Friday, May 18, 2007

On the Wisdom of Mothers

My grandmother was no lady. Now, having stated that so plainly, let me disavow you of the notions of what Not A Lady usually means. She didn't have sexual relations with multiple partners for or without profit. She didn't drink to excess - barring the occasional grasshopper - or smoke anything in any form. She didn't use foul language much worse than hell or damn. What she was not is the classic picture of a Lady - a simpering, floral-chiffon-and-white-gloves-wearing, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth, delicate little thing. She was a capable and determined woman who was the eldest of 8 0r 9 siblings, raised on a farm to do hard work and to make do. Family legend has it that my grandfather-to-be met her when she was out riding her horse one day with one of her brothers, and decided that she was the woman he would marry. She was equally determined that she was not. In the end he won, but I think that was one of the few battles my grandmother ever lost in her life.

My grandmother - who was dubbed Wild Edythe by my immediate family - didn't really give a rat's hind end what anyone thought of her, and so was perfectly comfortable behaving as she pleased and saying anything she wanted to, wherever she might be, in whatever company. Gram was not shy about sharing her opinions. She died of pneumonia three days short of her 92nd birthday just over 11 years ago, still just as sharp as the proverbial tack, and I have no doubt that she got up there and straightened heaven and its denizens out in about five minutes flat. In the way that we are all cursed to develop some of those parental traits that horrify us the most, on occasion I now catch my mother in a restaurant giving a pointed sideways glance at the manner in which someone else is dressed and open her mouth to speak, when I will look deep into her eyes and ask, Edythe? Is that you? How the heck are ya? Have you organized God yet?

My grandmother didn't take any crap from anybody, and just let them try it! As she might have described herself in one of her many famous sayings, she was full of piss and vinegar. Take a cat, hold it firmly, squirt it thoroughly with a garden hose, give it a good few shakes and set it down. You have my grandmother. To me, the ultimate compliment someone in our family can pay to a new acquaintance is that Edythe would have liked them. My grandmother was one heck of a wise woman.

Now don't get me wrong. Gram was also a loving mother to two daughters, a loving wife (though legend has it a nagging one) to my quiet grandfather, one hell of a baker, and an incredible gardener. She could literally grow anything. Anything. And make it bloom, and be the largest and heartiest specimen of the thing that you have ever seen. She was a loving and non-judgemental grandmother to eight grandchildren and countless great-grandchildren. My grandmother thought we were all handed down from the Mount along with Moses' tablets, and she made sure we knew it. She treated everything we did and said as though it was the wisdom of the Oracles coming from our mouths.

It has long been one of my closely held convictions that upon delivering their first child, every mother is covertly given a copy of the 'Mother's Handbook'. No, this doesn't tell you how to bathe a newborn for the first time, how to breast feed or deal with colic. No advice on changing the diapers of small boys so that you don't get a faceful of pee, or how to answer those awkward questions of where babies come from. You won't learn how to deal with temper tantrums and teenage angst from this volume. No, leave all that nonsense to Dr. Spock and his ilk.

This book is every mother's source of Snappy Sayings. We've all heard them, and as kids we used to love to make up new versions of them - such as, 'If you poke your eye out with that stick, don't come crying to me!', or, If you fall out of that tree and break your leg, don't come running to me!'. It can also be great fun to contrast them with each other, such as 'Many hands make light work' countered with, 'Too many cooks spoil the broth' or 'Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.' There is no doubt that the classic saw comes in handy, if only on those rare occasions when someone jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and you have to decide if this is a new trend that you wish to follow, or if it is that old thing your mother always warned you about.

My problem as a child was that I believed I was supposed to think about any advice I was given, and to weight it or question it as I thought necessary, much to the occasional consternation of my parents and the sniggering delight of my elder siblings. What kind of freak was I? So when my mother gave me the old 'Always wear clean underwear in case you get into a car accident and have to go to the emergency room', I had to stop and look for the logic in that. I pointed out to her that A- If they were clean when I started, they most certainly would no longer be so after the proverbial car accident, and B- If the accident and my resultant injuries are so severe that ER personnel are removing my clothing, then cleanliness of undergarments would be the least of my worries, and further, if it was nonetheless of such great concern to the nurses and doctors in the ER, I was in a whole heap of trouble that clean knickers would never get me out of.

No, true maternal wisdom comes from those moments when there is no snappy saying in the handbook to fall back on, and yet pearls of wisdom fall from the maternal lips nonetheless.

But among the many things my grandmother was famous for - and you can see that she remains a legendary figure in our family to this day- were her sayings. One of my favorites, invariably dispensed if you asked what was cooking when it should be terribly obvious with a little thought, was 'Shit stirred with a wooden spoon!' Now don't ask me why, but in my family, that is thought to be a perfectly hilarious rejoinder.

Another of her gems was dispensed to my mother when she came home crying one day from school, saying the other kids were teasing her about of her big feet. My grandmother told her that next time she should tell the those kids (all shorter than my tall mother) that it takes a bigger foundation to hold up a cathedral than it does an outhouse. I have used that in my own defense a time or two.

And my own mother, while she could occasionally - like all parents - deliver those lines that made one scratch one's head and think, No, she didn't just say that, did she?, had those occasional flashes of brilliance that were the right thing to say at the right time and are still memorable years later. When I first learned that such things could be planned, I asked my mother if I was a surprise. I have three older siblings all about 18 months apart, and I came along five years later. I was pretty sure then that I was an 'oops!' Mom looked at me and said, 'Honey, you were all surprises!' Good one, Mom.

On marriage, my mother had a few good gems of her own to deliver. Other than constantly telling our dog that she should never get married - which annoyed the heck out of my father. "Stop telling that dog not to get married!' Towards the end of his life, my grandfather suffered from emphysema, and so my Mom would go home from nursing school at weekends and mow the lawn for him. One day when I was a teenager and came back in the house after mowing the lawn one hot afternoon, Mom looked at me and said, 'As soon as I got married, I forgot how the lawn-mower worked.'

My Mom was quite a beauty in her day, and I imagine she had quite a few suitors. She tells the story of one man who came to pick her up for a date, and stood up to talk to her parents because the only 'empty' chair in the room had the cat sleeping soundly in it. She told me she knew right then that if he wasn't man enough to move the cat to sit down, then he wasn't the man for her.

One of my first jobs was working as a coat-check person in a busy restaurant. It was a cake-walk. All I had to do was sit there on my stool in the little window, and surreptitiously read my book under the counter until someone walked up and turned in their coat. I handed them a little tag, and hung up their coat. A while later, they came back, gave me the little tag back and I gave them back their coat. For this I made a goodly fortune in tips every evening. On a night that the place was really hopping, one of the cocktail waitresses came up to me and asked me if she could park her tray in my window while she dashed into the Ladies. When she came back for her tray, she said to me, 'You know, I once asked my mother why little boys got to stand up to pee, when girls had to sit down. She looked at me and said, Dear, some days that is the only chance you get.'

About 4 years after my grandmother died, one night I had this dream. In my dream I was on the computer reading my emails when suddenly a chat window popped up, and it was my grandmother. But instead of spelling her name Gram, as we always did, she spelled it Graham, like this guy I knew casually from a couple of the Aromatherapy lists I was on. All the time she and I were chatting - and I can't remember what about - I kept wondering not, Why am I chatting with my dead grandmother on the computer, but, Why is she spelling her name like Graham's? It was one of those dreams that really stuck with me the next day, and I thought about it all through work, and thought about how wonderful it was that she was still part of my life, if only in dreams. I got home from work that afternoon and turned on my computer. As I sat there reading my emails, a chat window popped up, and it was Graham. We chatted for six hours that day, and we were married less than a year later. A month after the wedding we went back east so that I could introduce him to my siblings and the rest of my family. We took a long drive one day up the mountain to see my Aunt Clara for what would turn out to be the last time. Aunt Clara was a favorite, the widow of one of my grandmother's brothers. While she and I were in the kitchen making sandwiches for lunch, she leaned over and said to me, Edythe would have liked him!

Of course she would. She picked him out.

P.S. To my bleaders who recently reminded me that it has been far too long since I posted. Life just gets ahead of me sometimes (all too often) and I need the occasional push. Thanks!