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With all due disrespect to Joan Crawford and Michael Keaton, I’ll take Mother Jones (the woman, not the mag) any day as my pop culture maternal icon. Born in Ireland and raised in Canada, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones did her agitating right here in the U S of A from the late 1800s right into the twentieth century. Her organizing of workers–mineworkers, in particular– earned her the nickname of “Miner’s Angel.” Barely five-feet tall, Mother Jones lived 100 years…most of them according to her personal credo: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
“Momma said knock you out.” -LL Cool J
There are plenty of maternal nicknames: Mama Cass and her Papas, Moms Mobley and her purse, Mother Goose and her rhymes…to name a few. But one of my favorites is Kate “Ma” Barker, the supposed leader of one of the most notorious criminal gangs of the 1930s J. Edgar Hoover (who perhaps knew a thing or two about matronly ways) labeled Ma Barker a “veritable beast of prey” and “one of the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brains” of his era. She earned Hoover’s acrimony by allegedly introducing her four sons to the life of crime that landed them all on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Yet, there was never any evidence that Ma Barker participated in or helped to plan any crimes. More than few historians believe that after FBI agents “mistakenly” killed her during a gun battle, her legend was fabricated whole cloth on the spot to justify the action.
“I’m sorry, Mama…I didn’t mean to hurt you.” -Marshall Mathers
Frank Zappa had his Mothers of Invention. America has Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Chile has the Mothers of the Disappeared. Tony Soprano’s Mom put a hit on her very own son and every year we sing about one particular Mommy who got herself caught kissing Santa Claus. Danny DeVito tried to throw Momma from the train and a few things happened at the Bates Motel that one who would never witness in the matriarchal world of spotted hyenas.
Anne Engh, a Michigan State University graduate student who studies the animals, says female hyenas dominate males in almost all encounters. “The youngest female can bite the legs of the oldest male, and he has to take it,” says Engh, who explains how a strict hyena hierarchy exists under an alpha female and all males rank below all females. Sure, male hyenas have their own hierarchy…but it’s usually set up by the alpha female who installs her sons at the top.
“Have you seen your mother, baby, standing in the shadow?” -Mick Jagger
Ah, Mick Jagger. That reminds me of the time my own Mom took yours truly to a long-extinct establishment called Record Spectacular. A combination record store/head shop, it was a meeting place of sorts for music aficionados, potheads, and other local misfits. I still remember walking wide-eyed into this store as a pre-teen with my mother close at hand. She had promised to buy me an album (remember those?) and I sagely chose the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Ever tolerant, my Mom ignored the Andy Warhol zipper fly album cover but she did take a good long look around at the bongs, Bambu rolling paper, and black light posters of scantily-clad hippie girls…as Emerson, Lake and Palmer blared over the sound system. She was not pleased: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…”
Little did Mom know that rock and roll would become a significant feature of my youthful development. It got me singing in a band, managing some headbangers, and spurred me to become a rather precocious concert-goer…having seen legends like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Queen, the Allman Brothers, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, and Black Sabbath all before I turned 16. Once, I even snuck into Madison Square Garden to see the Stones in their heyday. They played “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time since Altamont…and Eric Clapton joined them on stage to jam.
Mom grew to despise the sound of Mick Jagger’s voice soon after she bought me Sticky Fingers, but that day, as we ate lunch across the street from Record Spectacular, I couldn’t stop taking out my new album to admire it. Finally, my endlessly patient, unconditionally loving Mom cracked.
“I wish you wouldn’t buy Rolling Stones’ albums,” she told me sternly. “All the money goes to drugs, you know.”
That concept sounded mighty subversive to a 12-year-old and it made me smile…as I would smile years later upon reading the words of dear Mother Jones, who exclaimed: “I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell-raiser.”
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
MICKEY Z. is currently writing a book on related topics, “50 American Revolutions: People’s Patriotism Since 1776,” to be released by Disinformation in fall 2005. He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.