Mama Knows Best
Bay Weekly’s Mother’s Day homage to home rule
Taking whole wheat birthday cakes to school. Swallowing cod liver oil. Wearing hated clothing and chewing with mouths closed. Sitting up straight, no elbows on the table. Learning to read, learning to play a musical instrument.
All those loathsome things our mother made us do.
All those desirable things she wouldn’t allow.
No Twinkies. No swimming right after lunch. No rock concerts with older friends. No driving after dark.
Most mothers do know best, and those outlandish demands paid off as we children reached adulthood — all the wiser and only minimally scarred.
But some of her rules were born from her own quirky personality, and they’ve paid out nothing more than rueful memories.
For Mother’s Day 2011, Bay Weekly writers recall the things their mothers made them do — for better or worse.
She Made Me Play the Organ
It was 1972, and I was on the cusp of becoming a bona fide teenager. Though not rebellious — covert ear piercing was the most trouble I had seen — I was determined to achieve a state of California hippy-chick coolness. I exchanged color-coordinated outfits for ankle-skimming batik dresses and Mary Janes for rattan-soled flip-flops. Beaded earrings dangled from my newly pierced ears. I braided dandelions plucked from our lawn into my hair.
But music was most symbolic of my fledgling coolness: Roberta Flack, Mac Davis, Neil Diamond — anything my parents could tolerate — was out. Instead I swayed to Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Deep Purple. The softest rock I would admit liking was Neil Young’s Horse with No Name.
For years my parents harangued me to take up a musical instrument. That year I gave in, believing what I played would be my choice: the guitar. I imagined myself on the beach strumming Stairway to Heaven, watching my cool surfer boyfriend shoot the pier.
My mother had another plan.
I came home from school to find a brand-new organ in our living room. My mother beamed when she told me it came with free lessons.
I was mortified. An organ was something you heard in church. Not on Bolsa Chica’s sand.
It was definitely not cool.
I loved my mother, so I took those lessons — in secret. She was delighted with my efforts, and as mothers often do, she bragged.
One night my parents threw a dinner party for the neighborhood adults — who were also the parents of all the kids I was trying so hard to impress.
Sometime after dinner, my mother called me into the living room. In front of everyone she said, “Margaret has done so well with her organ lessons, I want her to play for you.”
“Oh please play my favorite, Moon River,” she said to me.
Beet red, I played. Then fled, absolutely mortified.
The next day, the word was out. There was no chance I would ever be cool.
Unless, of course, Clapton would release a screamin’ version of Moon River.
All Our Bacon Was Turkey
My mother is a dietitian. When I was younger and reluctantly divulged this information to my friends, a look of terror spread across their faces. A dietitian didn’t rank up there with astronaut and firefighter in the minds of 12-year-olds.
When it came to after-school hangouts, my house wasn’t the place to be. That honor was bestowed upon my friend Neal, who had two entire cabinets full of Little Debbie products, fruit snacks, at least four kinds of chips, oatmeal pies and popcorn. His fridge was bursting with sodas, juices, always some type of pastry and usually delicious leftovers his Italian mother whipped up the night before. His freezer was bursting with ice cream and fruit pops.
Our fridge and pantry usually stayed healthy, which to a 12-year-old is not good. I used to love it when Dad went shopping. He would sneak in a few treats and give me a big smile and nod when I peeked in the bag and spotted them.
Cinnamon Life cereal was usually the maximum sugar content allotted for breakfast. Saturdays I would wake to the aromatic smells of vegetarian sausage — and turkey bacon. Non-fat butter was smeared on our pancakes.
I grew accustomed to vegetables early on, though I still view eating Brussels sprouts with the same enthusiasm as downing a cyanide tablet. We never had the post-game McDonald’s binge. Pizza night, only once every couple of months, was a big deal. Otherwise, we ate in. My mother cooked, and we ate what she made. Didn’t like it? Tough. That was dinner.
The older I grow, the more I appreciate Mom’s dietary regime. Proper eating was instilled in me at an early age. Cinnamon Life is still one of my favorite cereals, and Morning Star Farms vegetarian sausage is in my freezer, even if my roommates chuckle at my choice. I don’t snack much, and McDonald’s sits low on my list of eating establishments.
I enjoy cooking, though my roommates will probably attribute this more to my financial squalor than personal pleasure. Chicken, rice, veggies, spaghetti, lean meats and fish are staples at my house.
I’m not saying I am a dietary saint. I still enjoy a mammoth Chipotle burrito, and I have no problem downing an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. But for the most part, I have my mother to thank for my good eating habits.
Dining at the White House
My parents, siblings and I ate dinner together every night, at a properly set table, often by candlelight. We used the good china and the sterling flatware; there wasn’t enough of the everyday china and flatware to go around. It was in this daily setting that my mother taught us proper table manners. I can still hear her admonishing all seven of us to sit up straight, put your napkin in your lap, elbows off the table; don’t pick up the chicken and gnaw at it, cut it with a knife and fork; chew with your mouth closed — and don’t talk with your mouth full.
Because “if you’re ever invited to dinner at the White House, you have to know how to behave.”
Yes, we were being groomed to dine with the president, first lady and all manner of dignitaries.
My father served the entree, and my mother served the side dishes. Plates of food were distributed in a strict order: Girls first, then the boys, then my mother and last my father. Nobody ate a morsel until the blessing was said and my mother had lifted her fork. We had a salad course every night, served between dinner and dessert.
There was always dessert. Usually home-baked but sometimes fresh fruit, served in a pretty bowl placed in the center of the table. Completing the dessert setting were fancy one-of-a-kind dessert plates and table knives. They should have been fruit knives, but sometimes you just have to make do. The fruit bowl was passed, each of us made our choice and put it on our fancy plate. Then the fun began.
We were not allowed to eat the fruit with our hands. Instead we were taught to use a knife and cut it into segments — while being careful not to shatter the one-of-a-kind plates or send the fruit caroming across the room. Grapes didn’t get you off the hook. Heirloom grape scissors were employed, and, while very pretty, they barely cut anything — except your fingers. The day one blade broke off was a happy one. Fruit drills are a cherished memory.
Thank you, Mrs. A., for taking the time, day after day, to instill proper table manners. You never know. One day I just might get that invitation to dine on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Raising the Bay Gardener
My mother was a great cook who made my brother and me learn to cook. She threatened us by saying that we might marry girls who did not know how to cook.
As we grew up, my brother became the baker and I became the cook. When mother visited her parents in Rhode Island, we took over the kitchen and prepared meals for dad. My dad weighed only 125 pounds wet out of the bathtub, but, man, could he eat.
Since I had a heart condition and could not play sports, mother also made me help canning fruits and vegetables as well as preparing vegetables for freezing. My brother was too busy playing sports to become involved with storing food.
I was also pressed into service to help in the garden with flowers and vegetables. This is where my love of plants began. I soon took over the care of the gardens, and my passion has never ceased.
As it turns out, I married a woman who was never allowed in the kitchen and learned to cook from my recipes. Our daughters grew up in the kitchen.
–Francis Gouin, aka the Bay Gardener
Mother Made Me Feed the Tramp
My mother made me feed that old lady squatter in the fisherman’s hut. Must carry bags down 100 steps to the beach, knock at a door that would deter Hansel and Gretel, exchange words with the witch.
I put the bags on her threshold, knocked, fled.
My mother usually carried down a sandwich or our dinner remains herself, but that day must drive Grandmama somewhere in our model T.
My mother was born generous. My father often sang a Circassian song, “Each guest is sent to us by God — no matter how torn his shirt.”
God was generous with unexpected guests, especially during the Depression. I’d find some repairman sipping soup because my mother found him an interesting conversationalist, and hungry.
They rescued a destitute foreign student seeking lodgings in a Chicago blizzard, brought him home to sleep on our couch for weeks. It turned out he was a young Siamese prince, who 50 years later entertained them in Bangkok.
Exiles and immigrants, homeless artists, bearded priests in long black cassocks who smiled at my baby-Russian use of the familiar thee even to them.
Thus my mother treated that old lady squatter as an out-guest who needed food and company.
Now I’ve nurtured decades of odd individuals, exiles, immigrants, homeless poets, orphaned baby squirrels, literal stray cats.
But there are surprises. Thus the roofer bagged our enshrouding dead leaves without being asked. Granted I’d poured three sugars into his tea, in Babushka’s silver Russian tea-glass holder instead of a Styrofoam cup, and homemade soup served in my mother’s blue-and-white Chinese bowl.
Also grilled cheeses, ripe mangoes, bananas, cookies, anything better than cold Big Macs with greasy fries on his usual jobs where he must wash in the garden hose. He knows where this kitchen and powder room are.
We tallied his receipts, I wrote checks while he lugged out bags of debris, and he finished his sweet black tea.
He didn’t shake my hand but took both mine in his, kissed me on both cheeks.
Decades hence, in the trampled yard bare feet may discover lost staples. Yet that kiss will last longer than the roof, guaranteed for 25 years.
Please Read Me Another Story
This is the question most children ask their mothers. Instead this was what my mother asked me.
Over and over again she asked, and over and over again my four-year-old self screamed I can’t.
Between mom and her library of books, I felt cornered. My mother was Sam-I-am trying to get me to eat green eggs and ham. If only I could have read how that story ended.
But I couldn’t read. And with a motto of if it’s not easy, then it’s not worth doing, I didn’t want to.
Words wouldn’t leave me alone — and neither would my mother. At school she came to guest read. At lunch I found notes on my napkins. At home reading was my rent.
I trudged through the woods with Little Red Riding Hood and wished on every star on every page in Good Night Moon that I could put the book to rest. Curious George was a little too curious for my taste.
If I wanted to give up, there Mom was with flash cards. If I wanted to watch Barney on television, she made me read about him.
When I was sure she could bear no more than I could of The Big Hungry Bear, she bellowed out a page in a grizzly voice — and I was back in the action. What would happen to the mouse and his strawberry? I had to keep reading to make sure they were safe.
Then it hit me like a ton of books. After hours and days and months of sss-ound-ing words out and crying until my eyes couldn’t see the words, I learned to read. And I liked it.
The characters and the magic and the new worlds sucked me in. Soon I was the one pulling out book after book for the good night story.
Words found their way into my heart and head.
Sam-I-Am was right, and so was my mother.
Mother Schooled Us for Success
I was the oldest of three sons. My father worked long hours, often including weekends, so my mother was pretty much the sole influence in my life. I was a difficult child, and I fear that there were few things she could force on me beyond school and church.
Erie, Pennsylvania, where I was born, was overwhelmingly Catholic: Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic and Polish Catholic. All of my playmates and friends faced the same litanies of Catholic schools, church on Sunday, Holy Day observances, Lent observance, meatless Fridays. It never occurred to us that those things could be avoided.
Erie was not a particularly pleasant city to grow up in, but it was typical for urban areas along the lake’s shoreline. It was in a perpetual state of fiscal recession as well as a prisoner of the Lake Effect. There was little affluence, and we had between three to four feet of snow on the ground all winter — and a virtually eternal overcast the rest of the year.
The professional career ladders in Erie were as short as they come. You either labored in light industry or owned the light industry. It looked like my brothers and I were destined to do the former.
My mother, however, had a different idea. Though she could force few gentrified activities or civilized manners on me or my brothers, she did make one thing very clear to us: We were brilliant children who could do anything that we put our minds to.
She was fervent and insistent in that belief. She was so convinced that eventually my mother forced that belief into us, unequivocally.
After we left home, my brothers and I ended up doing well for ourselves. Whenever any of us got into a tight spot or were so overwhelmed with life’s responsibilities that we doubted our abilities, it was easy to shake off the doubts. After all, our own mother was absolutely certain that we could do anything. Who were we to argue?
Mother Told Me So
Winter 1994: Devastated by a divorce and elated by the birth of my third child, I tried hard to restore order to my life. My children were three, 23 months and newborn, and I struggled every day just to get by. Most days, I wanted to stay in bed, cry and ruminate over what had gone wrong.
My mother made me get up every morning, attend to my children, face the day. I wanted the world to go away, but she would not let it.
I’m a writer, encouraged in my art for many years by my mother, and I used to enjoy going to poetry readings and interacting with other writers. But by the time my marriage disintegrated, I was simply a harried housewife, focused on potty-training and bedtime. My writing life had evaporated.
One afternoon, my mother called to tell me that then poet-laureate Rita Dove would be giving a reading at the Naval Academy and that I would have to attend. Mother would come and watch the children so that I could have a night out doing something that had once brought me great pleasure.
I protested. I was just a few weeks post-partum, my clothes didn’t fit, I was nursing, I didn’t want to be seen in public. But she insisted that I go.
It was chilly and dark, and I had never been on the Academy grounds before. I entered a large auditorium that soon filled with what appeared to be the entire brigade of midshipmen — handsome and attractive young men and women on the cusp of life.
I felt ancient and weary.
Then Rita Dove read, and the poems worked their magic. For an hour I was mesmerized by the words, their cadence. The midshipmen were full of questions, and I was struck by the energy of the place. Afterwards there was a reception, and I stayed to mingle.
I went home energized and excited. I don’t remember if I turned my computer on that night or picked up my journal and wrote. But I do know that in the days and months that followed, some of my creative energy reappeared. Mother told me it would.
–Janice L Schuster
The depths of indignity by children whose moms sewed their clothes were unknown to the children of store-bought outfits. Only the kids with tucked-in shirts could claim second place in the gradient of uncool.
“You look like a slob with it hanging out like that. People will think you were raised in a barn. Don’t you want to look your best? There now, that’s so much better,” was the refrain to my preteen mornings as my mom shoved handfuls of cotton blouse back into my shorts waistband, leaving me looking like a beruffled half-deflated balloon.
Mom didn’t get it. I wanted to catch Eddie Vedder’s eye, not Eddie Munster’s.
There weren’t many venues of self expression in my 10-year-old’s fashion world besides stick ’em stone earrings (allowed) and slap bracelets (forbidden). So shirt tucking was a critical matter. I wasn’t as pitiable as the kid whose mom pulled white tube socks halfway up his calves, but I wasn’t much better off.
I loathed the stiff solemnity of a crisply tucked shirt, but I lacked the rebellious streak to just pull it out the minute I left my mom’s sight. It made her happy to see me put together, and I hated to ruin that for her.
So, all day at school, I would let the shirt make its natural progression, centimeter by centimeter, out of my waistband to slouch and sag by its own volition. I didn’t pull the fabric, but maybe at times I would shrug my shoulders a smidge higher or shift my hip over in my seat to assist the wrinkling decline of my put-togetherness.
At some point, battle could no longer be avoided. I finally declared war, proclaiming to my mom that “tucked-in shirts are heinous and I am NOT wearing one. Ever.”
Just last week, I stood before my bedroom mirror, putting the finishing touches on a new outfit I had pulled together for a night out, and frankly, I looked great. Skinny jeans, stiletto heels and a lovely black and gold blouse. Tucked in.
But Not Girdled
Girdles. Mom encased herself in one every day. The constriction of all that industrial-strength elastic left me wondering how she could breathe, let alone eat. So at 14, I was aghast when she decided I needed to wear one when I dressed up.
She did not make the same request of my skinny twin sister.
By seventh grade I had grown to five-foot-10-inches, and though I wasn’t Twiggy, I wasn’t Mama Cass either. Mortified, I followed Mom as she shopped and purchased. Once home, I hid the repugnant item in the back of my dresser drawer.
I had always been a dutiful child. I wore red rubber shoes over my oxfords when playing in dewy grass; wore the requisite hat, ankle socks and patent leather shoes with my Easter dress. But a girdle was simply asking too much.
Sports saved me. I played varsity sports every day of high school and college, bike-toured, canoed, backpacked, swam and ran long distances. I have remained active and — now in my 50s — am fortunately still trim.
Sorry, Mom. I’ll use athletics to keep my shape. Girdles are not for me.
–Dotty Holcomb Doherty
No Shorts Till April Fools Day
My twin brother and I were fortunate growing up. We had a whole gang of guys to mess around with — some of us were even born in the same hospital — and we were tight.
Every year as spring approached and we got the feel of warm winds blowing out of the March skies, we all thought of shorts and short-sleeved shirts. On the exceptional day when temperatures reached into the 60s, it was definitely time to root out the summer clothes.
But not us. Oh, no. We were not allowed to wear shorts or short sleeves until April 1 and not a day sooner. Her rule, not ours, and despite the pleading and crying and our gang rambling around outside in their summer attire, she never wavered.
What was ironic about this was that we could wear our Chuck Taylor sneakers in the snow, but not short sleeves in March.
I’ve thought about this rule for the better part of the last 55 years and have never come up with a reason for it. I’ve talked to my brother about it, and he, too, is left dumbfounded.
My mother passed away when we were young, so I never could ask her why this one rule was so embedded in concrete. So, today, as I think about things my mother made me do or didn’t let me do, this one rule stands out as the one sure thing that didn’t teach me a life lesson or lead me to a career or a girlfriend.
But it was her rule, and that was enough for me.