“Life began with waking up,and loving my mother’s face.”

George Eliot

 

They come in all sizes and shapes, don’t they? Each one is a different piece of work.

Mothers.

In your grandmother’s day, maybe even yours, mothers had a different look, different costumes and even hairstyles. I can only look back as far as the ‘30s, and in those tumultuous times, it was almost one size fits all. Even movie and TV moms held the line.

There was a comic strip then called “Mary Worth.” Mary was a mom and then a grandmother. She had white hair tied back in a bun, and almost always wore a house coat and an apron. Yes, the apron.

Mothers in those times and right up into the ‘50s fit a certain kind of role, and aprons were an essential part of their wardrobes. They were a kind of shield, armor, a bulletproof vest of a sort that seemed to protect them from the barbs of family life. Cops had badges, salesmen had suits. Moms had the apron.

Aprons served many purposes. They were taken from the kitchen hook and pulled on before the man of the house and the kids even opened their eyes, and were hung back — usually behind the pantry door, late in the evening, after all the work of the day was done. Aprons were practical then, not too gussy. Today, they say things like “Mom’s House” or “Best Grandma.” Not then. Then they were practical.

Aprons were hung up at night, with gravy or Ketchup stains, damp from the sink water and sometimes soaked in tears. Many of us can remember burying our face in that apron and crying our hearts out. It was the safest harbor in a stormy world.

My mother had three aprons I can remember. They all smelled of the menu du jour: cabbage and potatoes, spaghetti and onions, meat loaf, hot dogs and baked beans. Mom had three that hung on that door, with two always in the laundry, and then she put one on and for a while, it smelled of Rinso laundry soap or Clorox. They were all flowered. That was an age when everything was flowered, living room furniture, wall paper, dresses, everything, because the world was frightening, and things flowered brought sunshine to the dark places.

I can truly remember how, when she answered the phone, she would hold one corner of the apron in her hand and fiddle with it, or constantly smooth it down or tug it up like it was a toy.

During the war, that big one where everyone went away and didn’t come back for four years, Western Union Telegram boys were always out and about the neighborhood, wearing military type uniforms and riding on bikes. One summer day, as I was sitting on the front porch with a comic book, one such boy stopped in front of our house, put one foot on the curb and thumbed through his sheaf of telegrams. I learned much later that at that moment, every mom on the block was at the window peering through lace curtains, holding their breath.

When I looked back at the front window, there was my mother. One hand parting the curtain, the other holding one corner of that apron to her lips, as though it were a shield or a rosary — a talisman that would stop the boy in his tracks, reverse his mission and send him away. Then he left and the curtain dropped. I guess now that every curtain on the block dropped, and every mother in her apron went back to being a mother.

That’s the way it was. The apron, the shield, the talisman, made the bad go away.

I know a lot of mothers here where I came to live out the remainder of my life. There are fewer aprons now. Mothers now have left the kitchen and changed society. They are teachers, cops, and doctors, astronauts, for heaven’s sake. They have become Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin.

But as mothers can soar to the heights, they are still grounded down here where they are most needed, where the pain and the tears are, where simple food has to be put on the table. Where, when there is no one to go to, there she is.

There are mothers working behind the counter at McDonald’s, checking groceries at the market, and at the window where I get my coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and at Starbucks. They show me pictures of their kids. She, who is the mother of my two daughters, was an actress and a dancer. Now she teaches the children of waitresses and professors and some of those she taught when they were in the sixth grade are mothers, and will now be celebrating Mother’s Day with their children.

Full disclosure: I have two aprons, one with a lobster on it for working the grill, and the other, nicer, from Williams Sonoma, for kitchen work. They all smell of the menu du jour, a new healthier menu, and to date, no tears. When I put one on today, I will touch it to my lips in honor of my mother, and I know whatever is bad in my life, will soon be good.

Happy Mother’s Day to she, who is always here, and to the original mama. I’ll see you on the other side.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.