THE BLOG
01/20/2015 05:43 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Why 'Mom' Is So Much More Than a Simple Name

Jan DeBlieu

What's in a name? the young man wanted to know. More specifically, what's so special about the term "Mom" that he should continue to use it for his entire life -- since he was now an adult and on equal footing with his mother?

We were having this conversation in the most unlikely of venues. That afternoon, I had decided to quit procrastinating and go to the DMV office to get my driver's license renewed. This is not something to which anybody looks forward. But it had to be done. So I grabbed a book and headed downtown.

I arrived to find the waiting room filled but for one seat. There were 13 people in line in front of me.

The chairs were arranged with their backs against the waiting room wall, so that we all sat looking at each other. I sighed, took off my coat and opened my book.

"It'll go quicker than you think," said the woman next to me. "They're moving people right along."

I looked at the bored faces. "Is everyone here just to get their licenses renewed?" I asked.

The others nodded -- all but one. The tall young man who sat directly across from me spoke up. "I need to get my license replaced. I lost it with my wallet." He paused, as if for dramatic effect. "In Indonesia."

I rose to the bait. What else did I have to do? "How long were you in Indonesia?"

"Nine months."

"That must have been nice," I said, returning to my book.

The young man sighed. He was tall with a thin, patchy beard, a fleece jacket and a knit cap. "And then I came back here and had to get my mommy to drive me to the DMV." He said the word "mommy" a little peevishly.

Nobody responded.

"Hey," the young man persisted, "I've been wanting to ask someone this: What do you think about calling your mother by her first name, instead of 'Mom'?"

A plump woman two chairs down from him looked like she'd suddenly swallowed a lemon. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I'm not her little boy anymore," the young man said. He softened his tone. "It's a term of respect, using her given name."

"Forget it," the plump woman shot back. "She's worked hard for that title, Mom."

There were a few beats of silence, and then pandemonium.

"I wouldn't go for that at all," a thin, 70-something woman blurted.

"No way," said another woman nearby. "You may be an adult, but you're still her little boy."

A Hispanic couple and their children were following the conversation, looking puzzled. I translated the young man's question.

"?En serio?" the husband asked.

The young man's stunned expression asked what he dared not: What's all the fuss? At 28, he was heading into his prime, while his mother had doubtlessly started into life's long decline.

The retired professor next to me cleared his throat. "I always addressed my mother with a Hungarian phrase that meant 'my beautiful golden mother' -- because she was beautiful to me. And certainly golden. It was a term of respect and the deepest love."

The plump woman closed her eyes and murmured, "That's lovely."

"You're not equals -- and you're not friends," the professor added kindly. "You don't want her to be your friend. You really don't. She's so much more than your friend."

A mother with a toddler on her lap -- she didn't look much older than the young man -- said, "Think about it. Your mother has known you every second of your life. She's known you in ways nobody else could have known you."

"She carried you in her womb, for God's sake!" the 70-ish woman broke in.

"No one will ever love you like your mother," the woman with the toddler finished.

I thought of my own mother, recently widowed, frail at 90, yet still fending off my attempts to help her with her affairs. "Your parents take care of you when you're young," I said, "and then the pendulum shifts. You're on equal footing for a while -- and before you know it, you're taking care of them when they're old and sick. Sometimes calling them Mom and Dad is the only thing left from the time when they were in charge." I shook my head. "I wouldn't want to give it up."

A woman in a DMV uniform appeared, holding a clipboard and peering at her list. "Ambrose?" she asked. "You're next."

"Oh, good." The 70-ish woman grabbed her handbag and jumped up, as if fearful that by moving too slowly, she might lose her spot.

We all relaxed. I opened my book for the third time.

A half page later, the outside door opened, and a harried-looking woman came in. She appeared startled to see the full seats.

The young man picked up his backpack and stood. "This clearly isn't going to get done today," he said. He pulled on his jacket.

The harried woman turned to leave.

It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. "Hey," I said, louder than I intended, "Are you this boy's mother?"

She looked confused. "Yes," she said.

Her eyes widened as everyone but her son broke into applause.