Alarm Clocks, Skinned Knees, and My Mom’s Magic


by John Ellis

My mom possessed some sort of secret magic. Through some sort of wizardry, she made herself indispensable to me when I was a child. At the time, I believed myself to be fierce and independent. Preparing to battle invading commie armies, daydreaming about outwitting kidnappers, and plotting ways to capture dangerous wild animals, I didn’t need my mother I would scoff to myself. Only babies and wimps need their mom.

Utilizing some sort of ninjutsu mind-control, my mom allowed me to believe that while ensuring that I stayed securely tied to her apron strings, albeit without my knowledge. Never pushing back against my independence, she smiled her gentle, crooked smile at my outbursts of machismo and would quietly say, “That’s nice, son. Have fun.”

One summer day my fun took me to the top of the hill that led almost directly into our driveway.

Our neighborhood occupied a single street shaped like a P. Our house was situated at the bottom part of the P’s loop. That hill was great for picking up speed on your bike. Even better, at the bottom of the hill was a dip, the kind of dip that if you hit just right, you’d catch air. Well, that day, I hit that dip just wrong.

I caught air, all right, but the kind of air where the bike lands on top of the rider.

The rider in this instance sprang up squalling. Leaving my bike in the street, its tires still spinning, I half dashed, half limped to my house, crying out to my mom the whole way.

She met me at the carport door, concern on her face, but not so much as to add to my panic.

Every knee and elbow I possess was ripped and bleeding. Dirt and little pieces of gravel were ground into the palms of my hands. I was a mess and in pain. My mom dropped what she was doing, whatever that was, I wasn’t really paying attention to the specifics of her activities prior to my trauma, and cleaned me up.

Even cleaning up my own cuts and scrapes as an adult, I’ve never been able to do so as gently as my mom. It’s impossible to not add, even just a little, to the pain while cleaning out a cut or wound. But, as I wrote above, my mom possessed some sort of secret magic.

At some point while she was tending to my wounds, she handed me an alarm clock. It was round and greenish with the little wind up handles dangling in the back. It was part of the pile of stuff intended for our upcoming yard sale, but she told me that it was mine to keep.

As she finished putting Neosporin and bandages on my cuts, I experimented with the alarm. Turning the hand that signified the alarm, I would set it as close to the actual time as possible, overjoyed at the clanging sound it made when it went off. My mom didn’t say a word at the clanging alarm that rang over and over and over. She did smile as she wiped away my remaining tears and kissed my forehead.

Leaving me alone on the floor of the bathroom with my new treasure, she returned to whatever she had been doing before my trauma. I don’t remember what that was, because I was too busy playing with my alarm clock to notice what my mom was doing.

That alarm clock stayed by my bed until my junior year of high school, almost ten years later. By then, I wanted an alarm clock that was cooler, with a radio, to be specific. That was also the year that my mom finally gave in and let me quit taking piano lessons. The invisible apron strings were becoming untied.

At some point between that day on the bathroom floor with that alarm clock and my late teens, I had become increasingly embarrassed of my mom. Her clothes. Her strict rules. Her lack of knowledge of pop culture. Her constant talking about Jesus. Everything.

I would look at my friend’s moms and wish that my mom could be at least a little bit cooler. The worst part was that my mom’s faith, and all that it entailed, prevented me from doing what I wanted and living however I wanted to live. Christianity was my enemy, and my mom never seemed to leave the front lines of the war. And one of the toughest conflicts in that war was battling my mom’s disappointment. Why I cared so much if I disappointed her, I couldn’t figure out. It bugged me and, worse, inconvenienced me.

As I began spending more and more time away from home, my mom’s influence waned, or so it seemed. As I chased girls and hung out with friends, my mom’s presence seemed to be slowly disappearing. You see, I believed that I had some magic of my own.

At seventeen, I believed that I was finally figuring out how to make my mom’s influence and her Christianity disappear from my mind. Out of sight, out of mind. Or, rather, out of earshot, out of mind. And when she was there, I was too focused on myself to pay attention to her. I mean, even though I spent quite a bit of time with my friends, my mom was still in my life, quite a bit. She was there, doing what she always did. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she was doing during my late teens, I was too busy tinkering with my new-found freedom to pay attention.

By the time I was an adult, like she had always been, my mom was there, but without being allowed any influence over my thoughts and actions, or so I thought.

Pursuing a course that only took into account my desires, I plunged into adulthood. In my memory, my mom silently exists in the cracks between failed relationships, wavering commitment to a variety of political ideologies, the ebb and flow of my unstable theatre career, and several self-induced crises. Mostly silent, my mom was watching when I reached a high point while living in Atlanta when it appeared that I was on the cusp of getting everything I wanted.

Emboldened by my increasing fortune, I took the opportunity to wade into the battle against Christianity one more time. Confronting my mom, yet avoiding her eyes framed in love, fear, and disappointment, I proudly pushed some of my preferred atheist apologetics in front of her.

Rallying as much of her magic as she could, she conjured me into looking into her watery eyes as she said, “John, I don’t want to argue with you. I just want you to know that I love you, God loves you, and I’m praying for you.”

At the time, though, my magic was stronger, I thought, and I believed that her words went in one of my ears and out of the other.

Snorting my contempt, I left the war, victorious, and returned to living for myself. As I began my victory march, I looked back and saw my mom with her head bowed and her eyes closed. The sign of defeat, I thought.

Little did I know that I would only ever get to the cusp of acquiring everything I wanted. Because soon after that I was homeless and in the midst of making irreversibly stupid career decisions. Although I managed to get my feet back under me to a degree, drugs began to play a larger and larger role in my life. Even then, my mom was in the background doing something. I don’t know what, I was too busy reclaiming my life to pay attention. No doubt, she was doing what she had always done, whatever that was.

As I consumed more drugs, pursued activities that allowed me to convince myself that I wasn’t really alone, and became angrier and angrier, the pain also grew. No amount of descriptive words can adequately explain what it was like on the nights I was alone in physical pain for no other reason than that I was alone.

There is a darkness that is real and that consumes. We’re all born with the seed of it inside of us. Some of us get closer to its full power during this life than others. Some only discover its full power after death. All must confront it at some point or other. I have experienced the power of that darkness. I have felt it close tight around me and take possession of my heart. I know what’s inside of that darkness. And one morning, after a night of sleepless agony, and after a night of once again almost choosing suicide as an escape, my alarm clock went off.

It was just a cheap alarm clock from Wal-Mart. It didn’t even have a radio. But it went off at the time it had been set for. And that morning, while I was tiring and near defeat from fighting the darkness, that alarm clock reminded me of a moment from my childhood. A moment of pain and tears that had been made better by my mom and her gift of an alarm clock.

My mom’s magic had not waned, not even over the distance of twenty years.

Over the next year and a half, I slowly became more and more aware of my mom’s presence. It was only later that I realized that no matter how hard I had tried, I had never been able to get rid of her. But over that year and a half, I would be surprised several times by the unexpected appearance of my mom. Reminded of her Christianity, her unwanted prayers for me, and her love for me that she modeled after her precious Savior, the darkness in me fought back.

But light is always stronger than darkness.

Even though I nearly managed to destroy myself a mere thirteen months after my alarm clock went off, my mom’s magic proved too strong. And, so, on July 7, 2004, I got up and half dashed, half limped to my mom’s true home while crying out for my mom’s God. In that moment, my Heavenly Father healed me and saved me from the consequences of my crashed and broken life. My mom wasn’t surprised when I told her.


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