My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block

vol. 1, #5, August, 1995


I was going to tell you about neat books I have read just because they had eccentric titles, and was going to mention Bea Lillie's autobiography, Every Other Inch a Lady. I think that title must have been what got me started thinking about my mother.

She was a woman who took her motherhood pretty casually. She wanted us to turn out respectable, but she didn't hover over us. She figured if she whacked us with a hairbrush when we offended, we were bright enough to get the point, which is no doubt why I grew up to be pathologically honest. When my friends were being bribed by their parents ("If you don't smoke 'til you're 18 I'll give you a car," etc.), I figured my smug purity should be good for something too. Her response was "Jeez, you don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't swear. What kind of a priss are you going to grow up to be?" And bribe or no, to this very day, I don't smoke.

People really loved my mother. We moved around a lot, from Cincinnati to Wichita to New Jersey to Michigan, but we didn't have to be anyplace very long before the busdrivers and the grocers and the bakers knew her. The butchers always saved her the best cuts of meat. The bakers knew that my brother Gordon loved their raisin bread and I was crazy about their brownies.

They knew it because Mom never treated people as functions. She chatted with them. She knew who had an acute case of bursitis, who had a husband in the hospital, who was frantic because her daughter was going out with a juvenile delinquent. People told her all kinds of things about their lives, and she listened and remembered and cared.

I don't ever remember anyone being shocked by her language, which was pretty racy for a woman of her time. She used the occasional "damn" or "hell" or "shit" when this was not remotely acceptable in a woman.

But she did it with such style. She knew that profanity had to be used sparingly to be effective. And her profanities were so rhythmic they just seemed funny.

When she got mad, it was brief and furious; a thunderstorm followed by bright sun. It took genuine meanness to make her stay mad at you. But if you were nasty enough, you moved onto her list, as "Pissant #9" or "Pissant #8." (She always started you out at the bottom of the list. If you continued to offend, you moved up toward #1.)

She loved to argue, without malice, for the sheer intellectual zest of it. This woman who always claimed she was so dumb she had to cheat to get through high school was a bright lady. If you came around to her side of the argument, she was downright disappointed; you had just taken all the fun out of it. So she would switch around and argue the position you had started out with.

After dinner, we'd argue while we played cards; the loser got to do the dishes (unless Mom lost).

She was born at a time when women were not allowed to do very much outside the home, but she pushed against the limits. One way she did this was athletics. She and Dad won a lot of trophies on the amateur tennis circuit when I was little. My earliest memory is of toddling around tennis courts as official ball retriever.

She really always wanted to be a fireman. When she and Dad got an apartment looking out over downtown Cincinnati, with a firestation at the bottom of the hill, she was in heaven, watching with binoculars as the firetrucks rolled out; somebody made her life finer still by giving her a police radio so she could follow the action.

For her 50th birthday, my brother arranged with a local trucking company for her to have a chance to drive a semi. They all, I'm sure, were banking heavily on her chickening out. She did, but she instead got the opportunity to tool around town for a bit alongside the truckdriver.

She died when my son was a year old. I had just gotten some baby pictures developed, but hadn't gotten around to sending them, because then I'd have to take the time to write a letter to go with them. Then my brother called and told me Mom had gone into a coma. I asked them to put her police radio by her bedside, because if she heard it, she'd think "I can't be dying-- they wouldn't let me have my police radio if I was dying." The radio didn't work, though, because of all the beeping things around her that kept her alive for a while.

I miss her a lot. I'm not sure which is sadder, that my son didn't get to know her, or that she didn't get to know him. She would have laughed her head off at some of the things he does and says and creates.

They say when you lose someone you love, you become more like them; you cherish the parts of them in you and incorporate them into your personality. Maybe so. I know that since she died, I got to be a lot nicer person; I've noticed that I seem to know an astonishing amount about the lives of my grocery store clerks and waitresses and dental hygienists.

And for sure, I got a lot more vulgar. Newt Gingrich is working his way up my pissant list. Since I work at a Catholic university, (and since to some extent I have to act as people think a middle-aged librarian should) I have had to develop a kind of 5 second tape delay for these kinds of comments.

So if any of you have been stalling about sending those baby pictures to your mom, get them in the mail. Please. I'll buy you a stamp.

Dedicated to the memory of Merle Louise Ewan Bagby

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