A plastic menagerie welcomes you to the Caswell home.

First you get a warning. Two plastic geese flank the doorway, one dressed like a pilgrim in a top-hat and buckled shoes, the other dressed like an Indian, with two black braids and a beaded suede dress. Thanksgiving is just three weeks away, after all. As they do every season, gnomes lead you up the driveway, and plastic beavers and squirrels welcome you throughout the lawn.

However, you still have no clue what is about to greet you on the other side of the door, for it is a surprise every time.

Your mother opens the door. Seeing you, she lets out a shriek of joy, breaks into a huge smile, and throws open her arms to hug you. You lower yourself to hug her and notice the orange lipstick on her teeth. You feel rotten for noticing orange lipstick on the teeth of a woman who has spent her whole life loving you.  

Behind her, domestic Disneyland awaits.  It is a full-on assault of the senses. A cursory inventory reveals: five monkey Beanie Babies, each wearing a hat; dozens of photos of you and your siblings dating from 1968 to the present; commemorative plates of Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and the cast of Little House on the Prairie; cookie jars in the form of a cow, a goose, a pig, and a fat chef, which, when opened, moo, quack, oink, and belch, respectively; a framed photo of you at age four on a pony at Busch Gardens next to a framed photo of you at age 30 on an elephant in Thailand; fake flowers draping nearly everything, including candlesticks, the window valance, and dining room hutch; your late grandmother’s ash tray that is shaped like a toilet and says, “rest your tired ash;” a toy train that runs around an elaborate village that includes, among its buildings, a replica of Graceland; a clock that has, instead of numbers, birds that chirp every hour on the hour; a clock that has trains, again instead of numbers, that whistle in a similar fashion; and, last but not least, a life-size statue of the backside of a child in the corner, arms raised over eyes as if counting in a game of hide-and-seek.

A goose wears a pilgrim’s clothing.  

You are in a mecca of misplaced apostrophes. Your brother’s first woodshop project hangs above the door: “The Caswell’s, Welcome to Our Home.” A statue of an Italian pizza chef holds a chalkboard where tonight’s menu is written: “hamburger’s.” Holding up your third grade class picture on the fridge, a magnet confirms: “If mommy says no, ask the grandparent’s.” There is no grammar here, only love, only the efforts of your mother to make every inch of this house feel like home.

A bevy of signs implores you to join in the sentiment. “Bless this home,” one sign demands, addressing no one in particular. “Spread some smile, trade some cheer, let’s be happy while we’re here,” commands another.

You recall how, when you lived here, you were completely miserable — despite the pleas on the wall, despite your mother’s best efforts.

The writer on an elephant at age 30, on a pony at age four.

In the bathroom, the tone is different, less demanding. “Be a sweetie and wipe the seatie,” politely requests the sign above the toilet. Next to the sink, fancy bars of soap in various shapes and colors collect dust. One of them your mother saved from the Waldorf Astoria, where six years ago you treated your parents to a room when they came to visit you in New York. Your mother hated the city, but gleefully declared, “I can’t believe this is my life!” when she caught a first glimpse of the hotel lobby.

Back in the kitchen, your mother tries to feed you but, to her dismay, there is nothing she can give you that you would want to eat. Her cupboard food arsenal is stocked with giant containers of Oreos, Doritos, and marshmallows bought in bulk at a discount food club. You open her freezer to find “family-size” trays of taquitos, gallons of Neopolitan ice cream, and boxes of pepperoni pizza rolls. You remember how, as a child, your friends would come over to gorge on what they called “junk food,” but you just thought that this was how everyone ate.  

You wonder how you ever got any nutrition and conclude that you owe at least one full inch of your 5’5” frame to Fruit Loops.  

Declining your mother’s best attempt at getting you a diet “pop,” you ask for water instead. Your mother hands you the water in a glass marked “Hard Rock Café, Savannah Georgia, New Years 2000.” Your mother has never been to Savannah, Georgia, or a Hard Rock Café anywhere, but bought the glass for 99 cents at a discount closeout store.

There is no grammar at our home, only love.

You survey the situation, its stockpile of stuffed animals, photos of you and your siblings, and value-size bags of potato chips. You wonder where all this stuff came from and whether your mother is an unwitting poster child for the global economy. The house really does appear to have enough to keep an entire Chinese village occupied in sweatshop labor year-round. If you were to find the worker who sewed the tiny cowboy hat your mother lovingly placed on her fifth Beanie Baby monkey and told him the final destination of the fruit of his labor, he would not believe you. He might even get mad at the injustice of it all — that someone would spend an entire U.S. dollar on something as frivolous as a toy monkey’s hat that he made while sewing in some sweaty factory 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on a $17 monthly salary.  But then, if he met your mother — met her and hugged her and saw the orange lipstick on her teeth — he couldn’t stay mad for very long.

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