Now and Forever, Mom's Words of Wisdom Ring True
By: Bonnie Langston, Freeman staff, © Daily Freeman
May 11, 2007
Mothers may not think so, but children pay attention to what they say. The 20th-anniversary edition of "Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say ...," by Woodstock author Michele Slung, proves the point.
Slung coined the word Momily®, which means a "sermon made by a mother or an admonitory or moralizing discourse from mother to child." Her book is packed with plenty of them, opposite portraits of moms of famous people.
Slung is an anthologist and editor with 20 original books in print, including her first, in 1975, an anthology called "Crime on Her Mind: Fifteen Stories of Women Sleuths from the Victorian Era to the'40s" (Pantheon).
She wrote "Book Report," a column about authors, books and publishing for the Washington Post from 1980-1985 and a year in the 1990s. In addition, Slung has been a commentator on National Public Radio, as well as a contributor to numerous publications, including the New York Times and USA Today.
The following interview was conducted by e-mail.
Q: How did your mother inspire you to write "Momilies?"
A: By being herself, of course. By being A Mom. I could hear her voice -- in just her tones and emphasis -- saying these words of counsel or advice long, long after I'd left home, and so I'd repeat them to friends. This surprised me, because they just seemed to pop out of their own accord. One day, thinking it funny that I had such a stock of them, I sat down to make a list -- I love making lists, and most of my books have had their origins in one or another sort of list -- just for my own amusement. Practically the next thing I knew there was a book contract!
Q: Where did you find all those sayings?
A: It is not how I found them, but how I stopped finding them: I didn't. And, really, they found me. Once one person knew about the project, a hundred people seemed to. It was before e-mail, and so it was my answering machine that started to get clogged with "momilies." Friends mentioned it at dinner parties, and the evening would turn into a momilies parlor game. Someone would write them all down and mail them to me - really, from all over. Then, after the book came out, I did a national tour and also what seemed like thousands of radio interviews, so I heard from strangers wanting to share, either on air, through call-ins or they wrote me via Ballantine, the publisher. It was amazing, and wonderful.
Q: Name a couple favorites and tell why they have meaning to you?
A: Well, I guess I have to say I love - of my own mother's momilies- "Don't cast your eyes to heaven, God won't help you." I tended to look exasperated a lot when I was growing up. As for a couple that I picked up from other people, I always laugh when I think of the man who said to me his mother's favorite saying was "You've buttered your bed, now lie on it." It's nonsensical, just a play on words, but it still makes the point. While a more practical one someone told me was "Always let the phone ring twice before you pick it up," and, ever since, that's what I do. I also - and this is one of my mother's - never put on a pillowcase without making sure the zipper's not at the open end. My mom's voice rings loud in my ear on that one.
Q: Along with the "momilies," your book includes images of nearly 90 moms of famous people - everyone from Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, mother of novelist Stephen King, to Lena Bogardus Phillips Lardner, mother of Ring Lardner, a sports reporter and humorist. How did you select these moms, and did you use any of their famous sayings?
A: This was simply an idea of mine, as a way of illustrating how absolutely everyone has a mom who tells them to put on clean underwear. It doesn't matter who. (In fact, speaking of humorists, Art Buchwald, the great Washington comic columnist, once said to me, "Even orphans have momilies." And since he'd grown up as one he knew!) Because I also know Steve King, there are, as it happens, a couple in the book he gave me from his mom. But the concept, really, was not what any of these moms of famous people had said but just to reveal them, to give credit to the women behind the celebrities, as it were. I put their full names (maiden and married) and made it a kind of guessing game, with their famous kids all listed at the back of the book. I felt it wasn't fair to call these women just "Mother of ..." because, even though their children became famous, they definitely had their individual power (as moms) and their own distinct identities. I chose the mothers pictured for variety: from the Marx Brothers' mom to Joe DiMaggio's to Princess Diana's. And I had extra fun putting in, say, Whistler's mother's actual photo or Joan Crawford's own mommy dearest. It was harder to find the photographs, believe me, than to amass the momilies.
Q: In the introduction to the anniversary edition of "Momilies," you say that your mother recognized many of the sayings in your book, not as hers, but the voice of your maternal grandmother who died when your mother was 15. What did that mean to you, since you had never known your grandmother?
A: That's a good question. I was surprised and moved by this. I should have figured it out, but it had never occurred to me until I did the book. It was amazing the way my mother was able unerringly to pick out her own, hearing her own mother's voice in her ear as she read, even half a century after losing her.
Q: Are "momilies" endangered, or do you think they will live on into succeeding generations? Why or why not?
A: They're all about conditioning the subject, that is, the child. By which I mean, preparing him or her for life. In all its many facets. They're the tools of the mother's trade. So how could they ever be done away with? You always need to know about not running with a stick or being suspicious of strange toilet seats.