VAGUE, absent-minded and, uh, “slap-dash” in my habits, I’m rarely accused of being a worrywart -- quite the opposite.
In our house, our daughter Petunia is the one whose concerns reflect the classic version of “common sense,” while I indulge in the interpretive dance version. Our finicky son barely trusts his ditzy mother to make breakfast, due to whimsical bagel-toasting and the mahogany timbre of mum-made bacon. Their dad is exasperated by my failure to follow official food safety rules.
Raised eyebrows attend my driving style, my home improvement efforts, and my suggestions that I might do something really daring one day, like ride a bike six blocks to Lynn Valley Centre.
I am perceived as a bit of a nitwit, truth be told. “Lighten up,” I often say to them, testy at their tediously frequent corrections. “At least I can spell and make dessert.”
In terms of being pestered by nail-biters, however, I’m a total punter compared to one Adam Chester, the author of a hilarious new book called S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him (Abrams Image, $19).
If you’re the type of person who does an idiotic amount of fretting aloud, S’Mother is just the recriminatory slap you need before you lose it completely. If you’ve merely been subjected to constant agonizing by the Anxious Annies in your life, Chester’s sly mockery will bring you sweet relief. Frankly, is there anybody alive who doesn’t fit into one of those two categories? This book is also just what the jester ordered for a friend who’s down in the dumps.
Author Chester is a happily married, professionally successful father of two young sons who decided a few years ago to sift through the letters his mother had sent him and start making fun of them online, which spawned this book.
Don’t worry about him hurting her feelings – she appears with him as a co-reader on the audio version. Ironically, Chester was likely trying to get a little distance from his sole parent when he wrote S’Mother, but now she’s appearing at book signings and on promotional TV appearances with him. There, she describes herself as “evolved.” He begs to differ, and won’t even give her his cell number lest she call him once again to remind him not to put dishes away without drying them.
Adam, a musician whose dad died when he was young, has been Ma Chester’s unrelenting focus. She’s obsessed with preventing him from catching a cold or hurting himself – so much so that she once burst into the boys’ locker room at his Miami school, while he and his pubescent peers were changing after Phys Ed. Her urgent mission? A special delivery. “You forgot to bring your sweater. It’s going to rain today,” announced Mrs. Chester, whose wake swept in a horde of other students, including Sarah, young Adam’s first crush.
Things went rapidly downhill from there. In a recent interview alongside Adam in the magazine Mother Jones, the senior Chester described herself as “an overprotective Jewish mother – so sue me!” She doesn’t use a computer, so she can’t communicate by e-mail – probably a blessing for her son, who would otherwise never get a moment’s peace. Instead, she has written him several times a week for decades.
Her most prominent preoccupations include the likelihood of him not wearing a warm enough coat, neglecting to put on his seatbelt, and forgetting where her will is when she dies in a plane crash.
Other causes for concern: His colon, con artists, foreign cheese, killer bees, and potential bounced cheques. He’s in college at the point where she sends him this: “Dear Adam, Just a note to tell you not to jaywalk.”
One of her countless warnings about her own blood relatives and their foibles ends with these apparent non sequiturs. “P.S. 1. Don’t drink rainwater. 2. There’s a resistant form of gonorrhea going around – Use a condom.”
After a non-stop diet of such gratuitous wisdom, Adam tries to get his revenge by exploding what he calls his mother’s “calamity meter.” One day he crosses the border from L.A. to Tijuana to participate in the running of the bulls. This event calls for spectators to race the huge, angry creatures through narrow streets, trying not to get gored. Just before it starts, he calls Mrs. Chester to tell her what he’s about to do. She’s horrified, naturally, but doesn’t get the point. She writes shortly thereafter to warn him to take his stomach medication with him when he goes out on the weekend in case he eats onions again.
The admonitions continue, and they made me squirm with delight -- and also embarrassment. For I, like most people, am guilty of occasionally doling out the same calibre of ridiculous advice as Mrs. Chester, with just as flimsy a leg to stand on. This book serves as an absurdist reminder to all of us to turn down the throbbing bass on our angst.