When I was a little girl, I was so embarrassed when my mother would strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. I was an extremely shy child. It was hard enough for me to talk to people I knew, even relatives, family friends, and neighbors. I knew how I would feel if a complete stranger spoke to me in a grocery store line - horrified! And here was my mother, horrifying people everywhere we went.
Of course as I got older, it stopped bothering me quite so much. I realized that most of her victims were okay with it. Rarely did any of them appear horrified.
Okay, I admit it: Never did any of them actually appear to be horrified.
I began to see it as an eccentricity. My mother was an eccentric, I decided. As a teenager I learned to roll my eyes and use other body language that was sure to let the victim know that I thoroughly disapproved of my mother's forwardness lest I be branded eccentric by association.
By the time I was in my twenties, I had pretty much come to grips with my mother's problem. I still thought it was weird to engage total strangers in conversation, but by now I realized that it wasn't so unusual. Other people did it, too. And I was over my shyness enough to respond pleasantly if they did it to me.
One evening when my first child and her first grandchild, Carolyn, was a year old, my mother and I had tickets to a play. As we drove to the theater, I issued a challenge to my mother.
"I bet you can't go the entire evening without showing a picture of Carolyn to a complete stranger."
She laughed and kind of rolled her eyes. How ridiculous, I knew she was thinking. There's nothing wrong with showing pictures of my grandchild to complete strangers, she was thinking.
"No, really," I continued. "I bet you can't do it."
When we got to the theater we had to stand in a crowd until the doors opened. She didn't last ten minutes. Within ten minutes, she had struck up a conversation with a woman and, as it tends to do with women of a certain age, it had quickly turned to the topic of grandchildren. She looked at me and huffed a bit. Frustration was written all over her face.
"I don't care," she said to me after about ten seconds. "I'm showing her the picture."
Since those long ago days, I have become much more tolerant of my mother's odd behavior. In fact, and this may be hard to believe, I actually initiate conversation with total strangers myself from time to time.
I'm sure my children disapprove.
This summer my husband and I attended a Three Dog Night concert. We got there early, before the warm-up band had started. A couple came and sat by us. They were in their mid-fifties. The woman immediately engaged me in conversation. Before long, I knew her whole life story.
But guess what?
She knew mine, too!
She was just one of those exceptionally friendly people who makes you feel comfortable, shares her own information, and manages to draw out yours, as well.
Hey, I thought at one point, I do have that mini photo album in my purse. I could supply some faces to go with the names and stories I've given her. I immediately thought of my mother and the challenge I'd issued to her all those years ago.
Too bad, I thought. We all turn into our mothers sooner or later.
I admit I did try to hide what I was doing from my husband. He caught me though. I think he rolled his eyes. His mother didn't have a habit of talking to complete strangers. She was much more normal than mine.
But I've come to realize something in my middle age.
Eccentric is much more fun.