A funny upbringing

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

MANY teenage boys are embarrassed by their mothers. I had good reason to be. When I was in high school, my mother became a professional clown.

As a young woman, she was the person you would least expect to spend her days playing the fool. From what I’ve been told, she was an introvert. She went to teachers’ college, got married and settled into a life of domesticity. Then she hit middle age and flipped out. She threw off her apron and, with it, others’ expectations. She was over 40, she had had her kids, and she would do whatever she wanted, thank you very much. Unfortunately for me, what she wanted to do was wear silly costumes and act like an idiot in front of my friends.

My mother enrolled in clown school, where she learned the finer points of honking red noses, driving toy cars and catching custard pies with her face. Before long, I realised this wasn’t some passing phase. My mother was serious about becoming a laughing stock.

She had been juggling work and family commitments for years, so oranges, balls and flaming torches should have come naturally. And it seemed that way, to begin with. One rolled-up sock would arc through the air, followed by another. Then something would go horribly wrong. The rolled-up socks would collide, sending cotton missiles into the crockery skyscrapers rising from the kitchen bench.

But my mother was determined to pursue her slapstick dreams. Textbooks about juggling were scattered around the house as if she had put theory into practice. Soon the whole family was in on the circus act. After three months all of us kids could juggle, whereas mum still rushed about with arms outstretched.

Strangely, this setback strengthened her resolve. She directed her questionable talents to blowing balloon animals. She would name an animal, turn her back and wrestle with the inflated rubber.  Then, when she swung round for the grand reveal, she would present a red or pink balloon shaped like an internal organ. I imagined her performing at birthday parties. “Hey kiddies, it’s a…lower intestine!”

For me, the most humiliating aspect was how she acted when in costume. She had a bright pink clown suit with a purple wig. The moment she put it on, she was in character. She spoke in a high-pitched voice. She made cringe-worthy jokes. She thought she was hilarious. Everyone else thought she was loopy.

Mum went in character everywhere she could. She walked the street as a clown. She went shopping as a clown. She visited the library as a clown. Worst of all, she picked me up from my job as a clown. I was 16 and had been working as a waiter for only a few weeks. Just before my shift finished I spotted a clown at the cash register, forcing a colon-shaped balloon on a shocked seven-year-old. My cheeks turned the colour of her nose.

The sniggers that accompanied my mother’s parade around the restaurant also followed her home. My brother and I never missed an opportunity to make fun of her failed attempts at clowning. We mocked her pathetically short handkerchief chain. We ridiculed her poor excuse for a squirting flower.

But what hurt her most was how easily we mastered these tricks ourselves. We slid on banana peels like we were born with red, honkable noses. While we were perfecting advanced ‘cascade’ juggling routines, Mum still couldn’t keep two objects in the air at the same time.

Eventually she landed a regular gig. More of a babysitting job, really: a few hours at the pub on Sundays keeping kids occupied while their parents blew the week’s pay on pokies.

One Saturday night, my brother and I broke our curfew. We thought we could sneak back into the house early on Sunday morning. But there was mum, making toast in full clown regalia. When she saw us, she transformed from friendly children’s entertainer to something resembling Stephen King’s It. We were grounded for good, she screamed. “It’s time I stamped my foot down!” My brother and I lowered our eyes, then started giggling. On her feet were two giant clown shoes.

That’s when I realised what a remarkable person she was. Our mockery didn’t bother her one bit. Neither did anyone else’s. She was going to achieve her dream, regardless of what others thought. To a teenager sweating under the tyranny of peer pressure, her self-assurance was inspiring. I also realised it is possible to feel deep respect for someone dressed like an idiot.

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