A lot has changed in the world since September 11, 2001. A new generation’s innocence has been stolen and ideals have been manipulated by terror. A heightened sense of expectant doom has permeated the minds of United States citizens. We no longer live in a country where terrorism is not considered to happen on our soil and is not simply relegated to far away countries with names that are either too difficult to pronounce, or end with the suffix “stan”.
Somewhere along the line, previous to our current war in Iraq, the Director of the Homeland Security Department issued a series of advertisements aimed at helping the American people slowly wake up from their sense of innocence and be prepared for a biological attack on our own soil. It was no longer out of the question for this to happen on the continental United States. On its purchase list were essentials: duct tape, plastic tarp, flashlights, canned food and bottled water.
Had this warning occurred at any time prior to September 11, my mother would clearly have paid it no mind. She scoffed at such notions and titled any such warnings as political propaganda. She would label these men and women as naysayers and would give them no further attention, striving to live her life in a way that a post-9/11 American should… going about life as usual.
I am not certain whether it is her age or whether Tom Ridge poses such an impressive figure that would cause her to pay attention to the television commercial that appeared in the months and weeks before the United States began its invasion of Iraq, but something did. However, as any logical parent would do, she kept her fears and plans hidden from her family. She did not want to do anything to make them believe there was need to fear.
She was “outed” from her preparatory plans one day whilst I was shopping with her at a local pharmacy. She and my father have become quite the coupon clippers during their retirement years. They watch the local newspapers for too-good-to-pass-up bargains on the essential things in life… namely soft drinks and two-for-one sales on canned Vienna sausages. They plan their weekend outings to various supermarkets as masterfully as General George Patton planned his military campaign in Europe during World War II. They know when the banks open and what each store schedule is like. They have their targets in sight and they are masterminds of the coupon-clipping crowd.
One afternoon I was drawn into the fray by my father’s desire to remain in the house and watch, what I can only assume, was the 57th viewing of “The Godfather” marathon on television. My mother needed to make a trip to the store because there was a sale on 12 packs of Coca-Cola products, but you were limited to four packs per person. I was to be the “ringer” that would allow my family to abscond with eight packs of the sugary concoction. I was given my assignment, handed my own currency with which to procure such extravagance, and we were on our way.
We loaded our respective shopping carts with our treasure when my mother asked me if there was anything else I wanted to purchase. Since we were in a pharmacy and I was not suffering from a mysterious malady, I told her I really didn’t think there was anything I needed. However, we soon passed a section of six-packs of bottled water. I felt my body would probably appreciate having something to dilute the 1,152 ounces of carbonated sugared drinks that were purchased and I reached out to grab a six pack of the clear liquid that would prevent me from going into a glucose coma.
Now my mother has never appreciated the idea of selling bottled water, let alone the idea of purchasing it. Why would someone want to buy extra of the very thing that you are paying for at your house? The tap water from the faucet has always been just fine for her family. When I began cross-training a few years ago, bottled water was an everyday part of my diet, as I was chugging about 64 ounces a day. I would watch, as she would shake her head at me in disbelief.
Then came the notion, after watching an investigative report on the news, that certain bottled water was not as pure as it was advertised. In fact, there were some hazards to drinking bottled water, as it could be tampered with at the bottling plant. This would cause concern for her, but the inadequacies of the water purification plant never crossed her mind. Our drinking and bathing water may be filled with mercury and lead, but she had not seen that investigative report and therefore had no cause for worry.
Imagine my shock when my mother prevented me from purchasing bottled water at the pharmacy because we had some at home. I was quite sure that the last bottled water that I purchased had been consumed, but she was adamant that there was plenty of water at the house. After a moment of prodding, she explained that she had made the purchase. I was bewildered. My very own “anti-bottled water” mother had crossed the line of her own psyche and delved into the evil that was buying water off the grocery aisle shelf. I asked her what could possibly have led her to perform such sacrilege. Her answer was astounding.
“Do you remember back before the war began? Did you ever see any of those television commercials with Tom Ridge?”
“The Director of Homeland Security?”
“Yes.” She had something of a sheepish look about her. I was completely unaware of where this conversation was going. “Well, they did these commercials about how we needed to be prepared for things in the event of an attack on our country. One of the things we needed to buy was bottled water, so I bought some.”
“Really?” I was just a little impressed that my mother had gone out and had followed the instructions of our Commander in Chief, through the Homeland Security Director. This was a woman who lived on various military bases with my father through most of her life. She survived the cold war and ideas of bomb shelters. She even worked for a short period of time as a secretary for NASA and her claim to fame was that she signed a rocket that was launched into space. This was a woman who lived life to the fullest and knew when to put on her poker face to bluff, or knew when to play her hand. “Did you purchase plastic tarp and duct tape too?”
“No, just the water. If we come under attack, I just can’t stand to think about going thirsty.” With this statement, reality struck me in the face. I returned to the skeptic child I had been raised to be in an instant and began to question her.
“Where is the bottled water? I haven’t seen any in the house.”
“I have it stashed away in the hall closet.”
Our hall closet has undergone various transformations in the almost 25 years we’ve been in this house. It has stored an old slide projector and slide photographs of my parents’ life in the military. There are quilts that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers made. There are sheet sets and bedspreads and comforters. There are empty boxes of collectible dolls and china figures that dot the landscape of our house. There are blankets and pillows, tablecloths and candles, kitchen appliances and a broken VHS player. If it has crossed the threshold of our house, it has, at some point in time, been stored in the hall closet. I never attempt to find anything in the hall closet. It is worse than staring blankly at an open refrigerator waiting for dinner to prepare itself.
I imagined that my mother, in her desperation to save her family, had gone to a local retail warehouse and bought pallets of bottled water. I could see how she would empty the closet out and store this treasure under lock and key. I knew that she would have purchased enough to allow her to not only remain refreshed physically, but she would be able to bathe and brush her teeth with it as well. She had become the epitome of the Proverbs 31 woman and was providing for her family.
“How much water did you buy?”
Her reply was not quick in coming. I saw different expressions cross her face as if her brain were trying to compute a theorem. I assumed she was trying to remember the exact quantity, as she would want to give an accurate account of what she deemed appropriate to save our family from impending catastrophe. Finally, she spoke.
“Six? Six what… cases?”
“No. Just six.”
She became exasperated. “No… just six bottles.”
“Six bottles,” I replied. “Six bottles.” I repeated myself. She was busy at this point loading eight 12 packs of soda in the trunk of the car. The realization of the moment was becoming clearer with each second. “Six bottles of water.” I was going to have fun now.
“Yes, dear.” She was closing the trunk of the car.
“Do you really think that six bottles of water are going to save the family from a nuclear holocaust here in Smyrna, Tennessee? I mean, we are the hot-bed of political power. I assume that Al-Queda have operatives roaming the streets at night just waiting for the go ahead from Osama Bin Laden. Will you ration the bottled water out in cap-fuls at a time? How long do you think we’ll survive on six bottles of water?”
The response she gave was beyond belief, “Well… I really didn’t plan on sharing.”
My mother’s decision to lose any maternal and marital instincts during “wartime” quite appalled me. I was in utter disbelief. The look on her face was priceless, however. I could tell that she was disgusted with this selfish act and even more disgusted that she confessed it to me. Since the war had been declared over some months previous and it was not apparent that we would suffer a biological or nuclear attack, I gave my final two cents’ worth.
“I sure am glad Dad and I have all this Coke to drink. We ought to outlast you in the long run with plenty to spare.”