Pizza Mom

by Ellen Burns from Dearborn, MI
Sep 20, 14

My mother has always had a resourceful spirit.

Today, when my brothers and I tell stories of our childhood, she has a slightly rueful tone when she says, “You make it sound like a terribly poverty-stricken childhood.”

Well, I don’t have to think hard to taste the powdered milk, remember how much macaroni, and how little meat we ate. And how many free library programs we went to. But like most kids, my innocent, happiness insulated me from the embarrassment and strain I’m sure my parents dealt with during those difficult years.

The truth is that most of the childhood stories I like to recall revolve around the massive stick-and-ball golf games my brothers and I set up in the woods behind our house, our Playmobil village – complete with the zoo - the yearly flooding of our sand box so we could paint with mud; and the Christmas – the Christmas to end all Christmases – when I got my doll house.  

Mom will tell you that the clothes we covered in mud and burrs were mostly hand-me-downs, the Playmobils were usually gifts from our grandparents, and the doll house was a deeply discounted display model.  

But there is one story I like to remember where my memories and my mom’s meet. I must have been about 6 years old. Old enough anyway, that even I was beginning to realize that our family was a having a hard time. We had been without a car for a year. We rode bikes all over town. Mom’s personal indulgence, cold Diet Pepsi, had long since disappeared. And powdered milk was the order of the day. 

I think it was a spring morning. Mom went to leave the house and I, her ever faithful shadow, begged to come along. We walked the five blocks to Joe’s Pizza where she declared she had had enough of poverty. She was going to get herself a pizza. This was well before $5 Hot ‘n Readies. This was back when pizza was an extravagance. 

When she came out of the store, she dropped to her knees on the sidewalk in front of the weedy concrete flower boxes and began to work. She had traded two weed-free flower plots for one made-to-order pizza. She attacked the flower pots like she was possessed.  

I can’t remember what was on that pizza or whether we ate it together or brought it home to share. Knowing mom, it was probably shared. But I do remember my wonder in watching her weed those boxes, and that she didn’t asked me to help.  

Of the many things my mother has taught me over the years, this incident hardly stands out. There are other moments. Many of them. When I learned other things. Bigger things. Like the importance of honesty and hard work. But there is a tenderness to this memory that returns when I see her in her helpless moments: in a hospital bed after surgery, or, after a long day’s work, exhausted and asleep on the couch. I think it was the moment when I began to learn that some kinds of pride are not worth holding on to, and I lost, even before I gained it, my fear of poverty. 

Perhaps one day I should buy a flat of petunias and bring it to Joe’s pizza, still in business almost 30 years later, and offer to plant those concrete flower boxes that are, once again, full of weeds. When they ask me why, I will tell them it’s payment for a pizza.