There have been brief periods in my life when I was convinced that my mother was crazy. Not crazy like a wild-eyed lunatic, pulling at her hair while screaming unintelligibly (although my brothers and I provoked her into this kind of behavior at least twice). It is just that she said things that crossed the line dividing charming eccentric from, well, wild eyed lunatic. I’m not counting the times she gave unsolicited child rearing advice to young mothers on the train. Or her insistence on sneaking a small flask of booze into a Stenton Avenue restaurant on Jazz night. She was an older woman living in a big city, they tend to do that sort of thing. I’m talking about a lifetime of saying inappropriate things at the wrong time and getting away with it.
Here’s an example. When my foster brother and I were in seventh grade she became convinced that the congregants of the Germantown Jewish Center were teaching math during their after-school program. Her tenth-grade education from Philadelphia’s William Penn High School had not prepared her to swim in the murky waters of what was called “the new math”. So, she marched down the street to inquire if the JC as we called it, would enroll her boys in their “program”. After several minutes of awkward conversation during which she uttered complimentary stereotypes heretofore unknown to even the oldest Jews, it became evident that she had confused Hebrew school with God knows what. The folks at the JC set us up with a math tutor, thus sparing us the indignity of failing to learn Hebrew as well as math.
My father, a man known for his love of bourbon, basketball, and a friendly debate, knew that arguing with mom was like untying a gordian knot. She would begin a one-sided discussion - usually about his love of bourbon - and he would grab one of us and retreat into the basement to tinker with our ancient coal burning furnace. We could hear her up there in the kitchen all by herself carrying on a pointed attack against the evils of liquor. She was intense, profane, and verbose, her voice carrying through the walls and floorboards of our West Philly rowhouse. My father never issued a rebuttal. He just took out his useless tools and fiddled with the furnace, occasionally saying something like, “Hand me the pliers.” But once I heard his muffled voice say, “Cyclops”. Even as a little boy I knew what he meant.
One of my older brothers was the type of kid who liked to test boundaries. He returned home from the movies on Saturday and was asked by our mother, “So, what did you see?”
My brother announced proudly: “To Hell and Back, with Audie Murphy!” Without warning she slapped him across the face with a dishrag, spraying soap and water across the breakfast room and causing the rest of us to dive for cover to avoid being hit by the sudsy shrapnel. Years later -- to recalibrate her image into that of a great-grandmother -- she denied that the incident ever happened, but she gave herself away by remarking that my brother liked being a wise ass and probably had it coming.
I’m not blaming my mother for her brand of insanity. It came because of having been born and partially raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the roaring twenties. Her mother was a pianist who had dreams of playing the best rooms in New York City. Her father was a Bellman who had dreams of settling down with a stay-at-home wife. The two dreams could not co-exist, so my mother travelled the vaudeville and Chitlin circuits with her mother and sister until ending up in a series of South Philadelphia tenements. She came of age in the depression era urban America where her neighbors were an amalgam of Jews, Italians and Black folks all trying to escape crippling poverty. Apparently, this is a great environment to acquire a raspy nasal accent and to learn strange mid-century bromides that she unleashed on her children with delight, knowing that there was no possibility that we knew what she was talking about. I don’t think she cared. As she often said, “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong.”
Over the years I started writing these sayings down. I’m the youngest child in the family and I miss my mother, plus I didn’t want to lose the bizarre details and sayings of her life to my own old age and failing memory.
So here begins the list of stuff my mother used to say. You may recognize some of them.
I’m not your Father
This was a warning. What she really meant was that unlike Pop, who liked to engage us in the give and take of discussion, she just wanted us to shut up and do what we were told, no matter how ridiculous that may be. She had a completely arbitrary rule against draping your coat and on the back of her dining room chairs. Occasionally, for convenience, we would toss our coat on a chair. She’d detect the infraction and yell “Get your nasty coat out of my dining room.” My older brothers would say, “Just a second mom, I just need to use the head” (Pop worked for the Navy at Ft. Mifflin). To which she would reply, “I’m not your father!” Then she would throw your coat down the basement steps.
She’s got more nerve than Carters got liver pills.
This was always said as a compliment. Anyone who was assertive or persistent was said to have more nerve than this famous patent nostrum manufacturer had liver pills. I have no idea what liver pills are or why you would trust the heath of a vital organ to a dude named Carter.
I am the only in this house allowed to have nerves.
If you got overheard saying that something “got on your nerves” you were reminded that only one person in the house could have a nervous system. My oldest brother earned a PhD. in Counseling Education from Pitt. He claimed that we were all suffering from suppressed emotions. He may be right. I never think about such things.
She’s a real little spit fire.
This one only makes sense to people who were alive during World War II or are frequent viewers of one of the History channels. My mother, alarmed that I had announced that I was getting married, arranged a meeting between Gwen’s family and ours (which was just me and mom since my brothers wisely opted out). At some point Gwen got upset, said something like, “If you love your precious little boy so much you can have him” and stormed out. To which my mother said, “She’s a real little spit fire.” Never have so many (my 2 sons) owed their lives to so few.
You’re as dumb as Balaam’s ass.
This never made sense to me because in the biblical story Balaam’s ass could not only talk but engaged Balaam in a robust argument. So maybe Balaam was a little slow, but the ass was genius. I attempted to point this out to my mother and said, “If you’re so damned smart how come you’re flunking everything.” Hurtful, but a valid point.
You’ve got a head like a sieve.
This forced me to look up the word sieve, and I got the point. My brain was so loaded with Richie Allen’s batting average and Willie Mays home run total that I shouldn’t have been expected to remember things like turning off lights and closing doors. As a teenager I told her that she didn’t have to remind me of everything because I had a mind like a steel trap. She liked that and would use it sarcastically when I forgot something, “I know, you’ve got a mind like a steel trap.”
He’ll drink anything from varnish on down to glue.
Aside from bourbon, Pop also had a keen taste for the hops. I believe that we had Schmidt's beer delivered to the house. I think my mother’s contention that Pop would drink anything from varnish on down to glue was a bit over blown. He clearly had his favorites.
Came in the house like Bull Moose Jackson.
This one baffles me. I imagined Bull Moose Jackson was a big lumberjack who stomped around the house shaking the cabinets and knocking the nick knacks off the mantel piece. Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson (April 22, 1919 – July 31, 1989) was an American blues singer and saxophonist, popular in the late 1940s. He performed dirty blues performing songs like I Want a Bowlegged Woman. While it makes sense that my mother would like the dirty blues why would she use it to describe someone making noise in the house.