Mom always told my sister and me that the tremor in her hands began when she was ten years old. When she was a teenager, the shaking was less pronounced, and she succeeded in hiding it. As children, Leslie and I saw the tremors as simply part of who she was, and we rarely noticed it. The shaking only became an issue when it prevented her from completing a task requiring more than normal dexterity. When Mom was anxious or nervous, the shaking was more intractable, and she became frustrated, only compounding the problem. Accidents occurred. Milk slopped outside the glass when she poured it, a coin jumped out of her hand while she counted change, or a cup rattled ominously in its saucer when she carried it on a tray. We learned to ignore the cause of the accident and helped wipe up the milk, retrieve the coin, or pick up the pieces of china.
When I was in third grade, Massachusetts organized the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF drive on Halloween. The PTA president asked Mom to help introduce the program in my school. She was assigned the second and third grades. For a week, she studied the speaker’s guide with a sample script and a poster displaying the distinctive orange collection box with the UNICEF logo. The night before, she practiced the two-minute speech in front of me. Mom wasn’t used to public speaking but was reassured by the fact that she’d be addressing children my age. Her rehearsals were a success. The morning of the presentations, she gathered her materials and said she’d see me later that day. She’d pick up the collection boxes when she received her schedule at school.
During arithmetic drill, there was a knock on our classroom door and Mom entered the room.
“Class.” Miss Kichener clapped her hands. “I’d like you to welcome Mrs. Aherne. She has an announcement about trick or treating next week. By the way, she is Mark’s mother.”
A soft chorus of ‘ohs.’ I beamed with pride.
“Thank you, Miss Kichener, for inviting me.” Mom appeared nervous but tried to act happy to be there. “As your teacher explained, I’m here to talk about the UNICEF fund raiser this year. Children all over America will ask their neighbors to contribute a nickel or a dime to UNICEF when they go from house to house on Halloween—”
A hand shot up. Mom was taken unawares by the interruption, but before she could react, Miss Kichener spoke up, “Yes, Paul?”
“I need to use the bathroom.”
“You can wait until Mrs. Aherne has finished speaking.” He was in trouble now. Miss Kichener nodded to my mother to continue.
Mom had lost her place in her speech, but quickly recovered. “You will carry a box like this one.” She held up the poster showing a narrow box with a coin slot on the top. I noticed the slight tremor in her hands. “When your neighbors come to the door, hold up the box to remind them to contribute to this worthy clause.”
Another hand went up. Wendy didn’t wait for the teacher to call on her. “Mrs. Aherne, does this mean we won’t get candy this year?”
Some grumbling came from other students who’d also heard this rumor.
“Of course, you’ll get candy. That remains the same. UNICEF is extra and voluntary.”
Wendy spoke up again, this time without raising her hand. “Does that mean I don’t have to bring the box if I don’t want to?”
“Oh, well, I don’t th…think so…” Mom was unprepared for this. She stammered, and her hands shook more.
The teacher intervened. “Wendy don’t be rude. Every student will carry a box. People will give whatever they can.”
Mom stared at Wendy as if she thought the kid deserved a good smack.
“Mrs. Aherne?” Miss Kitchener prompted my mother. “You have something to distribute to the class?”
“What? Oh, yes. Hand these around so everyone gets one.” The students passed the stacks of waxed cardboard down each row. “They’re easy to make.”
I looked at my sheet of cardboard. How did she know? It didn’t look simple to me.
Mom showed the class how to fold the cardboard. “You insert the tab labelled ‘A’ into the opening labelled ‘B’.” Her box wouldn’t hold still for her to insert tab ‘A.’
Wendy waved her hand, distracting Mom. She fumbled her box and dropped it. Malcolm, sitting in front of Mom, jumped up and returned it to her.
“Yes, Wendy, what is it now?” Miss Kitchener was impatient.
“Mrs. Aherne, why do your hands shake so much?”
No one said a word. I could tell Mom wanted to put her hands behind her back, but she held the half-folded box with both hands and couldn’t.
Miss. Kitchener glared at Wendy. “Miss Fischer, I will see you after school. Now apologize to Mrs. Aherne.
Wendy murmured something unintelligible.
“Read the instructions.” Mom no longer hid her anger. She snatched up her notebook. “Ask your parents to help.” With a quick “thank you” to the teacher, she left the room.
I was sorry for Mom. I should have warned her about know-it-all Wendy. But I was also ashamed of her shaking. I’d become used to it and wasn’t prepared to see it from the class’ point of view. I’d been proud to have my mother there, and now that special occasion had become an embarrassment, something else to live down.
Mom was humiliated. She went straight to her car and drove home. She’d lost her self-confidence. She called the UNICEF coordinator and said she wasn’t well. I doubt she told the woman the real reason.
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