From 1988 to 1990, I lived with 60 other women in Eugene, Oregon. We ate our meals together, slept next to each other, and shared a big, communal bathroom. We wore our hair the same and we dressed the same. We usually traveled in packs of three or four. And once a week, without fail, we held a secret meeting in a locked room where we chanted in a foreign tongue and made solemn, unbreakable oaths of loyalty to each other.
It occurs to me now that Gamma Phi Beta was just a few purple Nikes away from being a Doomsday Cult.
But to a pudgy, permed 20-year-old Film major, a sorority house was the perfect place to live after a year of weirdness in the freshman dorms and before a year of plumbing problems in an off-campus apartment. Gamma Phi’s rambling Tudor was homey, comfortable, and boasted a huge backyard that was bordered by a pretty, little creek. A pretty, little creek that the fraternity on the other side would urinate into every night, but we just closed our eyes and pretended it was the Trevi fountain. If the Trevi fountain belched and yelled things like, “Whoa hoa! Our pee streams totally touched, you gaywad!”
Everything in the Gamma Phi house showed that over its 80-year history, great efforts were taken to make it feel like a real home. Which is why, in addition to three meals a day and unlimited air popped popcorn, our live-in, not-so-small monthly fee even included—a Mom.
Specifically, a House Mom. All sororities and fraternities at my university are required by the Greek council to have a grown-ass woman live in their house during the school year. Why a grown-ass woman, you ask? Well, two reasons. First, whenever a fire broke out (and it was college, so a fire was always breaking out) the House Mom was usually the only person sober and sane enough to call 911. Everyone else was way too busy chanting, “The roof! The roof! The roof is on FY-YAR!”, then roasting weenies and making out with cute firefighters.
Second, having a mature, maternal person in the sorority house gave our parents the illusion that we were at least being watched by somebody. Even if that somebody was, in my case, a grouchy, cantankerous 70-year-old piece of work who smelled like institutional fish sticks and Vicks VapoRub.
Mrs. York, or “Mom York” as we tried to call her without wincing, had lived in a back room of the Gamma Phi house for as long as anyone could remember. She’d never not been there. Various alumni would spot her during their visits and react like they’d just seen a ghost. Albeit a ghost who spent her days watching Murder She Wrote and sharpening the edges of her metal walker to weapon-grade level. “Wow,” the alumni would marvel, “Looks like Mom York is still going strong!”
“Yep,” we’d sigh. “Don’t fucking blame us, boo.”
We could count on seeing Mom York during meals in our big dining room because she never missed a chance to eat. Otherwise, the only way we knew she was out and about was when we’d hear the “click, click” of her walker headed our way like an angry Gila monster ready to lecture us about not leaving our bras outside to dry because they might “tempt the piss brigade.” After she realized the “click, click” warning gave us time to run up to the second floor, where she couldn’t easily go, she put tennis balls on her walker and went stealth. Ninja. Twenty years later, I still sometimes expect to see her scowling face creeping up behind me when it’s too quiet at night.
Despite her job title, none of us living in the house actually considered Mom York a substitute for our real moms. After all, if we went to our real moms with a problem, they’d probably sit down and lovingly discuss it. Not instruct us to “write that horse shit down” on a piece of paper and stick it in her pink fanny pack where she kept her Dentyne and old hair. Nor would our real moms walk past us when we were kissing our boyfriends on the front porch and “Urrrrrrrp!” stick their finger down their throat like a disgusted Valley Girl. Mom York was always super charming like that.
But while the girls of Gamma Phi never got the warm fuzzies from our House Mom, one night we got something even better. It was spring semester, just after dinner, and the doorbell rang. One of the girls saw two polite looking fraternity men standing outside on the steps and opened our big front door to let them in. Suddenly ten more guys, carrying two full-size mattresses tied together with a thick rope, rushed into the house. They screamed something like, “IT’S A PHI DELT SURPRISE!”, then hurled the mattresses into the middle of our foyer and took off running. What the hell was that? Even during a time when we were used to seeing sights like kegs rolling down the street while guys tried to lasso them, it was weird.
None of knew what we were dealing with, so we simply stared at the mattresses in confusion for a few minutes. Then someone yelled, “Holy shit! It’s moving!” and we crept a little closer. There, sandwiched between the Sealy Posturepedics like a piece of squirming preppy lunchmeat, was a person. And in a horrified whisper, that person then told us three things: 1) He was a new pledge 2) His name was David and 3) He was buck-ass naked. (Or, as he put it, “No…damn…pants.”) After just the briefest of pauses while we digested this glorious/horrifying/but mostly glorious news, twenty voices then loudly cried to the rafters, “MOM YORK!”
Within seconds, our take-no-shit House Mom had the mattresses cut apart using the Swiss Army knife she also kept in her fanny pack, spare clothes on David, and the ear of the Phi Delt president who she reamed on the phone for a solid half-hour. She was part Estelle Getty, part Navy SEAL and totally amazing just when we needed her to be. Who knew? (To apologize for the nude bomb, the fraternity president brought homemade cookies over to us the next day, but none of us were dumb enough to take a bite.) (Mom York polished them off.)
Was the mattress incident something we could have handled ourselves that night? Definitely. We were all smart, capable college women, after all. But still, during that moment of panic, when we were faced with a naked, scared fraternity guy in our foyer, the only person we wanted by our side was a Mom.
Even one who smelled like institutional fish sticks.
This story was originally seen in a book called MOMS ARE NUTS that includes many funny writers. Just in time for a Mother’s Day purchase or free Kindle download! Get yourself one!