When you first hear those familiar words, you snap your head around as if there were someone else in the room.
"Take that out of your mouth. You don't know where it has been."
Who said that? Did I say that?
It is as if you were a ventriloquist's dummy. Or possessed by demons who have stolen your voice. You recognize the words, but not the person speaking them.
"You're going to put somebody's eye out with that thing."
Nothing conscious precedes these words. They spill out of your mouth without a thought behind them. They might not even make sense.
"Don't crack your knuckles like that. You'll never be able to wear a wedding ring."
You weren't thinking about your mother just then. And nothing in the moment sends you into a reverie of your childhood. But there you are. You sound just like your mother.
"Because I said so, that's why."
You'd better realize it yourself, before your husband says it in the middle of a fight. You sound just like your mother.
"Finish your milk. We don't throw milk away in this house. Not while there are children starving."
You have already discovered that you are aging like your mother. Pass quickly by the mirror in the hall and you may catch a glimpse of her, like a phantom, watching you raise your kids. Your unconscious gestures recall her. So do your unconscious words.
"I don't know where your shoes are. I don't wear them."
Nobody ever says, "You sound like your father." And nobody smiles when they say, "You sound like your mother." It isn't supposed to be a compliment. You never respond, "Do you think? Oh my, thank you," the way you do when someone says your child looks just like you.
"What am I? The maid?"
No. When somebody tells you that you sound just like your mother, it is not a good thing. It means you are sounding like a harpy.
"WHAT did you say?"
"I nag like my mother, and I promised myself that I never would," says my friend Susan. "I tell my kids to do something over and over, just like my mother. And they just stop listening to me. Just like me with my mother."
"What is the TV doing on if nobody is watching it?"
"It is just uncontrolled speech. It isn't even in our minds before it is out of our mouths," says my sister, who sounds just like me, just like our mother.
"It is the kind of thing you say without a second thought. And it is the second thought we swore, when we were kids, that we would always take time for."
"When you're a mother, you'll understand."
Our children will have a different legacy of automatic speech. There are things we say to them that our mothers did not have the opportunity to say to us. Though they would have:
"Buckle your seat belt. Not without a helmet you won't."
But we can always add, because our mothers said it: "How many times do I have to say it?"
Some of us had vivid mothers with vivid speech. My friend Nan will quote "Sheets and Kelly," and mispronounce the poets' names, just like her mother.
"When fall comes, I hear my mother say, 'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run . . .' "
She recites that to her kids and they think she's nuts. But much of Nan's mother's legacy was as inane as that left to the rest of us.
"If you cross your eyes, they will freeze that way. If you play with your bellybutton, your legs will fall off. If he told you to jump off a bridge, would you?"
The words of your mother are irritating, because they let you know that, as an apple, you have not fallen as far from the tree as you had sworn you would.
But those words are also like my mother's spaghetti, my mother's meatloaf, my mother's stuffing. Comfort food.
"I wouldn't go dressed like that to a dogfight. Colder than Christian charity. You look like something the cat dragged in. Mercy, mercy me."
And: "You'll get your reward in heaven."