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Monday, 05 May 2008

Mama's Sayings

By Celia Jones

As a child in upstate New York, I felt embarrassed that my mother had a European accent and a different ethnic background than my friends’ mothers. I would have preferred the immaculately groomed Waspish mothers of TV family sitcoms.

Yet, I was also grateful that Mama was much warmer and more huggable than the pale, thin blond mothers of Leave it to Beaver and Dennis the Menace.Being able to cuddle up to her soft, snoring body, inhale her doughy smell and play with her black curls during an afternoon nap had taught me about the depth of real motherly love.

Mama expressed her views on life in her Yiddish sayings like, “An animal always dies with his feet in the air.” I was not sure exactly what she meant by this, probably that death usually takes us by surprise, and we should cherish every day rather than look too deeply for reasons for our existence.

Mama taught me to enjoy life’s simple pleasures such as drives in the country and picnics in the California Napa Valley, where our family spent many summer days swimming in the hot mineral baths of Calistoga. She and Daddy perched like two fat love birds at the side of the pool munching mountains of Mama’s roast chicken, crusty, jawbreaker bread rolls and juicy watermelon slices. My father would always be the extroverted one who struck up conversations with the other bathers, while my mother sat quietly content by his side.

At home, Mama became very talkative and chirped away incessantly about all kinds of trivia, with special focus on the shopping bargains and recipes she found.

In a crowd, however, Mama’s nature was retiring; she preferred to be an unobtrusive, but keen observer. Recently, I got hold of an old Super8 film reel that my father-in-law took of my husband and myself when were leaving from San Francisco Airport for a two-year teaching stint in Australia. Everyone looked excited by our adventure, and my father was being his natural comedic self.

I had not noticed until viewing this film 25 years later the devastated look on my mother’s face as she sat in the shadows observing all the activity and sensing that we wouldn’t be coming back to live in America.

Shortly after we left America, my father became ill and Mama was left on her own to cope. She never missed a day visiting my father in the hospital after his cancer operation, gritting her teeth making the painful two-mile walk on her arthritic knees.

My father said she encouraged him with a mantra-like phrase, “It’s nearer, rather than farther.” Mama supported Daddy in his journey to overcome his illness and taught me the value of true devotion.

When there were serious complications after my father’s surgery, Mama feared the prospect of living alone. No doubt, she would have thought about her adage: “A mama can always find room for l6 children, even though 16 children can’t find room in their home for one mama.”

Mama always used to say it would be a nightmare to have to live with her children, remembering how difficult it was when her own mother had to live with her and my father. As a parent herself, Mama was unselfishly devoted to her children, no strings attached, and she has been my role model in raising my own daughter.

Fortunately, Mama was able to bring my father home from the hospital with her, and I can just hear her sighing, “There’s no place like your own home,” when they walked into their house.

My parents were not materialistic and though they could afford to buy a nicer, more modern place, Mama refused to move from our old ramshackle house on Nursery Street. She lived in the kitchen, which was twice the size of the living room. This was Mama’s domain where she created her culinary triumphs and frequent disasters.

Instead of resembling the fluffy-looking loaves pictured in the recipe books, her bread rolls turned out like cargo-ship anchors. Her problem was that she was overly generous with ingredients. If the dish called for one cup of flour, she’d use two or three eggs instead of the one required. She always said, “I don’t like to skimp on food for my family. You have to cook with love,” and we always knew she did.

She would express her values in sayings with a food theme like, “He cries and eats creplach” which reflects Mama’s attitude to selfish people. Creplach were Jewish dumplings, once considered a delicacy that usually for the wealthy. This saying encapsulates my mother’s censure of the selfish type of person who will never admit that he is financially comfortable for fear that someone might be jealous or ask them for a loan to help them out of a desperate financial situation.

However, you would never hear Mama complain about her lot in life: “If everybody put their troubles on the line, they would gladly take their own over someone else’s. As long as you have your health, you have everything.”

How well I remember this saying whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself. I used to find this saying ironic as my mother was always fighting the effects of poor health with debilitating migraines, high-blood pressure, varicose veins and later, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

However, Mama did accept that bad things can happen to good people and superstitiously would warn us: “Beware the people with the evil eye!” She was superstitious and believed there was a sort of person who begrudged other people’s good fortune and “gave you the eye,” inflicting illness and misfortune on the receiver of this “eye.”

She dressed us in red to ward off the evil eye. There was also a precautionary ritual, where a close relative had to spit in the air close to your face after exposure to suspected evil looks. I used to think that this probably worked because nobody could be jealous of you with spit all over face.

I’m only a little superstitious, but I still feel that it is unwise to provoke envy in others. Unconsciously, I've found that I've also adapted her kind of stoic philosophy. Without being negative, I'm aware that there’s no guarantee that bad things won’t happen to my loved ones, and cherish them all the more.

It was her philosophy to counteract anger and cruelty with a dose of kindness: “You can get more bees with honey than vinegar.” That made the most impact. In other words, disarm people who are hell-bent on creating ructions and hostility by showing them understanding.

Psychologists today prescribe this non-confrontational approach today as a means of dealing with conflict situations. As a high school teacher, I often followed this advice when handling obstreperous students and found it to be an effective approach.

One day when I was teaching a senior English class, I told my students about my mother’s sayings and one boy asked me if my mother was a philosopher. The question surprised and amused me. I was going to answer my student’s question by saying that, of course, she was not a philosopher. She wasn’t very well educated, and I never considered her very bright when I was young.

However, like an epiphany, years after my mother’s death, I suddenly realized that her sayings had made their intended impact on my adult behavior, life choices, values and relationships. I felt both a renewed respect for my mother and a sadness that I hadn’t recognized the value of her words before. Her little gems still lingered in the depths of my psyche.

Mama’s behavior expressed true love, and her words expressed a down-to-earth wisdom and courage. Once more, I could see Mama waving her palms over the Sabbath candles spreading her own personal version of the Jewish zeitgeist. Her rubbery matzo balls and dense chicken soup still felt heavy in my chest, but all around me, what I was most conscious of was the lingering sweetness, which would always be with me, of my mother’s “nshoma,” her enduring spirit.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


I just loved reading your story of your mother. What a fine lady she was. Perhaps she also would baulk at calling herself a philosopher, but would also be rather proud.

Thank you Celia for starting Mother's Day week out with such a great story. Your mother would be so proud of this tribute but very humble about it.

Your mom must have been a lot like mine, both in appearance (weight) and cooking ability! Mine also had many sayings, and getting more bees with honey than vinegar was one of her favorites. I unconsciously learned so much from her, which shows itself daily.

"An animal always dies with his feet in the air."

Very philosophical! The young student was right; your Mama was a philosopher......

Great story, Celia.

It is obvious, Celia, that your tribute to your mother paints a picture of a warm, loving and wise woman. Great story and thanks for sharing.

Nice account of Katie Domfort. You always seem to capture the most beautiful spirit in your writing. I wish I had the opportunity to know that side of her. One of my fondest memories of her was when she took me to see the Sound of Music in the big theater when she gently caressed my soft curls and treated me to a pastry making me feel extra special. We walked the whole way regardless of the fact that her legs ached her immensely, she just trudged along with my hand in hers.
Right on account on her lead rolls.
I think they were made to fend off the enemy in any war like situation.
Katie's granddaughter,

I believe I stumbled accross this web site in attempt to gather more of my family information. I am the daughter of Sherman and Nancy Domfort. My family has always been terribly fractured and I know little about my relatives on my father's side.
I do know that when I was living in Hi. I was mistaken by an older couple as being Celia. It was hard to convince them that I wasn't her, I am assuming there was quite a resemblance.
I look forward to hearing from any of you.
Carolyn Somera (Domfort)

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