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My brother (top), my mother, and me.


Why, when we were kids, did our mothers all seem to say the same things to us? Was there a playbook, or were they just passing on the same things their moms had said to them? Are mothers today reading from that same script, or have new momisms crept into the lexicon?

In any event, in honor of Mother’s Day, here are a few of my mom’s classic zingers:

I’d done something stupid like smashed a lamp with a baseball bat or duct-taped my little sister’s hand to the coffee table, and Mom had caught me (and crying little sister) red-handed.

“What’s this, Bobby? What did you do? You wait till your father gets home.”

Just that ominous, amorphous threat. No spanking; no banishment to my bedroom for the rest of the day (which would have been real punishment). This was the 1960s, after all, long before smartphones, computers with Internet, TV’s, and video games had turned kids’ bedrooms into electronic pleasure arcades. My bedroom was furnished with my bed, my brother’s bed, two nightstands with lamps, a dresser, and a shared electric alarm clock. That’s it – not even a radio. If you were sent to your room, you could read all day, or count the cracks in the ceiling, but little else.

For a sensitive, impressionable eight year old like me, delayed sanctions were an incredibly effective tactic. First I felt guilty because although I’d done wrong, Mom hadn’t yet punished me directly. But then the mental punishment set in. I stood in the shadows by the side of our house waiting for the endless afternoon hours to tick by, steeped in guilty thoughts and vague, free-form anxiety about the expected retribution at Dad’s hands. I wanted the time to pass, so it would be over with, but there was no relief.

When Dad finally got home I trudged into the kitchen and stood staring at my sneakers, expecting the worst. And Mom said nothing. The crime was forgotten! I looked at Mom, and she nodded knowingly at me – she hadn’t forgotten at all. This time around, my only punishment had been the agonizing anticipation of punishment, unfulfilled. We both knew that the next time I did wrong, she could make me suffer all day, and then either stay execution again, or drop the dad-hammer on me anyway. And I owed her one for this time, too. Brilliant.

Here’s another favorite: Two or three of us were fooling around, throwing sofa seat cushions at each other, and Mom shut us down.

“What’re you kids doing? Those aren’t toys. Put those cushions back right now.”

Chastened, we started gathering up the pillows, and out of nervousness or just a frivolity hangover, I started giggling uncontrollably. Mom didn’t appreciate my attitude.

“What’re you laughin’ at? You’ll be laughing out the other side of your mouth in a minute!”

What does that even mean? I thought it meant she’d smack me (“I’ll smack you one!”), thereby displacing the grin from half my face. This called to mind the incongruous image of one side of my face laughing while the other side streamed tears, which I tried to emulate by simultaneously frowning on one side and laughing archly on the other, which made me laugh even more.

Which brought on the next momism: “You better wipe that smile off your face, young man.”

Which I emulated by theatrically swiping my hand down the “laughing” side of my face, which made me laugh more still. Which resulted in Mom giving me a sharp smack across my bottom, which made me really cry with my whole face. She hadn’t hit me all that hard. I was crying more out of shame, and surprise, than pain. Which prompted the next momism:

“What’re you cryin for? Come here, I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Which finally shut me up. And one of my all time favorites, for whenever one of us couldn’t find something that was right in front of us, as in this classic case of refrigerator blindness:

“Bobby, grab the mayonnaise.”

“I can’t find it,” I mumbled, staring listlessly into the open refrigerator.

“It’s right here,” Mom snapped, brushing past me to grab the jar screaming HELLMANN’S in big blue letters, front and center on the top shelf. “If it had teeth it would’ve bit you.” My brothers and sisters around the dinner table started giggling, and failing to wipe the smiles off their faces, they were soon laughing out the other side of their mouths.