Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mother of All …

thinking-bikes-solidWell, Mother’s Day has come and gone. I had it in my mind last week, when I chose to write a blog entitled, “Dancing in Heaven.” In that blog the first dance for me was with Elaine Jakes, my mother, as admittedly I had been thinking about seeing her again—an idea perhaps quite foreign to some, i.e. that we shall ever see anyone again who has died or that, after our death we can “see” anything at all. But objections aside, I did think of seeing her again, as I said last week, and this occurred on my bicycle no less, and I did so leading up, fittingly, to Mother’s Day. But it also was leading up to the date of her passing from this life to the next, the anniversary of which will be this week. Because I thought also, on that bicycle ride, of something else.

Of course, that something else was Saddam Hussein. I thought of the strange imprint that Saddam Hussein has made upon American, possibly even global Anglo-speaking culture. For it was, as I recall, Saddam Hussein, who introduced the inceptive words of the phrase “the mother of all X, Y, or Z,” to popular diction.

In this image cleared by the US military, Saddam Hussein appears in a courtroom at Camp Victory, a former Saddam palace on the outskirts of Baghdad, Thursday, July 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Karen Ballard/Pool)I recall it was during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein called the immanent engagement with the American-led coalition forces, “The Mother of All Battles.” That was, I think the original “MOAB.” Before that, I don’t think “the mother of all anything” was common in English,[1] unless it was a literal reference to someone who in fact did mother everyone, e.g. the mother of all the children in the house, the “mother” of all the sick in the hospital, the “mother of” (or really “to”) all the animals in the shelter. Or perhaps, piously speaking, one might think of Mother Teresa,

Mother Theresa

who was the mother of all the poor of Calcutta. But we came to know the phrase, “The Mother of…,” meaning the “largest of” or “greatest of,” from a less than winsome individual, Saddam Hussein.

But normally when we say “the mother of all” we refer to the earth, who nurtures us with her bounty. Or, recently, we saw that the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped in Afghanistan. Clearly that was a big and powerful bomb. moabBut strange it was, at least for me, to see it written as MOAB, as that reminds me of a tribe of Israel that is not infrequently talked about in the Old Testament. One recalls that they descended from Lot’s son, Moab, the child of an incestuous relationship Lot had, ironically as she would become also a mother, with his oldest daughter (Genesis 19:37). His descendants settled just to the east of the River Jordan. The book of Numbers tells us that the Moabites finally settled in a valley known as Arnon (21:26ff.). From the point of view of the people of Israel and Judah, this region was a barren land, characterized by desolate plains and not infrequently overrun by Amorites, though of course there were mountains there, too. Mount Nebo, located in modern-day Jordan, was the most prominent of these, for the book of Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died there (34:1-4); and Mt. Pisgah, too, the vantage point from which Moses had that important view of the Promised Land that he would never enter, is a ridge of that very Mt. Nebo.map-of-moab

But this is Moab, not the “Mother of All Battles” or “Bombs” for that matter. Moab and the Moabites have a link to motherhood, as Ruth, a young woman from an apparently pagan religious tradition—a far cry from the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—hailed from Moab; she was the daughter-in-law of the nominally bitter Naomi. Though Naomi was aggrieved about the death of her two sons, Ruth, who had been married to one of them, nonetheless followed her out of Moab with the famous words “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). She is the same Ruth, a Moabitess, who is one of three women named by Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus at the opening of his gospel (1:5). So, perhaps Ruth, could be seen as “The Mother of All Grandmothers” (or at least “Forebears”). And that is an irony, of course, for grandmothers should be grander than mothers.

But lately there has been a greater irony, if you can imagine, for the “Mother of all babies” showed up in California weighing 13 and a half pounds. Now I am one of those folks who is oblivious to baby sizes. When someone tells me the dimensions of their child as if the child were a room being sized for a carpet or as if the child were a sailboat that is for sale, I never find myself trying to imagine the size of the baby. They might as well have said, “He’s a big boy,” or “rather small” (depending on the child’s size), or an “ample lass” or, mutatis mutandis, a “paltry one.” For this is more meaningful to me, when it comes to an infant, than inches or pounds. Yet that said, even I know that thirteen and a half pounds is simply huge. It would, according to Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric, have to qualify as the “Mother of All Babies”—there’s that MOAB again. And that is, of course, a great irony.

But I’ve recently read, too, in that same Washington Post article cited above (n. 1), that many folks find it thoroughly sexist (even “grotesque”) to call anything the “mother of all,” as it could be offensive, especially because the expression, as we have already established, often refers to size. And no one would like to suggest that anyone’s mother is overweight (though it has been known to happen in postpartum circumstances). But better not to talk about it, of course.

So I shall close by moving in a politically correct direction, if only incidentally: I shall cease and desist, at least in this blog, from speaking about the mother of anything, except to say that I am deeply grateful for all the mothers in my life, my own, and those who, like Sheila Rosenthal or my own grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes, played the role of mother when I was but a lad; or my wife, whose kindness has principally fostered the growth of a sizeable family—but not the mother of all families, lest I thereby suggest maximal size. To all the mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day belatedly, and may you have babies rather smaller than 13.5 lbs., and each find a kind person like Ruth to make your life richer.

[1] Further on this see a recent article by Travis M. Andrews in the Morning Mix section of The Washington Post, entitled, “Phrase, ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Decried as ‘Sexist,’ ‘Grotesque’,” 14 April 2017 (www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/04/14/mother-of-all-bombs-jargon-decried-as-sexist-grotesque-it-exists-because-of-saddam-hussein/).

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