My mother was my greatest teacher, and last night I woke up thinking about the many lessons she has taught me over the years…some serious and intentional, some commonplace set by example, and some quite humorous, each of them shaping me into the woman I am today, quirks and all. Sometimes I learned what not to do from my mother, but I find that that is just as an important a lesson to learn sometimes as anything else.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Mom developed some issues around saving things, as most others of her generation did. I always loved her stories of her childhood, as she talked of those challenging times without making them into struggle stories. To her the ‘olden days’ as she called them were magical days, days filled with hard work, love of family, and lots of interesting people. Mom could spin a story out of anything, and I heard so many tales about the different characters she knew as a child…Iner May and the pump handle dance, the ‘Big Fat Stinkies’, Fonza Swafford, her best friend, and the many characters who came to stay at her parents’ boarding house (coining the phrase, ‘the boarding house reach’).
Mom would save anything- just in case. She wasn’t a hoarder or anything, but sometimes she came close to at least being an enthusiastic saver. As I was cleaning out her apartment, I came across a huge stash of plastic containers, including the McDonald’s milkshake plastic cups that she had faithfully saved from when I couldn’t get to Sonic for the real deal. These were not nice plastic containers like Tupperware, but old yogurt or margarine tubs…or anything else that came in plastic. She just knew there would be a use for them, and they did often come in handy when she wanted to share food, or some of her homemade banana pudding or pies- with her friends. I, on the other hand, have an aversion to saving anything like that. The clutter gets to me, I think from seeing it all in the cupboards during my childhood.
There was also that issue with toilet paper. Mom told lots of stories about the outhouse she had to use as a child, and how there was always a race to get there while there were still soft pages of the Sears Roebuck catalogue left…what was used for toilet paper by her family. She admitted the shiny pages weren’t too fun. Even when we had hardly anything to eat, the bathroom linen closet would be stuffed with rolls and rolls of Charmin. She told me she’d sworn she would never do without toilet paper again. I always saw her as Scarlet O’Hara, fist to the sky, “As God is my witness, I will never go without Charmin again!” It would become a huge emergency at the Home for Wayward Seniors if she got low on “T-Tissue”, as she called it. Okay…I have to admit that I picked that lesson up, too. Dan laughs at my store of toilet paper, but I know he’ll thank me one day. That’s just something you don’t want to run out of.
When I see rudeness when we are out and about, I think about how glad I am that Mom taught me right out of the womb to be kind and polite, to hold doors open for people, to smile and speak when you pass someone, to say please and thank you, yes ma’am and no ma’am, to give up your seat to an elderly person, to avoid confrontation and instead “kill ’em with kindness”. That Southern hospitality stuff is a good thing, though often both Mom and I could be considered too nice. We both agreed we’d rather be known for that vice than for being “scrubby” (her term for rude).
She taught me that my purse should always match my shoes, but I’ve never been good at that one. I’m trying to make more of an effort now that she’s gone, but I’m afraid I went out with brown sandals and a black purse again today. I felt her cringe. She taught me you should always fix yourself up before going out into public, but I’ve never been good at that one, unlike my sister. She taught me that family is important, even if you don’t agree on things; to stick to my convictions, even if they aren’t popular; that your word means something, and that you should never tell a lie.
Mom taught me to love old houses and antiques, and to always keep your yard looking nice for the neighbors. She taught me to be considerate of others, and to respect my elders. Through her actions, she showed me the importance of humor in daily life, in the ability to laugh during times of sadness, and the importance of faith. She taught me to love animals and to be kind to them.
There are countless lessons, covering every aspect of my life. I hear her sayings in my head (“Actions speak louder than words, Neese”), instinctually behave in the manner she ingrained in me. Of course, I have put my own spin on many things, and Mom and I were very different people…in some ways. My life took a different path from Mom’s, with more opportunities for education, a very happy marriage, and no children or grandchildren, but our core values remained the same.
So many lessons, the smallest to the most important ones that have guided me into and through adulthood. Those lessons have helped to steer me away from making some not-so-good decisions, and have enabled me to recover when I did. She helped me to appreciate the many wonderful people and opportunities in my life. Her lessons also helped me to to see the humor in life, and to hold onto that humor, even in times of challenge. I have a feeling that someday I, too, will be the cute little old lady honking the horn on my walker to make people smile. And that’s okay with me, yes, Ma’am.