The Magician

Mother’s Day 2022

As a kid, I never understood Mother’s Day. My birthday on the other hand, now that was a holiday I could really get behind! What was the point in having a special day for mothers when we made every day so special? My brother and sister and I bestowed on our mother opportunities of a lifetime. Only in a busy restaurant would she have had more opportunities to master her culinary skills. And our endless fighting provided our mother the chance to delve into the exciting world of conflict resolution. When we needed to go somewhere, we didn’t selfishly hop on our bikes—we let our mother drive us, giving her a chance to get out of the house and save all those tedious chores for later. And after all this, I’m supposed to produce a potted plant or colorful scarf to say “thank you”?

My mother’s name is Sarah Plunkett. She was born Sarah Welch Yantis in 1943, when Abraham Lincoln was President. She grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with her parents and three siblings. When she graduated from high school, after the Civil War, she left Fort Smith on a wagon train to attend Mills College in Oakland—beating me to the Bay Area by a few years. She graduated with a degree in chemistry, which had just been invented as a science. After graduating, she threw her bags into a horseless carriage and moved to Kansas City where she raised three kids and lives to this day.

“Mother” is just one thing my mother is. I was 11 years old when she started bringing body parts home . . . ears, noses, and eyes, sketched in graphite on paper. These eventually formed faces, and graphite became oil paints, portraits became still-life’s, and then the drawings and paintings of her kids became but a preamble to the many paintings she sold in galleries. She’s an artist. She’s also a friend, to many. She has life-long friends from childhood, high school, and college. She has countless friends from her long life in Kansas City, including a group of women who have played bridge together for decades. She plays cards expertly. She plays mahjong. My mother came from a privileged environment, but her feet have always been planted on common ground. She has had the luxury of doing charitable work over the years, and in those endeavors she did the hard work, sitting with impoverished families facing heartbreaking difficulties and helping them figure out food and finances. She has traveled the world. She has also had more than her share of loss, losing her mother far too soon to lung cancer, losing her father to alcoholism years before he actually passed, losing an uncle and brother to AIDS. And maybe no less significantly, she lost many beloved dogs over the years, some of which she cared for when her kids had something better to do, not appreciating that she would take on the caretaking and the heartbreak on their behalf. But she’s a survivor, facing down her own significant medical issues.

When I was 17 years old, my mother drove me from Kansas City to Chicago to move into my college dorm. I don’t know if she knew it at the time, but I wouldn’t return to live in Kansas City again. I knew I was different and needed to figure that out. That night in a hotel near the campus I heard my mother crying, and I chalked it up to a disagreement at the front desk over the room. I now understand that taking your child to college is fraught, so I think less about the drive to Chicago and more about her drive home. Of the three of us, I was the one most attached. I looked to her for everything, to figure out what I could do when I was bored, to take on my emotions when they became too much, which was not uncommon. I watched her cook in the kitchen. When family was on the way to town for holidays, I wanted to stay home from school to help clean the house. After dinner, I wanted to play games with her at our hexagonal game table with rolling leather chairs. She taught me to play cards, Gin Rummy mostly, and backgammon, and Mastermind. She always won, but made me feel like the winner. In high school, she drove me on countless early weekend mornings—me in a shirt she had ironed and a suit and tie—to meet the bus taking us to the next debate tournament, the beginnings of my career as an unbearable litigator.

And then I left home for college, unaware, ungrateful, unapologetic, still a kid, still attached, determined not to be. The subsequent decades are dotted with many visits back and forth, for graduations, holidays, funerals, weddings, and other of life’s events. I once threatened not to come home for Christmas unless I received written assurances that no one would vote for Bush. In recent years, the extremism of Republicans have landed us on the same page, and my mother and I now find pleasure in our shared outrage. This week I texted her about Roe v. Wade; she texted back the next morning, and I also noted that she liked my Facebook post on this topic. In contrast, my mother’s Facebook page is a tribute to the happy and simpler things one can see on life’s journey.

The journeys I remember most vividly as a child were the many family road trips from Kansas City to Arkansas to visit grandparents. These trips were fun for us kids, bickering and making trouble in the backseat. I realize now it was probably a virtual hell-on-earth for our parents. But they never let that show. And, inevitably, the chaotic car would go silent as day turned to night, the stars switching on across the Midwestern sky.

When I was seven, my parents bought a car that had electric windows. This provided them a new trick to keep us quiet. My mother would lower and raise her hands as if summoning an invisible force to open and close the passenger window. We couldn’t figure out how this was possible, gliding down Highway 71 toward the rolling mountains of the Ozark’s, us the unwitting fools lulled into silence. And she, the magician.