Mothers hand down wisdom, and a little nonsense, from age to age
Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 9:24 a.m.
Comedian Anita Renfroe said it all. In an unforgettable video, Renfroe compressed a day of “momisms” — commands, demands, admonishments and dire warnings — into two minutes and 55 breathtaking seconds sung to Rossini's familiar “William Tell Overture.”
MYTHS YOUR MOM TOLD YOU
Mothers dole out plenty of wise advice. But sometimes even moms are fallible. In fact, they are notorious for their little white lies, old wive's tales, folkways and fearmongering. The gift of momisms keep on giving for the rest of our lives, usually in the form of chuckles and treasured family tales to pass on to the next generation.
FROZEN TONGUE FEARS
“If you stick your tongue out it will freeze that way. Is that how you want to go through life?”
— Submitted by Zoe Neely, 38, Santa Rosa social worker
PERILS IN BLINDNESS and DIRTY UNDERWEAR
“My mother Eileen Hesse, had a houseful of children. . . .
Although she was married to the same man her entire adult life, relationship advice was her specialty. Considering a date? 'It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man.' Unhappy in your relationship? 'There are other fish in the sea.' Unsure of the next steps in your relationship? 'Never date someone you wouldn't marry' and remember, 'Why buy a cow if the milk is free?' I am certain that all my siblings still hear momisms on a daily basis whether coming out of our mouths or just ringing in our ears. 'Money doesn't grow on trees,' 'Life isn't fair,' 'You're going to ruin your eyes,' 'Make sure you wear clean underwear in case you're in an accident,' and finally, 'When you get to be my age, you'll understand.' And I do!”
— Kathleen Hesse Larsen, 62, principal of Cherry Valley Elementary School in Petaluma, of her mother, Eileen Hesse
BITE YOUR NAILS AND DIE
“When I was a child in the '50s I used to bite my fingernails. I wouldn't stop even though my mom kept tell me to 'Stop it.' Nothing she said made me stop. Then finally one day she told me that all the fingernail pieces were collecting in my stomach and making a huge ball, and if I didn't stop it would get so big that I would die. I imagined this ball like a ball of string and that scared me! It worked! I stopped right away! And I never bit my fingernails again!”
— Submitted by Beverly Gallagher of Santa Rosa
DRAGONFLIES WILL SEW YOUR LIPS SHUT
“As a young boy growing up in a small Massachusetts farm town, we had many wild critters and flying insects. The largest and most intimidating of these insect were dragonflies, whose scientific name is Anisoptera. Locally they were also called Sewing Needles, due to their long slender bodies. My mother, and her mother, would tell me that if I ever told a lie, the Sewing Needles would come while I was sleeping and sew my lips shut.
“Now that may sound kind of harsh, or strange, but for a woman who had a bunch of wild and rowdy sons to raise, some sort of behavior management seems appropriate. I once asked my grandma if it was true. She said that her mom and grandmom had told her the same thing when she was young, so it must be true.
“I didn't really believe them, but had occasional daydreams of dragonflies coming while I was outside napping in a hammock, or nightmares of them flying into my bedroom at night, and sewing my lips up tight. I guess it worked for awhile, that story. Up until I was 10 or so, I was a bit hesitant to lie and was more aware of lying when I did.”
— Submitted by Bruce Prowten of Santa Rosa, of his mother, Lois Prowton.
THE QUEEN IS COMING
“When I was young and asked my mother why I had to make my bed every day my mom replied, 'Because the Queen of England might come to visit.'
— Submitted by Sue Wilson of Kelseyville, whose mother was Bernadette Wilson of Mesa, Ariz.
ALL AUTO TRUCKS ARE NAMED CHARLIE
“At some point in time, when my older sister was little, she pointed at a passing auto-carrier truck and asked my mother, 'Who is driving it?' 'Charlie,' my mother replied, putting the question to rest. As a result, I grew up thinking all such trucks were known as 'Charlie trucks.' I don't remember how old I was when someone corrected me, but it was old enough to feel embarrassed about it. Thanks, Mom.”
— Submitted by Brian Narelle, 64, a puppeteer, writer and animator from Rohnert Park of his mother, Carmen Narelle
The 2008 bit went viral, resonating not only with frustrated moms everywhere but with virtually anyone who ever had a mom tell them what to do. And that's almost everyone.
Much of mom's counsel is wise. Julie Thompson of Forestville is grateful for this pearl. “My mom always told me 'They don't buy the cow if you give the milk away for free.' I think she was right, because I've been married for 30 years now and I didn't give any of the milk away,” she says.
But some momisms are incomprehensible head-scratchers, old wives' tales, little lies or just plain whoppers, uttered in a moment of desperation, aimed at keeping us in line with fear of dire consequences.
For Gus Roth, an 86-year-old retired teacher from Santa Rosa, the blowback, he was told, would come from the grave.
He grew up in a little town across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, where the culture was infused with voodoo and his mom, Julia, was quick to conjure it up to keep him in line.
He'll never forget a particular threat, when he was a small boy still apt to take a swing at Mama.
“She turned around to me,” he said, “and says, 'You know you'd better quit hitting me. Because when you die your hand is going to stick up out of the coffin and they will know you hit your mama. Yep. Your hand will stick up in the coffin and everyone will know what you did.'”
Roth chuckles now, recalling the absurdity of the threats that at that time scared the heck out of a small boy. One of Mama's biggest guns was the threat to run away — not that he would run away, but that she would take off and leave him behind. Her destination? A town with a creepy name to the ears of a kid.
“She was always trying to calm me down when I was acting out,” he said. “She'd say, 'You'd better behave now. I'm tellin' you. Or I'm going to run away to Bogalusa.' The name Bogalusa would raise kids' hackles right away. That name will scare you, just like Frankenstein.”
Some momisms are so nonsensical that people can spend their lives wondering where she got that notion.
Martha Rowlands is 80. But she is still vexed by one particular food rule imposed by her mom, Mabel Reynolds.
“She said, 'Don't eat fish and drink milk at the same meal. It will make you sick or kill you.' So we could never drink milk when we had fish,” said Rowland, who as a professional caterer safely mixed fish with dairy for years with no deathly repercussions.
“We never questioned the policy. You just did what mom said because that was the way it was,” she said. “It wasn't until I moved out of town and was in college that I realized that that rule made no sense at all.”
A quick online search indicates that a lot of people have been left scratching their heads over the same admonition. According to the online sage AskMoses.com, the fish-milk warning is a custom that sprang from a statement in 16th-century book of Jewish law in which Rabbi Yosef Karo forbids fish and milk for health reasons. Other cultures, from Pakistan to African, seem to have fears as well around combining fish and milk.
Mom being the keeper of the hearth, a lot of momisms not surprisingly center around food.
Elaine Hirt of Santa Rosa said her mother in the 1940s fervently believed that if you eat a banana and sip a liquid without eating something solid, your throat will swell and you will die.
“This meant my mother hovered over us holding a piece of white bread while we ate bananas so she could tear off a piece and make us chew and swallow before leaving her sight. Must have worked well as we all lived to be adults!” she said.
Eating the bottom of an ice cream cone also was verboten. It seems that when Hirt's mom was a child a friend suddenly took ill and died. Apparently just before the tragic event, the girl had eaten an ice cream cone. It was widely concluded a fly must have been trapped in the point of the cone, leading to her demise.
“I followed this rule into adulthood even though it made no sense,” Hirt confessed. “My husband made so much fun of the rule I eventually gave it up ... at least most of the time.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 521-5204.)
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