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Gabrielle Burton Headshot

Proper Names or M is for Margie, Mary Ann...Mother?

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Several of my friends call their mothers by their first names, and it always pulls me up short. I understand the practice intellectually: My friends are trying to signal a shift in the mother/child relationship to standing eye to eye rather than eye to belly button. They want to get past the role and the imago to the woman, naming her, giving her back her name. I can only say Hallelujah from the full heavenly chorus for that. I remember all the years I did nonstop banzai actions to get people see Me Me Me, not the Blessed Mother. (When I finally achieved that, all I wanted to do was talk about my kids, but that's another of life's little ironies.)

So I always give my friends the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes I wonder -- not that it's any of my business, which is why I don't ask -- if the practice masks anger, an unwillingness to render Caesar, or the devil, her due.

Of course you don't have to call someone her given name to express rage or withholding. I never would have dared to call my mother Helen, but for years I called her Mother, grudging the title out to almost epithet, my tone swaddling to death all the possible softer terms inside -- Mom, Ma, Mama, Mommy, Momma.

Mama is a sound understood in every language in the world, and I'm grateful my lips and my heart found their way back to it.

Only five people on this planet can by birthright call me Mom, Mother, Ma, Momma, whereas any Joe Blow with a surefire scheme can take my first name in vain: "Is this Gabrielle? Well hiya Gabe, have I got a deal for you." Those five people are always my children even though they are adults. Even people raised by bears know what that's like. You can be 50 years old and your mother can call you Baby and make your throat catch.

A month before she died, my 81-year-old mother, lucid but suffering great pain, called for her mother -- Mama, Mama -- who had died 40 years before. To the day I die, maybe even till the day they die, I want my children to call me Mother or any of its sweet variations. I love being, am honored to be, their mother.

You know you'll always love your children, but in your heart of hearts you hope they'll grow up to be people you like. I'm lucky enough to have one of life's great blessings: I like and respect my grown kids, and the feelings are mutual. Still, we're not on a first-name basis. Originally an emotional decision, it has turned out to be a sound one. Their advantages of being taller, stronger and smarter than I pale next to my advantage of always and forever being their mother.

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