Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
What do you call your in-laws?
Are your grown children now getting married? What should their spouses call you? Want a why-to suggestion?
I grew up calling my own parents Mommy, Ma, Mom, Daddy, Dad, Pop, then Dad again; the term depended upon my age. I did use Ma with a terrible whine when, as a teenager, I was trying to be manipulative. I thought it sounded 'cool', long before 'cool' was 'in', to address my father as Pop. Some of my friends actually used the formal Mother and Father all the time; I liked being familiar and thought it was both cute and clever at the time. My mother called her mother Mama and I thought that really sounded old-fashioned just like Papa for her own father.
I tried out Gramps for my grandpa but it lasted about as long as when I put an "s" on Pop and made it Pops...sounded like an abbreviation for a popsicle stick from the Good Humor vendor.
When I was twenty, I buried my father and wept Daddy to his silent ears. At twenty-two, I married. What should I call my husband's mother who was a dominant and rather unpleasant person? How could I use the word Dad again on anybody? My own parents never humiliated me or laughed at my whims, always encouraged me to become independent, made me feel safe in a space where I-told-you-so never existed. Was it possible to use special names, reserved just for them, now on strangers?
Dad. He rubbed oil on my five year old body so the skin wouldn't dry at the beach. He let me walk on the curb pretending it was a balance beam. He gave me ice skates with a single
runner and made me feel confident I could balance myself...just as he had with a two-wheeler bicycle minus training wheels. He listened as I spoke, drove me to 9th grade clubs and parties, remembered stationery colors I specifically wanted, took me with him to buy petunias. He showed pride when he took me to college for the first time, and he insulated me from ugliness. He didn't live to see me all grown.
Mom. Talented superwoman before superwomen existed. She juggled her days having children home for lunch until the last went to high school but made her chores seem easy. She moved in and out of roles with the same simplicity becoming active in the community yet always being home. With her, I played duets on the piano, sewed, whispered fears, shared dreams. With her clothes I played dress-up and liked the smell of garments that had been on her body. I could be and do anything, she promoted, and opened areas of learning.
Maybe I could just clear my throat when I'd need to communicate with my in-laws, like in a movie: Ahem. No. That certainly wouldn't work when the phone rang and I had to respond. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. would be okay. My mate'll say Mother and Dad and I'll say the formal title. Fine. But how will that sound to our own children? Not fine.
Since my mother-in-law couldn't choose a bride the way she'd selected my spouse's socks, I knew I'd have to show her I could be a daughter in some sense of the word. I also knew my husband and I would have to act as a unit forever for both ourselves and future children. mom. Inside I put it in small letters like a t.s. eliot poem. She'd be mom...I'd have only one MOM, the person who gave birth to and raised me. I mustered up my Stanislavsky method of acting, studied in a college drama course, and said it so it sounded like Mom; its mom in small letters was hidden from view.
"Dad" was painful. I liked my father-in-law with his wit and sense of humor but my parent was lying beneath a granite headstone and I wanted him to know he could never be replaced or forgotten. Had I a choice if I was to call my mother-in-law mom? My throat felt that awful choking sensation it gets when tears are contained that really need to be spilled. I said Dad. Oh, Daddy, I really wanted you to live. But I used the term Dad for another.
Twenty-nine years after my wedding, my oldest son took a bride. It's been commonplace, since the '80's, to use first names, or even keep formal titles; should I instruct my daughter-in-law in a form of address I want? Was I ready to deal with this problem?
I handled it the way I personally handle most dilemmas: in writing. I penned: "For 29 years, so far, I've referred to my mate's parents and mom and dad. This has pleased my husband, carried out my mother's advice, been an example to my children that their dad and I together form a whole. So, please consider our request that you refer to us, new daughter-in-law, as parents."
Was this nerve? Did I have the right to put pressure on her? Was I diminishing her adulthood? Was I putting her on a guilt-trip with this request that was almost an order? I played with the plain white paper as if it were ready to be made into a boomerang to sail across a childhood classroom. Mail it or not was like the daisy that got plucked with words 'she loves me, she loves me not'. I mailed it.
With two living parents that were Mom and Dad, she must have felt a bit of what I went through nearly three decades before. I needed to actually tell her why I felt so strongly about names. Mustering up courage, I did.
I explained that I'd rather not have my son call me anything but the familiar word he's spoken since babyhood. What had that to do with her addressing me by my first name? Well, I explained, that would be awkward as we weren't peers and I didn't want to be equals with her and different with him. Whew. That wasn't too hard, once done. Why not the correct formal title Mrs., she wondered? I truthfully replied that our son's term would be privileged and then hers would isolate us as it'll sound detached. My mate and I are comfortable with Mom and Dad, and we wanted her to try it out.
I honed in on a sensitive spot when I acknowledged her anxieties about just altering her signature as I understood her identity being tied up with her maiden name. I didn't want her to lose anymore labels that defined who she's been. Asking her to just think about the situation after hearing my side, and sharing with her why my maiden name is the inner me forever too, caused her tiny hand to reach out and touch my fingers as her lips parted Mom.
Published July 10, 1994 The Sacramento Bee. ©1994 McClatchy News;
reprinted 2001; 2018 The Jewish Press
reprinted 2004 Clear Mountain
Music and a Mouse
"Comfortable?" My mother adjusted her snood. Even though the theatre was dark, I could see her fingering the wide crocheted holes in the large net that contained her long ash blond hair.
I clicked my patent leather shoes together scuffing the tips of each toe. The leather seat was too big for my small body, and arm rests much too high.
"Soon." My mother smiled and put her warm hand on top of my skinny arm that seemed hoisted atop the arm rest. I knew she didn't want me to hit my feet together but she didn't say it; instead, she removed her hand from my arm and placed it on my right leg.
Lights got even dimmer until only darkness remained.
"Color! It's color!" I exclaimed as the movie screen filled with printed words, music, and images not in usual black and white. The film began: shadows, like ones I made of myself when the sun was in the right place, were like a second orchestra. I didn't notice the music, but smothered giggles as colors danced and then wings fluttered on animated fairies waving sparkle dust to make flowers wake up.
"I have a magic wand, too. With sparkles." I whispered to the large screen. My words were caught by the seat-back of the chair in the aisle before mine. No matter. I knew the screen heard me. Fairies became ice skaters, more glitter was spread, I was elated.
I grabbed my mother's arm and began to shake it. A magician had left his magic hat and Mickey Mouse was about to put it on. "Pst. Mom." Louder I said, "Mom," until she turned and looked down at me, "just like mine. The hat."
Of course, she nodded her head and smiled at me. “Yes, Lois. Just like yours.”
Mickey Mouse was real. He stuck the cone-shaped hat on his head leaving his ears showing. I always had to tuck my ears inside my hats to keep my head warm; mother's orders. 'Course, no one could wear a magic dunce cap over the ears else you couldn't hear your own magic commands!
The wooden broom came alive and carried buckets of water for Mickey. I once tried to make magic and have my room cleaned up all by itself but my abra-cadabra didn't work. If I listen, maybe I'll hear Mickey's magic words. Just his hands. Hm. Maybe that's all I need to do, too. I grabbed my mother's hand. Her wedding band hit against my clutching fingers. "He'll drown, Mommy. Don't let Mickey drown."
My mother’s hands were warm, comforting. She gently put her other hand over my arm as if to protect me. “Sh. It’ll be okay.”
Bad brooms had multiplied and continued dropping water. Mickey couldn't stop the magic. Maybe I shouldn't try it, and thought I'd give my personal moon/star hat to my younger sister, Joy. She'd just wear it as a plaything 'cause she's too young to know about grown-up magic.
I began to shake. I so liked Mickey, and he was so good, and he was having such a hard time. My mother makes sure I never have a hard time. Even when I’m very-very sick, she makes the sickness better and stays with me until that happens.
"He'll be all right," my mother assured. She was right. Mothers know everything.
When the film ended, the light of day hurt my eyes for a few seconds. I knew we'd feed pigeons at Herald Square, then take the train home. I still worried about Mickey Mouse: would he try magic again and get really hurt? Would the sorcerer be around to save him? What if the sorcerer was in the bathroom, or outside, or asleep and didn't know until too late? I decided I'd write him a letter and tell him not to try anything he doesn't know about; maybe I'll even warn him not to go into the ocean if he doesn't know about the way waves pull you back, not to play with matches, not to touch a hot stove, not to walk in the rain and catch cold...all the things my mother had me learn. Okay. I'll write.
My mother's skirt had a faint smell of mothballs as I hugged her legs in thanks. She told me she’d definitely mail my letter, and was happy I was so thoughtful of Mickey’s needs to help him not be in danger. She embraced me with mommy-proud arms.
I wrote to Mickey Mouse, printing in all capital letters. After I carefully folded my pink writing paper, I pushed it inside an envelope. "It's important, Mommy. Please, please mail this to Mickey Mouse." I was certain my mother did send it, although Mickey never did answer me.
Was it so long ago, 2000, that I slipped the VHS video-tape version into my VCR? Was it different seeing a type-of remake with adult eyes? The VHS film lost something ‘special’ with cameo parts by known people. I hadn't listened, as a child, to what was specifically being played. Beethoven’s “The Pastoral Symphony”. Classical music. Oh, I once had such bad dreams of cloned brooms, helpless Mickey Mouse floating on his book-raft, people drowning. My brain didn't know so very many calendars had been discarded, and I fleetingly worried about the powers of a cone shaped creation that topped the cartoon character's head.
Color is standard, and, now, computer-generated animation has replaced an artist drawing individual cels for animation. Back in 2000, with elbows leaning on rests my arms reached, I sat on a chair in my own house. Facing the television set, I realized that I still wanted to help Mickey and stop the cloning of his brooms. Mickey's plight made me aware that abra-cadabra can be as harmful as helpful, and I alone have to clean up after myself, be responsible for my choices. But, in caring about Mickey, I noticed that I wasn't judgmental if someone selected a seemingly easier route and it backfired; caring was unconditional. My mother taught me that by example as well as words..
I looked up at a shelf in the family room that had photos of my deceased parents. As fairies sprinkled glitter while "Waltz of the Flowers" drifted through TV speakers, I whispered, "Childhood was nice; thanks."
I still like magic wands with silver sparkles. And in February 2021, a granddaughter asked me about old movies. Into my smartphone, I said “Fantasia”. Another generation would hear my mother’s words and feel her comforting gestures through me.
©1997 NEWN, New England Writers Network
reprinted April 20, 2009 The Jewish Press
The hand-held hair dryer stopped putting out heat. My granddaughter looked at me and exclaimed, “Broken? How am I going to dry my wet hair?"
I wanted to tell her about the 'old days' but was careful not to start with 'when I was young'. Instead, I told her a true story:
"What are you doing?" Joy, my younger sister, questioned.
"What?" I shouted above the noise.
"I can't hear you!" My left hand kept pushing away hairs that were being tossed by cold air coming from the metal tube. "Just a minute." I pushed the switch off.
"What are you doing?" Joy asked again.
"What does it look like?" My annoyance was apparent.
"Looks like you're vacuuming your hair." Joy saw the cylinder Electrolux cleaner on its ski-blades legs. The long metal appliance functioned to remove floor/carpet dirt; no other purpose was ever promoted.
"If I was vacuuming my hair, it'd be all sucked in. I'm drying it! Air is coming out not in." I reached for the on switch.
"How'd you make it come backwards?"
"Little sisters," I sighed just for effect. "I took out the cloth bag and emptied it. Yuk. Dust is weird all smushed inside. Then I took the hose and removed it from the right position and put it in the back of the machine. See the slot? That is reverse so air blows out instead of being sucked up."
"Oh." Joy thought I looked strange squatting on a footstool, head bent over, with the vacuum cleaner hose being held in one hand and the other maneuvering flying hair and anything else in its path.
"Now can I go back to what I was doing?" My long strands were more cold than dry. The cleaner ejected only cold air.
"Isn't your head cold?" Joy continued.
"Your brains are going to get cold, Joy." I flicked the switch and the cleaner's motor whirred. A couple of inches of icy air came up through the hose's tube and I directed that to Joy's face.
"Quit it. I'll tell Mom." Joy coughed. "It's dusty smelling."
"Well, it is a dust catcher used the other way!" I stroked my long hair. The chamomile-leaves rinse left my blond strands easier to comb. Too bad the cleaner snarled as it blew locks. Maybe one day people would have driers, or chamomile leaves already diluted and bottled, or curling-rollers that weren't metal, or hair pins that weren't flimsy, or even beauty parlor permanents that didn't burn hair.
"Gonna be long?" Joy wanted to play Chinese checkers and listen to "Let's Pretend" on the radio. All the war news was boring; “Let’s Pretend” was a good broadcast. I promised I'd do both with her.
"I'll be inside when I get there!" My loud tones traveled upstairs and my mother thought we were again fighting.
"Mom." Joy called from the foot of the staircase. "Lois won't play with me and she promised. Make her."
The machine motor moaned. I curled my loafers around the legs of the footstool, rested an elbow on my rolled-up dungarees, and continued the ritual. "Ah choo. People can fly airplanes! You'd think someone could invent a way to dry hair at home."
My granddaughter, couldn't stop laughing when I told her this. She was sure this was a story I was making up. And when I mentioned curling irons didn’t exist, she laughed until her eyes actually got silly tears dripping down her face. I grinned knowing that when my own mother told me something true from her pre-teen years, and it seemed foreign, I would have suggested that her imagination had run wild.
©1998 The United Methodist Publishing House
reprinted December 2010 via Clear Mt. Syndicate