It’s been about six years since researchers Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman published in the reputable journal Iraq that they had made a stunning and important breakthrough. The two men had been working to translate an Ancient Babylonian tablet discovered by J. J. van Dijk in 1976. Much to the delight of the world, the tablet turned out to contain a series of riddles and punch lines, poorly written, most likely by a wisecracking youth.
Among the 3,500-year-old jokes is what Streck and Wasserman refer to as the oldest known Yo’ Mama joke. That may require a little stretch of the imagination. Part of the riddle is indecipherable, and what is there goes something like this: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”
Sadly, the answer to the incomplete question has also faded forever from history. But from context, it seems safe to assume that the riddle was not intended to flatter poor mama.
This really may have been the first time someone bothered to chisel an insulting joke about someone’s mother, though I doubt it was the first time such a joke was ever uttered. Writers and comedians and people looking to pick fights have been slinging mud at mothers for millennia, I suppose because they elicit a pretty universal response.
No matter what our relationship with our mother, whether she is close to us, not so close, no longer with us, or was never a part of our life at all, mothers matter profoundly in the human experience. That truth transcends eras and cultural identities and it makes Yo’ Mama jokes, from the partial ancient ones to the cleverer ones of today, a little uncomfortable. Because most of us love our mamas, or at least know what it feels like to really want to be close to and adore our mamas.
As Mother’s Day comes up here in the US (on May 13, in case you’ve forgotten) I hope you’re thinking about ways to let yo’ mama know how much you love and appreciate how much she loves and appreciates you.
If you’re in need of a last minute gift idea, I’ve got one for you. Until May 13 (again, that’s Mother’s Day), you can follow the “Mother’s Day Book Sale” tab at the top of this post and get a personalized and signed copy of Launching Sheep & Other Stories. It’s even discounted 33% just because Yo’ Mama likes books so much that you should get her one for Mother’s Day.
If you live in the US (and you don’t live in a cave), I’m sure you know by now that this Sunday (May 14) is Mother’s Day. It’s hard to escape the ads for jewelry, and chocolate-covered strawberries, and flowers, and yes, free glass vases. And there aren’t many stores you could walk through without seeing some display or other of sentimental greeting cards and “World’s Greatest Mom” tee shirts or coffee mugs.
That’s all well and good. I’m sure many of you will pick out something like that to give to your mother to honor her on the special day, and I am certain she’ll appreciate the thought. But for me (and I suspect for a lot of mothers), it’s kind of a strange holiday. I hate to say it, but I don’t really look forward to it all that much.
Here’s the thing. Moms do a lot of stuff. And we’re pretty good at it. No, most of us are probably not born that way, but when we become mothers, we gain more than a child. We gain a desperate longing to do everything we can to ensure that child’s well-being. That’s challenging, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve, requiring some big adjustments, like:
Accepting that the bathroom is the only place you will ever again have any privacy (a luxury that is by no means guaranteed).
Learning to eat the yucky flavors in the popsicle box because that’s all that’s ever left.
Managing to function, more or less, in a constantly exhausted state.
Understanding that at no point will you be able to honestly say the laundry is done, unless you have convinced your family to go naked for a while.
Feeling guilty if you don’t prepare a nutritious, balanced meal for your kids, while acknowledging that if you do, there is no way they’re going to eat it.
Tolerating that your actual name will rarely be uttered anymore, but you will hear “Mom” at least 10,000 times a day, often several times in the same sentence, because I guess your kids assume if they don’t remind you who they’re talking to, your exhausted mind will wander.
Knowing that no task (like writing a blog post) will ever be something you can complete without interruption by a kid who is learning about Scott Joplin in music class and desperately needs to use the computer to look up the “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube before he goes to school.
Okay, that last one might just be me, and it really did happen this morning. It was kind of awesome. But in a more general sense, the struggle is real.
So you might think that what moms really want for Mother’s Day is a day off, maybe even some time alone. I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say, yes, that is definitely something we want. The trouble is that the moment our children go away and leave us alone, we miss them. And then we kind of resent them a little because we can’t even take a break without thinking about them. And then we feel guilty because we feel resentment toward some of the people we love the very most in the whole world. And we’re sad that we’re missing the day with them, when all they wanted to do was to make us feel special.
You see why I don’t really look forward to Mother’s Day?
But I have given this a lot of thought lately. I’ve looked at some of the things said by and about famous mothers in the past, and I think I’ve finally figured out what moms want.
First, I read about Hoelun, mother of Genghis Khan (a fact which, according to some historians and geneticists, makes her the most successful grandmother in human history). She overcame a lot of tough challenges as a mom. Then when the successful Genghis rose to become a great conqueror and threatened to kill his own brother, Hoelun put her foot down. Out of respect for her, Genghis let his brother live and his mother became one of his most trusted advisors.
The second example I found interesting was Nancy Edison. When as a young boy, the eventually wildly successful inventor Thomas Edison was deemed mentally incompetent by his teacher, his mother Nancy began homeschooling him. Later he would say of her, “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
Another great mom, Alberta Williams King worked hard to instill a sense of self-respect in her children, teaching them that segregation was a construct of man and had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of natural order. It was a lesson her son Martin Luther King, Jr. took to heart, making it the cornerstone of his life, and not forgetting to give his mama the credit she deserved.
And of Abigail Adams, one of only two American women to have been both a president’s wife and a president’s mother, her son John Quincy Adams had this to say:
My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence.
Actually that might be a tad bit over the top. Because I would bet that even Abigail Adams didn’t feel like she always deserved such high praise. The lesson here, though, for those of us who are mothers and for those of us who have mothers, is that what Mom probably really wants is for you to love your family, to know that she is behind you, cheering you on, even in the really tough times, and to understand that regardless of what you look like or what the world thinks of you, you are precious.
But go ahead and get her some flowers, too. Because she also wants you to know that she appreciates that you appreciate her. And it’s nice, once in a while, for a mom to hear that she’s an angel upon the earth. Because she’s exhausted and her shower got interrupted when somebody needed something RIGHT NOW, and the laundry is piling up, and she never feels like she does enough, even when she feels like she does it all. And just this once, maybe you could insist that she chooses first, so she doesn’t get stuck eating the grape popsicles.