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What Did You Learn From Your Mother?

Reflecting on the collective wisdom of moms this Mother's Day


Susan and I share a grandchild (her daughter married my son), a warm friendship and the occasional evening out that includes one cocktail apiece with a side of truffle fries at a posh bar in San Francisco. One recent evening, we discovered our night out coincided with the anniversary of my mother’s death and Susan’s mother’s birthday.

We raised our glasses and said, “To Bonnie and Lenora.”

Through us, memories of them live on, along with some of their advice. Mother’s Day is a logical time to reflect on just that. What did you learn from your mother?

Gems From My Mom

When I was in high school, my mother was certain that I should go to parties with boys I didn’t particularly like because surely once there, I would meet boys I did like. She was wrong. On more than one occasion, I spent the evening doing a stilted box step with a nice, but socially inept, boy who knew just the one dance.

Through us, memories of them live on, along with some of their advice. Mother’s Day is a logical time to reflect on just that.

Of course, Mom was right about a lot of other things. She died at 58, when I was 26, so we didn’t have much time to establish an adult relationship. But to this day, I remember some of her words of wisdom. Here are just five of her heartfelt beliefs, followed by some advice from other mothers:

Share what you have. My best friend in high school was the oldest of 10, and she had little spending money. My mother bankrolled many a pizza, trips to the record store and even clothes shopping for my best friend and me, all the way through college. “Don’t make a big deal out of it,” she’d say, “but pay for Elizabeth.”

Avoid clothes that are too small. “Tight clothes make you look like a sausage,” she’d say. To this day, I favor roomy t-shirts and sweatpants, which my 5-year-old grandson has dubbed “comfy pants.” He prefers them, too.

Enjoy time together. Mom and I were blessed with naturally curly hair and both of us wore it short. For years, from time to time, we would share a bottle of Clairol’s Sparkling Burgundy hair dye, opting for something flashier than our natural brown.

Spend time alone. When I was in high school, Daddy and I were put on notice that after 10:30 p.m. most weeknights, the kitchen in our 950-square-foot house belonged to Mom. After a long day at work, after the supper dishes were done, Mom liked to light a cigarette, mix a small Manhattan and sit quietly with her thoughts.

Always consider the source. When Daddy worried that I was out too late with the car, he often assumed I was running around with boys. I wasn’t. I was at Elizabeth’s house, painting her bedroom or entertaining her younger sisters or talking with her mom. “Don’t take it personally when your dad worries,” Mom said. “He is just recalling his own teen years.”

Notes From Other Mothers

Like many a lucky girl, I had other mothers to guide me as well. Elizabeth’s mom, Helen, was one of them. Helen taught the two of us how to handle alcohol at parties. “You sip the first drink, long enough to let the ice melt completely,” she’d say. “You set the second one down somewhere and walk away. The third one, you pour into a potted plant.”

Helen was a beauty in her youth and used to tell us that boys “lined up down the street and around the corner,” eager to date her. When Elizabeth and I fretted because that was not true for us, Helen would say, “For every pot, there is a lid.”

Jo, my mother’s best friend, taught me how to drive because Mom just wasn’t up to the task. Day after day, week after week, Jo and I would head for an empty parking lot where I could safely practice driving my family’s ’58 Chevy station wagon, which had a stick shift on the steering column.

After mastering that — and eventually, I could back that massive vehicle into a narrow one-car driveway off a busy street —  driving has been a breeze. Jo also kindly counseled me that in my quest to remain a virgin until college, wearing panties, a panty girdle and pettipants under my skirt all at once was overkill.

My Aunt Betty is my dad’s only sibling, born 15 years after he was. Daddy’s gone, but Betty, now 87, lives at a nursing home in rural Illinois. On St. Patrick’s Day, she gamely wore the fuzzy green stick-on mustache I sent her, reminding everyone she encountered that we are never too old to laugh.

Years ago, Betty, a mother of five, offered two key pieces of advice about bringing up children: Girls can thrive as the youngest in a class; boys can’t. She also always preached — and practiced — that it’s important to accept a grown child’s spouse with love. Betty has nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Pastry Dough, Fashion Tips and Humor

Susan, the friend I shared that toast to our mothers with, remembers that her mother Lenora passed along two domestic tips, likely advice passed down from her mother. “Don’t handle the pastry dough too much when you roll out a pie crust — it makes it tough.” And “If you’re late starting dinner, set the table first. It reassures the menfolk that a meal is imminent.”

Lenora also offered Susan fashion advice: “Avoid too many ruffles and flounces. You don’t want to look like a Christmas tree.”

Another friend’s mother, a singer, always told her daughters, “Breathe!” and she taught them the importance of making lists.

Two of my friends — Beth and Carol — are lucky enough to still have their mothers.

Beth’s mom, Virginia, is 88 and lives in suburban St. Louis. Virginia has always emphasized the importance of having friends. Beth got that message early on — we have been close for more than 40 years. Virginia also counsels: “Stay busy and active.”

Carol’s mom, Sarah, echoes Virginia’s advice and adds, “Age is just a number.” Now 93, Sarah lives in Berkeley, Calif., where she just celebrated her birthday with family and friends. “Keep your sense of humor,” Sarah says, “and be open to new experiences every day.”

With so much good advice this Mother’s Day, how can any of us go wrong?

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