What adult has not begun a sentence, "As my mother used to say"? This phrase is inevitably followed with a bit of unexamined wisdom or a pronouncement -- for example, "As my mother used to say, 'You're not the only pebble on the beach.' "
That pronouncement helped keep me in my place, and, though I didn't exactly believe it, I wasn't taking any chances.
Like much of the other early conditioning we fall prey to, from brushing our teeth twice daily to knowing when to utter please and thank you, these "momilies," as I've named them, become permanent parts of our makeup. And they echo in our ears long after we should be able to sort out what truth they actually contain.
To this day, I cannot stand shivering outdoors in a movie line without hearing my mother's voice command: "Throw your shoulders back and you won't feel so cold." Does it make any physiological sense, or does that momily address itself simply to the power of positive thinking? After all, it sounds slightly more probable as medical doctrine than " Don't swallow the stone or a cherry tree will take root in your stomach."
Yet, ultimately, the truth of a momily, or the weight it bears in our lives, comes not from the facts but from its source. Mothers Know Everything. They're there, drumming that particular domestic fact into us, at an age when we're pre-reason and pre-argument.
They may not put it in just those words, but acceptance of the dogma of maternal omniscience is implicit in the contract we "signed" upon being born to them.
It's nearly inevitable, however, that children will start to turn into little heretics. What Mom has said so firmly, so predictably ("Eating milk with tuna fish gives you hives" or " Don't sit too close to the television, it'll ruin your eyes"), begins -- after we start getting some of our own experience of the world -- to sound a little suspect.
Daring to challenge these fiats, then, is known as "growing up." No one gets burned at the stake; there are casualties, to be sure, but mostly we become ordinary neurotics, not martyrs. And the precepts we've struggled with turn into momilies when we find ourselves repeating them -- even living by them -- once we've left Mom herself behind.
There are grown men who've told me how they're compelled, even when going off on vacation, to wear a coat and tie on an airplane -- because mothers convinced them this dress code was mandatory.
Or what about the squeamishness any of us feel when confronted with a strange toilet seat? Would you put a penny that you've just picked up off the ground, in your mouth? Of course not: its germs are lethal in the extreme, and, besides, "You don't known where it's been!"
Leaning back in a theater seat is still difficult for me, though the sinister plush that harbored the invisible insects that were going to take up residence is mostly a thing of the past.
In a department store, examining clothes, I'm unable to finger a rack of dresses without thinking, in my mother's words, that "You can't tell what it looks like until you try it on."
Although years of being reminded that a hot shower will cool me off on a sultry day hasn't stopped me from standing under icy streams of water when the temperature hits 90 degrees, I would certainly hesitate to run with a lollipop in my mouth or to wear the same undergarments two days in a row.
Another momily that has left its mark -- this time on my dinner parties, and for which I'm entirely grateful: "Always clean up in the kitchen as you go along."
Momilies, like everything else our mothers have done for us, have the potential for great good and perhaps even greater harm.
One friend of mine, who numbers among her own momilies, "All a little girl has to do is be amiable," told me, when I began collecting them, that if she'd only written her list down years earlier, she'd have saved a fortune in analysts' bills!
Another friend I consulted remembered with a rueful laugh the intense liberation she'd felt once she'd surmounted the momily, "Don't ever start anything you don't intend to finish."
"Every time you give up pleasure for duty, you're a stronger person" can have long-lasting effects, too, as can "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Or, "you have to be willing to suffer to be beautiful." This last, uttered when I whined about the agony of sleeping with rollers, took less of a hold on my psyche, I fear, than my own mother might have wished.
But all women, to some degree, will have felt the tyranny it conveys, and many make up or dress to please their mamas, whether consciously or unconsciously, for their entire lives.
Romance, i.e., marriage, is the parallel track here, momiletically speaking, and the issue of your looks and your love life can best be summed up: "After you've caught him, it doesn't matter so much."
Now that marriages, however, are hardly forever, that particular time-honored momily has a rather quaint and old-fashioned ring. More useful is the unisex dictum, "It's just as easy to marry a rich man (woman) as a poor one."
By the same token, the farmer who hasn't any reason to buy a cow when he can get the milk for free might have seemed passe' a decade or so ago, but I'd bet good money that even the moms who came of age in the licentious '60s are handing some version of this one on.
They can't help themselves, and that's the point.
Perhaps the most telling illustration of how we're haplessly influenced by our moms' momilies is this tale related by a young lawyer.
"I couldn't believe," he recalls with a wince, "how shocked I was when I heard myself saying to my 2-year-old son the very thing I'd hated most when my mother said it to me. 'Don't hit your mother,' she'd scold me, 'or your hand will come out of the grave.' "
Gruesome, no? Unenlightened? You bet. But it's a perfect momily, in that it's absolutely unforgettable -- and destained to be repeated.