anticipating motion and then turning quickly, hoping to catch a favorite comic book sliding itself under a dresser, or fully expecting to spot my Slinky sneaking down the stairs toward the front door. I’d often attempt to get my mother to locate the missing item for me, but she was usually busy sewing curtains or sweeping the floor, and only had two hands. And while it might have helped if I’d had eyes in the back of my head, I had apparently inherited that deficiency, too. There was a single incident when, in exasperation, I tried speaking French. That didn’t work out so well either.