By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
Typically, Mother’s Day is a time to wax sentimental about all the sacrifices our moms made for us and how they established family rituals we recall warmly.
But we all know it’s not so simple. Most moms – no matter how distinguished their public lives or how glowing their history as maternal role models – also have funny little quirks. They do or say things in unforgettable ways that, years later, pop into our minds provoking uncontrollable laughter.
My own mother, an acknowledged pioneer among women in the printing industry, stood four-feet-ten inches tall and was, on occasion, an unholy little Scottish terror. When she wasn’t setting the standard for men to follow in the large offset print shop that was her fiefdom, she was ruling things in the same away around the house.
She was a great Southern cook and baker, could fix any plumbing problem, worked full-time, ran a house and raised a kid whom she had late in life – a child who, as a teenager, did not bring out the best in Hilda Smith. She would, incidentally, have turned 100 this past Valentine’s Day.
My favorite horrifying-yet-hilarious memory concerns a footrace around the dining room table – me leading and my mother hot on my heels – after I said something very bad under my breath. The more I eluded her, the madder she got until she stopped, lunged across the table and tried to backhand me.
I ducked and her hand came down on the edge of the drop-leaf table breaking, appropriately enough, her middle finger. In true Scottish tradition, we never, ever spoke of it again.
Susan Aylward, retired director of the North Kingstown Free Library, says her mother’s mood-booster was simple if arduous.
“My mother liked to move furniture. When we lived on Elam Street, she shifted bedrooms around; I would be sleeping at the back of the house and then my bedroom would be at the other end. She turned the dining room into the living room.
“My brother and I helped with the mattresses and we’d start laughing because they were too heavy and would fall over. Mother would yell, ‘Stop that laughing! Move that mattress!’
The family didn’t have a lot of money and Marion Aylward was a stay-at-home mom. The revolving room scenario, Susan feels “was a way to make things new. She continued moving things when we moved here” to West Allenton Road.
It was a pattern handed down from mother to daughter.
Aylward confesses, “I still do it [furniture moving.] I did it at the library with my desk. I was famous for that. Whenever I felt distraught, I would move my desk.”
She lovingly describes her mother as a “swamp Yankee” and says, “She made all my clothes including a camel-hair coat. She made little pillbox hats out of crocheted raffia and netting for my Barbies.”
Susan still has a doll she treasures because she’s wearing a gray velvet coat with yellow trim that her mother created.
For as long as she can remember, Ellen Patrick has witnessed her mother’s unflagging passion for language. She was a groundbreaking young journalist during World War II and now, despite suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions, Flo still corrects the speech of the youthful nurses’ aides at the St. Elizabeth Home in East Greenwich.
Although she’s a frail nonagenarian, Florence is still feisty about grammar. On a recent evening when she wasn’t feeling well, Ellen says her mother rallied to respond indignantly to an erroneous CD.
“It was Sinatra and the lyrics were ‘you and I.’ Suddenly, she said in a loud, clear voice, ‘You and ME.’ And of course she was right.”
Throughout her life, Florence subscribed to the credo of many creative women: Housework is greatly overrated.
“My mother always said there was no need to do it unless you could see the difference.”
To the public, Marguerite Neubert was a tenacious fighter for the rights of ordinary citizens – people with no political pull who knew she would hear their pleas and do battle for them.
No one should be surprised, then, to learn that the first woman town council member in North Kingstown history ran her household as though she was preparing for Armageddon.
Her daughter, Carla Neubert Benoist, who serves on Exeter’s library and planning boards, describes their basement resembling a bunker jammed with enormous stores of canned goods acquired at the Exchange at Naval Station Newport.
She also brought home items with a shelf-life of about 100 years, the result of living during the war years when things needed to be preserved for a long time. Among her favorites were Tang and Clamato juice.
“It just gagged me,” Benoist remembers with a shudder. “Raw clam juice and tomato juice wasn’t to my liking at all.”
Her mother also had a fondness for fried Spam, Miracle Whip – “She wouldn’t use mayonnaise for anything” – and creamed tuna on toast. “My father absolutely hated it so when he was away on [Navy] duty we’d have a festival. I still make it.”
This is not to say Marguerite didn’t know her way around the kitchen.
Carla says, “She made the best homemade bread in the world; wonderful. She also did things like some of her Dutch pastry. Her baking was really, really good.”
For a woman who could be uncompromising in public, Neubert was tender-hearted with her child. When Carla was seven years old they drove from Georgia to Michigan toting a pair of bantam chickens in a backseat travel cage.
Dale Grogan, owner of The World Store, in Wickford, lost her mom just a year ago, two weeks shy of her 91st birthday. Kathleen Jean Marie Barbara McCarthy Romano was a woman who had prevailed by being smart and resourceful.
Her mother was from Boston and, Dale recalls, used to say, “I was a nice Irish girl who happened to meet and marry a nice Italian boy.” Sadly, Dale adds her DNA carried the thin, fine hair from the McCarthy side of the family, a fact that didn’t stop her mother when it was her moment to shine.
“She was always entering contests. She won the Boston Globe spelling bee in the third grade. As an adult, after my brother and I were born, she wrote something and entered it in the Globe. She won and they sent her and the two of us to a photo studio.”
Dale’s brother, at age five, was dapper in a little suit with short pants and a bolo tie. “I was one and I’m in a blue dress, bald as a cue ball, with a little bow.”
Years later her mother revealed she’d been struck by inspiration with the accessorizing: she’d scotch-taped the bow to Dale’s head. When Grogan expressed dismay that Mrs. Romano would do such a thing to her baby, her reply was classic.
“She said ‘You should be thankful I didn’t use a thumbtack.’”
Near the end of her life, Dale’s mom came through with her famous wit one last time.
“She was failing and I asked her, ‘Do you want me to stay?’ She said, ‘What? And look at me all day?’ Her last word to me was, ‘Go!’”
And then, she recalls, laughing, her mother made a shooing motion.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.