Memoir Flashback: Remembering my mom's love when I was a latchkey kid
Celebrating V-day with a different kind of love—a longing for a stay-at-home mom.
As far back as I can remember, my mom was a working mom. When I was three, she put me in my yellow stroller and took me to work where she was a sewer at a factory. I remember the dark and dreary downtown L.A. factory with huge square windows on one side of a faded, brick building.
While my mom worked, I played next to her or fell asleep in my stroller to the hums and vibrations of the sewing machine. She sat for hours at an industrial, olive-green Singer sewing machine. That thing probably weighed a ton. Mountains of fabric were piled high on one side, waiting to be stitched together.
In kindergarten, I was always the last kid to get picked up. This one time, my mom was so late I decided to walk home. This was before we moved to the suburbs, so I navigated the busy L.A. streets filled with cars and pedestrians. I’m not even sure how I knew how to get home but I remembered the brown Braille building in front of the bus stop, the church with the big dome roof and cross on the top, and various gas stations along the way.
About halfway home, my mom rolled by in her navy blue Chevy hatchback. From behind the wheel, I saw her grinning at me like I had masterminded some hilarious prank. My mom would later retell this story with amusement and laughter. She’d say that when she got to school and didn’t see me, she just figured I walked home. While driving, she immediately spotted me on the sidewalk, trotting home with my oversized Hello Kitty backpack.
When I think back on it now, she wasn’t one bit horrified that her 5-year-old was walking home from school. She never had thoughts of child molesters, stranger danger, or a kidnapping.
When I was slightly older, I was a latchkey kid. I kept extreme vigilance of the two house keys tucked away in the front pouch of my backpack. Forgetting those two little keys was a big deal and I learned a valuable lesson each time I’d get locked out. I would have to wait at a neighbor’s smelly house or worse, sit around in the backyard for hours where I’d stare desperately into the living room, my sanctuary for cartoons and eating jello.
I never noticed how much I disliked coming home to an empty house until I was in third or fourth grade. On this particular day, I walked home with my friend Cheryl, a redhead with freckles and an upturned nose.
Her front door was unlocked and when we stepped inside, her mom called out, “Cheryl? Is that you?” The air was thick with her mothery presence.
In comparing my after-school reality to hers—I thought about how lucky she was to have a stay-at-home mom. Her house felt alive and warm instead of still and empty.
I suddenly felt my mom’s absence. I realized I wanted nothing more than to have my mom pick me up from school or be there to call my name when I opened the door.
No matter how much I wanted this to be my reality, it never happened. In junior high and high school, I would continue to come home to an empty house.
But when I think about my days as a latchkey kid, my mom was there every single day. She did plenty to show both my sister and me that she was thinking of us.
She was there when I opened the fridge and saw trays of red jello and cornbread covered with saran wrap. She was there in the first few rings of the telephone—she always called exactly thirty minutes after I got home.
She was even there to enforce a “no TV” rule by using a tiny suitcase padlock. She looped the lock through the two holes in the TV power cord, which then made it impossible to plug into the wall. It was her ingenious solution to prevent my sister and me from zonking out in front of the TV. We endured a cruel, after-school existence without He-Man, Thunder Cats, and Bugs Bunny.
When I fell behind on long division and fractions, my mom left me extra homework to finish. She wrote out math problems by hand on blank paper. I remember being less than thrilled about seeing these papers on the dining table after I had finished my real homework.
Even though I never had the chance to experience a stay-at-home mom like my friend Cheryl, my mom was there in her own way. I always felt loved, and this is the reason why I wanted her to be home all the time.
I recently had a conversation with my mom about why she had to work so much back then. Her answer: she doesn’t know. She just did what she thought she was supposed to do, which was to work at the small market she owned with my dad. She acknowledges that she (and my dad) could have worked less, but they chose not to. At the time, she didn’t realize how quickly those elementary days would whiz by to be gone forever.
I understand her line of thinking. It’s part “immigrant brain”—you go into survival mode to work and make a living. But it’s also failing to take a step back and be intentional about enjoying the life you created for yourself and your family.