CLEVELAND - It was one of the first times I remember seeing my mother cry. Every Mother's Day, I think of the day my mother cried tears of joy because of the gift I had brought her.
I was about 9 years old when I realized Mother's Day was only a day away. I felt a pressure to give my mother something special to mark the occasion. Dad would probably get some flowers and sign his name with those of my sister and I.
But I wanted something special that came expressly from me. I sat on the front steps of our house in Cleveland and pondered the question which rattled through my brain as I jingled the few coins I had in my pocket. It was money from my weekly allowance and a few coins I had earned doing lightweight chores for our neighbors.
The time was the 1950s and the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland where we lived was filled with small shops on East 105th Street, a major thoroughfare in the city. East 105th boasted supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants, ice cream stands and stores which sold clothing, hats and shoes. There was even a used car lot next to a new-car showroom. But what all those establishments sold was either inappropriate for a Mother's Day gift from me or far beyond what my wallet would allow.
I considered all my mother had done for my sister and me. She and dad were wonderful parents who kept us on what they called "the straight and the narrow." Our home was filled with love and discipline. So to not have a gift for mother would not be acceptable, especially at my age. I had made a card in school which reflected my love for mother, but I felt it was not enough.
So I walked to East 105th, that street of dreams. I walked along its sidewalk which was filled with people moving about or waiting to catch the Number 10 bus which ran the thoroughfare. Across the street, I noticed a novelty shop which had a front window filled with all kinds of trinkets. They were far from expensive. There was costume jewelry which was covered with gold paint. There were party favors, glassware with garish pictures on them, candy bars, potato chips and bottles of soda.
But in the case was an item which caught my eye. I pointed to it and the man behind the counter reached in. With a big grin, he pulled out the item and handed it to me. I had told him I was looking for a Mother's Day gift. I showed him the few coins I possessed. It was all the money I had in the world. About 75 cents in a quarter, dimes, and nickels. "You got anything I could give my mother for this money?" I asked.
"Well, here is something the women like," he said. His grin widened even more. "A lot of guys buy this stuff for their lady friends," he said, "and the women like it."
It was a small bottle of perfume which the man placed on the counter. I drew closer to it. It had only about an ounce and a half of perfume in it. It was smaller than my thumb. I knew immediately it would be a great gift for mother. She had a lot of perfumes and powders on the vanity where she sat in my parents' bedroom. There, I would see my mother put on her makeup and often add a dab of perfume behind her ears. It was not every day she used the perfume, but mostly on days when she and Dad went out for a party or church.
The perfume I purchased was far from expensive. "This will be a great gift for your mother," said the man. I asked him the name of the perfume. "Atom Bomb," said the man. Indeed, there was a small photograph or drawing of an atom bomb explosion on the label. Talk of atom bombs were every day during the 1950s. The United States was always testing one and there were regular news reports on the latest test.
"This is high-powered stuff," said the salesman. I forked over the price of the perfume and walked out with about ten cents still in my pocket. Mission accomplished. A gift for mother for Mother's Day.
The next day was the special Sunday. While Dad was giving mother a gift, I walked into their bedroom and presented my gift. It was wrapped in the brown paper bag the man had given me in the novelty store. When mother read the card I had made in school, she unfolded the bag and saw the small bottle of perfume. The tears began to stream down her cheeks. She cried with joy and embraced me, hugging me very tightly.
She tried to say thank you, but the words were slow in coming because of her crying. Eventually, she was able to speak. "You are a wonderful boy," she said. With that, mother opened the perfume and put a dab of it behind her ear. She would wear the perfume that day to church service.
It was then I smelled the perfume. It stank. I was too young to understand that it would not be the best perfume. Its name, "Atom Bomb," spoke to that. And to be sold for less than 75 cents in a novelty store was a testament to that. Still, mother never said a word against my gift.
My mother kept the perfume on her dresser for decades. I don't know if she ever used it again, but she kept it as a tribute to our relationship.
When mother died at the age of 89 a few years ago, the bottle was still there. The bottle was empty. Either mother had used it all or it had evaporated over the decades. But the bottle remained. The photograph of the atomic bomb explosion on its small label had faded, but it was still visible to my eyes. I held the bottle in my hands for the first time in decades and thought back to that Mother's Day when my mother cried because of a gift from her son. I grew up understanding it was really love I had given to the mother who loved me.
I can still see the tears streaming down her cheeks, pooling at her chin. I can still feel my mother's warm embrace on the morning of a Mother's Day long ago.