Ruth Bass: Long after she's gone, a mother's voice remains clear


RICHMOND — James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree did lose his mother (though he was only three). She, according to A. A. Milne, did not obey her child and went down to the end of the town without taking him along. The king's notice said, "Lost or stolen or strayed! James James Morrison's mother seems to have been mislaid."

Perhaps the Milne rhyme is based on some real event, as poetry often is. But it's hard to believe. For better or for worse (unfortunately, in this day and age, worse crops up too frequently), losing your nose is easier than losing your mother. Still, as my friends' mothers grow old and die, it seems logical to write, "I'm sorry you have lost your mother."

But you never really do. Perhaps it's because she put up with you when you sloshed around for nine months in the womb, providing little pleasure, quite a lot of discomfort, weighty readings on her scale and bouts of constipation. More likely, it's all the things she embedded in you, many of them subliminal.

Certainly, in one way, I lost my mother. But when I squeeze a lemon on the old glass reamer I saved from her kitchen drawer, she pops up along with the citrusy smell. She didn't make lemonade from a Minute Maid can – she used lemons and sugar and ice.

When I first mentioned going to graduate school after they had paid for my four years of college, I exulted over a $1,000 gift from my grandmother, knowing it would make a real difference for journalism school. My mother, born in the early 20th century when a priority for women was finding a husband, said, "Wouldn't you rather buy your sterling silver instead of more school?" I was too shocked to remind her that she, daughter of a struggling farmer, had a bachelor's degree followed by several years of teaching and enjoying a good, single-girl time.

Every few years I am forced to open the sewing machine that was once a closer friend, and I think of her sitting in the upstairs bay window of our house, stitching away so my sister and I could have clothes like the other girls at considerably less cost. And then, when I was in college, she was such a deft seamstress that she could make me a new formal gown and mail it to Maine. It always fit – without a try-on session.

Sometimes, when I hear one of our daughters softly singing, I recall my mother caroling all over the house while she dusted and vacuumed and cleaned toilets. The songs ranged from "Amazing Grace" to "Little Brown Jug How I Love Thee," and it was years before I realized that she never sang when my father was in the house, probably to avoid a critique.

Stretching in the morning to make sure various joints woke up when the eyes opened makes me think of her frantically pumping out exercises on her bedroom floor, her feet flying in bicycle mode or her hands reaching to touch her toes. And as my kids went out of sight to play, I remembered her stuffing us into all-wool snowsuits and sending us off with our sleds, expecting we'd return when our stomachs said it was lunchtime. No helicopter parent she.

Mostly practical, she had her superstitions. Her mother had told her, "If you sew on Sunday, you'll take the stitches out with your nose when you get to heaven." She didn't sew on Sundays. And if she grabbed a piece of underwear and put it on inside out, she would whip it off, spit on it and do it over. When the occasion arises, I have always been compelled to do the same. She was firm on safety pin repair of broken straps on underthings. "What if you were in an accident?" she'd ask. Apparently the emergency room would refuse care to those with unmended straps.

You don't lose your grandmother, either. My daughter still looks out at her bird feeder and says, "Hello, bird," which is what her grandma did. Some things, though, you have to get rid of. My mother, for instance, ironed not only all the sheets and pillowcases but also my father's boxers. I try not to iron at all. And, by the way, they never did find the mother of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree. Milne was sometimes as dire as Walt Disney.

Ruth Bass stores her ironing board in Richmond. Her web site is


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