The last time I told a Jewish-mother joke I stopped halfway through because it was no longer funny. My son was 2, and I was now the Jewish mother. Now my son is fourteen, and he finds the Jewish-mother jokes hilarious. I am descended from a long line of them. Stella was the flapper. Lenore was the depression-era striver, Bonnie is the social worker, and I am the scientist. I know Stella’s parents spoke German—not Yiddish. I know Stella called my grandma and her two sisters “three lemons on the tree of life.” My dad called her “Stella Bronxus.” I know Lenore as a hard worker with the sharpest mind up until the very end. Her last act before dying was to make sure her checkbook was penny balanced. Two months before she died, I came right to her apartment after the 11 hour trip from LA to Poughkeepsie, and there was the same acrid, sour, smell that I remember from the week grandpa died. I girded myself and walked in. There was grandma in her kitchenette, slicing the deep purple beets, surrounded by bell jars and a box of diamond crystal salt, a bag of sugar, and the open vinegar bottle for pickling. Mom still has the last jar.
There is no person who does not melt like chocolate upon encountering the warmth of my mother. Once by accident I used my (much less effective) version of my mom’s “social-worker voice” on one of my colleagues who had temporarily aroused my sympathy. He got angry: “Why are you using that voice with me?!” During the summer of 99 adventures, my mom and I went on a rescue mission to Bayside to help my stepsib pack and move. Her ex-boyfriend was not happy about this, and asked two of his friends to come by for support—one with huge tattooed muscles who smoke and drank and hovered close while we packed, and a mean-looking woman who broke the ice with my stepsister by informing her of her expertise in messing women up by face-scratching. This plan to intimidate us worked, but only for a little bit and then totally backfired. After packing, we all escaped to the porch with soda and the newspaper to wait for the moving truck. The big guy opened the chat when he saw I was reading a Science Times article about solar weather and it turns out science is one of his interests--he is really into science. It also turned out that he had zero demarcation between science and what I know to be pseudoscience. He segued our discussion from solar plasma physics directly to the Mayan apocalypse prediction without blinking, but still we had a great conversation. I think we each learned a lot. In the meantime, mom was relaxing on the front stoop next to face-scratching woman, who was waving her hands about, telling mom her whole life story, especially about her children who were spending the weekend with their father. I remember the hugs as we said our warm goodbyes, whisking stepsib to Astoria, her boyfriend left behind, not quite comprehending.
I spent this past weekend in Fort Worth with my mother-in-law, who comes from a completely different ilk which includes five generations of Texans. Her mom was one of six (?) sisters, all extremely well educated (including one of the first female PhD at UT) and liberal and outspoken. My mom-in-law was named after her father and his best friends—two male names strung together to make a new name for a girl. Since her mom went as Granny, she goes by Grammy. She is a mathematician, a woman who couldn’t wait to get back to work after her sons went to school, and competent in every way. She is mostly self-contained but genetically programmed to speak her intelligent, liberal mind when the moment calls for it. She is mostly buttoned up now, and frail. She is only a few years older than my own mom, but a generation apart—more like my greatest generation grandparents than my proto-hippie parents.
What my mother and mother-in-law have in common is that they both believe in the holiness of cleanliness. Every time I wipe down the counter underneath the coffee, even as it is still being filtered, even as I know there will be more drips within five minutes and I willl have to wipe again, I think of my mom and my mom-in-law and how I am a mom too.