Listen to your mother

By RAY ROUTHIER, Portland Press Herald Writer  Sunday, September 24, 2006


WHAT: Exhibit of collages by Rhea Cote Robbins, adjunct professor of women's studies and Franco-American studies at the University of Maine, which includes the proverbs and sayings of her mother, Rita L. St. Germain Cote.

WHERE: The Hudson Museum, University of Maine, Orono.

WHEN: through Nov. 27. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 581-1901 or go online at

WHAT ELSE: A Web site created around the exhibit and related curriculum materials are at

Donna Roy remembers hearing her mother often say "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
The words are widely known as the Golden Rule, uttered by Jesus. Sounded like good advice to Roy, so she tried to follow it.
Roy's mother also said, "Don't eat pork. If they (pigs) eat garbage, you eat them and you'll get sick." So Roy followed that advice, too. Mostly because it came from her mother.
"I never ate a piece of pork until I was married and my husband said, 'How come we never have pork chops?' " said Roy, 59, of Old Orchard Beach.
Ah, the power of a mother's words. Most of us have no problem recalling the pithy sayings and bits of wisdom our mothers imparted upon us. They stay with us 40, 50, 60 years.
Long enough for us to learn, most of the time, that mom was right. She knew a little more about life than we did.
Whether it's a clever saying that helps us not to lie, or a funny saying that reminds us of life's ups and downs, things our mothers said are like the Cliffs Notes on how to live life. When we grow up, we may find out our mother did not originate the saying or proverb, but that matters little, because we heard it first from her.
The idea of a mother's words is the focus of an art exhibit put together by Rhea Cote Robbins, an adjunct professor of women's studies and Franco-American studies at the University of Maine at Orono. The exhibit, called "Maman Disait" ("What Mama Said"), is on display through Nov. 27 and features 39 framed art pieces that celebrate the words of her mother.
The artworks are collages of various things - cutouts from period advertisements, garment labels, photographs - that together re-create her mother's sayings.
Robbins' mother, Rita L. St. Germain Côté, was born in 1919 near Fort Kent, and grew up in northern Aroostook County. She was bilingual, speaking French and English in the rural area that borders Canada.
Her sayings were probably influenced by her French heritage and her rural upbringing. But when looking at a list of the sayings, one is struck by how familiar they are, how oft-repeated they are today.
Consider a few of them: "To each his own," "The more things change, the more they remain the same," and "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs."
But then there are others in Robbins' show that seem to be a bit more specific to her mother: "Wear everything out at the same rate" and "I have time to pass 10 times (while waiting in traffic)."
Robbins' mother, who died in 1982, worked as a cook in a lumber camp on the Allagash River when she was in her teens, then as an adult lived in Waterville, raised a family and worked as a tailor in downtown department stores. She knew sayings in both French and English.
Robbins struck on the idea of making art from her mother's sayings as she was researching some of them for a trilogy of books she's writing on the Franco-American experience of women in Maine.
As she looked up her mother's sayings in various sources, she began to realize many were universal and that they had been passed down orally from mother to mother for years.
"Historically, it's been the mothers who basically transmit the culture. They have been the language teachers, the caretakers of the children. They taught the morals, how to do life," said Robbins. " I think of those sayings as kind of like a community-shared transmission of values and beliefs. This is a huge store of knowledge passed down orally."
Robbins is intrigued by how some sayings are ways of indirectly saying something very specific. And the specific meaning depends on the time and place in which it is said, who is saying it and to whom it is said.
For example, when Robbins' mother left rural Aroostook County as a young woman seeking work in a city, she was reminded, "As you make your bed, so you must lie in it." The specific meaning in her mother's family, Robbins said, was "Don't get pregnant."
"That was understood," said Robbins, 53. "These sayings had public, formal meanings, but families attributed other meanings to them as well."
Of course, for most of us, that expression has a more general meaning about taking responsibility for one's actions. Still a common theme of motherly advice.
As is lying.
"My mother always has said, 'Never tell a lie, because it's too hard to remember. You don't forget the truth,' " said Mary Wilkins of Bath, whose mother worked as a nurse and a health educator. "She got it from her grandmother, who taught in a one-room school. And you know what? It's true, so I repeat the saying to my children and to their children."
Some mothers' sayings aren't meant to be life lessons but are more observational, and might bring a smile or a laugh to an adult child years later.
Peg Conroy likes to use a line of her mother's that goes, "Let God dry them." Her mother used it when hanging the wash on a line to dry. She does, too. Or when she's drying out wet shoes or wet anything.
"It just makes me laugh. She was Irish, and that was just something she always said," said Conroy of her mother, who died in 1990. "I'm passing it on to my daughter."
Colleen Norberg of Windham remembers several of her mother's sayings, including: "You'll live through it all," "Because I said so" and "Make sure you have clean underwear on in case you get in an accident."
She has two children of her own, ages 15 and 22, and finds herself using the sayings, including "You'll live through it all." She likes that one, because whenever she was whiny or having problems, her mother would say it, and so far, it's turned out to be true.
But Norberg says the favorite or her mother's sayings is "I am your mother, that's why." Simple. Direct. Unimpeachable.
It also, if you analyze it, is a statement of responsibility, of love and caring.
Norberg said at some point she began to use the sayings so much she'd tell people, "I've become my mother." But that is not at all a bad thing, she says.
"I would be lucky to be as good as she is," Norberg said.
Kate Clark Flora, a writer from Harpswell, is also proud to pass along the many sayings from her mother, A. Carman Clark, who was a writer for the Camden Herald newspaper.
Those include: "I did my best with you three and then your true natures came out" and "Who ever told you life would be fair?"
The first one was a way of saying that at some point, each person has to take responsibility for themselves. A parent can only do so much.
"I can use it on my kids, so it's my favorite," said Flora. "It really sums up the nature of the parent-child relationship. At some point you have to take responsibility for your own life."
The second quote, about fairness, can be useful because it often prompts a child-parent discussion about what is fair, Flora said. And lets the parent remind a child that just because life isn't fair, it doesn't mean he or she can be unfair.
Flora's mother grew up in a rural area of the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York.
Another of her sayings, which Flora says guides her to this day, was "If you know it doesn't belong to you, leave it alone."
To Flora, that saying speaks to the basic notion of honesty. If you know it doesn't belong to you, no matter whether anybody else knows, you must leave it alone.
"To this day, if I see change on the floor in a store I have to pick it up and hand it to a clerk," said Flora.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: