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Things My Mother Taught Me

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

I was vacuuming over the weekend and heard my mother’s voice saying, slow down and take at least five minutes. She must have come up with this idea in frustration because at 13 years of age I would finish the living room in 30 seconds. When she came home from work and saw that floor, she must have been tired and tempted to say, why can’t you do one simple task? But no, what I remember is that message – take five minutes.

My parents had four of us children when my father got rheumatic fever. He was in the hospital and I have heard that my mother ended up in the hospital too. I was too young to remember the details, but my older sister has told me what she recalls. That illness changed him and although he returned to work, he never fully recovered. Yet my parents had one more child, my mother went back to school and became the nurse she always wanted to be, and all five of us went on to college. It was not easy for them and to some extent for us, but I always had a sense of security and love, even if that was unspoken.

I have read other people’s stories about what they learned in conversations with their parents, and thought, I did not have that. But hearing my mother’s voice vacuuming made me realize that I did have many lessons from my mother that I carry to this day. Here are a few.

1. No matter how hard life gets, you can get through it. When I was a junior in high school I came home late in the evening from a banquet and checked in with my mother who was sleeping. I slightly opened my parents’ bedroom door and she turned to me. As I write this, I can still see her, in the dark, saying, no matter what happens, we will be fine. You see, my father was in the hospital and I think I was so used to his being ill that I did not realize how bad he was, but she did. When she said that I too understood, but also knew we would be ok – because of her.

2. Never complain. After my father died, my mother changed from working nights as a nurse in pediatrics to working days as a secretary. She was good at both, but her love had been those babies. She never complained, just did what needed to be done to take care of us, her children.

3. Be generous. My mother was in a car accident when I was in my twenties and she got $20,000 in a settlement. That was a lot of money for her, but she immediately shared it with all five of us children. I remember her being proud to be able to make us that gift, even though she needed it more than we did.

4. Be honest. When the basement flooded in our house, my mother loaned $2,000 to me and my husband for the sewer work. She had us sign a promissory note because there were five of us children and she wanted to be fair to everyone. As I got older and worked with clients and their families, it has been a lesson that I share. Be honest and businesslike - it avoids untold problems.

5. Be creative and don’t worry about what others think. My mother was ahead of her time when it came to food. I remember her putting things like cereal on ice cream because it gave it more crunch, more texture and more flavor. We laughed but she did not care. She understood creative ice cream long before Ben and Jerry’s did.

6. Eat dessert first. This one came about in part to be sure you got that last piece of pie at the restaurant in case there was none at the end of the meal. It also said – eat what you want when you want. And if that is pie first and meal after, go for it.

7. Be proud of who you are. After my mother retired, she worked for me when I started my law practice. By that time the word “secretary” was seen as demeaning and new hires wanted to be “administrative assistants” even though they did not have anywhere near the skills my mother had. I remember her saying, I am a secretary and proud of it. She knew who she was and what she could do, and the label did not change that.

8. Don’t waste. My parents lived through the depression and that experience defined not only their lives but mine. Although I don’t darn socks as I recall her doing when I was young, I do reuse paper for notes and can make a casserole from pretty much anything.

9. Travel and see the world however you can. My mother was an adventurer on a limited budget. She worked 50 weeks a year, but she would take her two weeks of vacation, find the best deals and travel: Paris or Athens or Morocco. These were trips with groups, but she was basically on her own - utterly fearless.

10. Enjoy food but eat well. I was lucky growing up because my parents could not afford soda (pop to us), chips or lots of snacks. We had the occasional Charlie Chips potato chips, but it was a treat, just as pop would be at the holidays. To this day I can’t drink sweet drinks and am not a fan of “junk food” and thank her every day.

I don’t mean to say my life was perfect. Like everyone, there were challenges and hard times, but the older I get the more I realize how fortunate I was. Aging is humbling in so many ways, but it makes me realize, as I pass through the age of my parents, what they did. Their lives, like so many of their generation, were hard, but I know they loved each other and us and even if they did not say that directly to us, I knew it. They taught us by how they lived. And for that I will always be grateful.

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