My mother taught me many things she didn’t know she as teaching me and probably had no intention of teaching me. She also tried to teach me things I had no interest or ability to learn. This is suggestive of a lot of crossed wires between us, however, there were fewer than you might think. I adored my mother but she remains, ten years after her death, the most enigmatic person I have ever met.
She was so much like she appears in this photograph. Tailored, put together. The ever-present pumps. If you could see the backs of her legs, the seams would be absolutely straight. She would be wearing a full length slip that hung, oh, maybe, an inch above the hem of her skirt. And she is looking at the camera but she is holding on to herself. Maybe it was cold there in Niagara Falls in 1938 when this picture was taken but I don’t think so. This is just how she was. Present but within herself.
So what did my mother teach me? Well, here’s my short list.
My mother had just turned 20 when she married my dad, a guy four years older, who had, as they say, been around. He played the ‘horn’ as he called it at honky-tonks around Lansing and, as he told me in one of our midnight chats when he was about 89, “he had never met a really nice girl like her.” Hmmmmm.
Her? I think she was looking for a bit of a bad boy. You can’t tell me every guy walked around looking like that in 1938. The guy really knew how to wear a hat.
2. Make your kids look as cool as you.
My mother was just a great tailored dresser. She didn’t do flounce – ever. She was all about trim skirts and sweater sets. And she was just very cool.
She wasn’t gorgeous. In fact, her most frequent adage to me, and this makes me roll my eyes even typing it….It’s not important to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.
She had style and I like to think she passed it on.
3. Be stoic.
This is about what my mother taught me. It’s not necessarily about what I learned. Those things aren’t always synonymous, you know? My mother was very stoic. She absorbed extraordinary stress (which I also have the ability to do) without complaining (not so much). My mother was a ‘put your head down and just get through it’ kind of gal. She didn’t complain about my father’s business reversals. She just hauled out all the neat tricks she learned as a kid in the Depression, like bean soup with just the beans. It took me years and much travel to realize that bean soup could be flavored by something, like….meat.
4. Grow where you’re planted.
She would say this but she couldn’t do this. So I hear this phrase in my head all the time and it’s one reason why I have been loathe to move out of Milwaukee even when there’ve been good opportunities elsewhere. My folks moved a lot and a couple of the moves were uprooting and painful and almost impossible to recover from so my mother was often living in a state of ‘place-grief’. So I think this little adage was meant as a motivational mantra because it wasn’t how she was able to live. She was often too wounded to grow.
5. Peel Potatoes.
I was a latchkey kid. When I got home from school, I’d call my mother at the store – our family business was a Ben Franklin Store where all of us worked starting around age 12…so these calls predated my becoming an employee. So anyway, I’d ask her what to make for dinner. And she’d say, well, not sure, put some water on to boil and peel some potatoes. This was the opening gambit of all her dinners.
What it said to me – then and now – was just start. Do something. People coming home from work and will be hungry? Boil potatoes. Someone sick coming home from the doctor? Turn down the bed. Relatives gathering after a funeral? Make sandwiches. Put on your apron (figuratively) and be useful.
There’s more probably. She tried to teach me to sew but it made me crazy — all those tucks and putting zippers in. She made a dress for me once out of the basement curtains – I kid you not – the dress had tulips along the hem. Remember it plain as day. She could do that. Take down the curtains and make a dress. It makes my head spin.