Saturday, April 28, 2012

W   What I Didn’t (and Did) Learn from my Mother

How to Be Domestic: It wasn’t her fault. She tried. She tried many times while I was growing up to teach me to cook. I just wasn’t interested. I wanted to read.

Oh, I used to make a few things once in a while. I had to take Home Ec in junior high, in which I learned to make chicken à la king, and I did actually make that one for my family…once. There were some cookies, maybe a cake; later on I tried my hand at eggplant Parmesan and a gourmet mac-and-cheese recipe. But those times were few and far between.

My mother was a fantastic cook; so was my roommate. I was glad to let them have their way in the kitchen (lest you think I took advantage, my roommate didn’t drive at the time, so in exchange for cooking I did the driving). So cooking wasn’t my thing. Neither was (or is) cleaning. I’ve never had much of a flair for decorating, buying nice furniture, or arranging things.

However, there was one domestic thing we did share for a while: sewing. My mother was always good at that. I remember her making clothes for a doll I had as a child--a little doll, smaller than Barbie, and she did a great job. I got interested in sewing as a teenager. We set up our machine in the downstairs family room. We had a pool table that came with a plywood top for ping-pong. We put that on top of the table and had a perfect place to lay out our patterns. I was into dresses at the time and made several— even my high school graduation dress. I stopped sewing around the time I went to college--too busy then--and I never went back to it. Maybe I should pick it up again sometime. I have since also learned to cook--somewhat--with a few good cookbooks and a great set of recipe cards. We even used to have my mom up for dinner, and she was impressed. Better late than never, I guess.

Self-Confidence: This wasn’t her fault, either. Psychologists say that children who are always criticized by their parents grow up lacking self-esteem, but that didn’t happen in my case. My parents thought I was wonderful. I was the one who didn’t agree. My mother still thinks I’m beautiful and smart and a terrific person (in fact, so does my husband). I don’t know why she could never teach me to believe that. But then she always said she didn’t have any self-esteem, and I don’t understand that, as she was beautiful, smart, etc. I guess the negative self-views just seeped into me by osmosis and no logical arguments can overcome them.

Storytelling: Both my parents were wonderful storytellers. My father had a storehouse of tales about growing up in Brooklyn and the kids he hung out with and the silly nicknames they had (his was “Dutch”, as he was German), and also stories about the war years and his time in Europe. He would tell us about people he worked with and about the wisecracking waitress at the restaurant where they had lunch. My mother just had a natural way of being funny, whether she was telling stories about her childhood and her five siblings or about a surreal conversation with a hairdresser or how strangers would talk to her in the supermarket. I wish either of my parents had been a writer and had written down some of those stories, because I forget so many of them now. I’m the one who has always wanted to be a writer, and yet I find it so hard to just tell a story. I love to create characters and get into their psychological depths, but the simple structuring of a plot seems to be beyond me. And I can’t tell a story orally to save my life; maybe this is a consequence of my extreme shyness, I don’t know--a fear of the sound of my own voice? Could be. I wish I had inherited that facility, though.

What I Did Learn from My Mother

First and foremost, a sense of humor. How to laugh at odd little things. My mother’s humor always had a little caustic edge, often directed at herself. Over the past years, as I’ve watched her grow old, I’ve marveled at how she could maintain that so well. When arthritis all but crippled her, she’d laugh at her own moans and groans, make funny faces, and joke about the cane she had to carry and the walker she eventually needed. Even now, with dementia, she can still make fun of herself, and her sense of humor delights the staff members at her residence. I hope that I can do as well as I grow more and more toward her age and less capable of certain things.

Conversely, and because not everything you learn is good, she taught me to worry. My mother has always been a champion worrywart. She worried about everything, from the weather to how much food she had in the house to whether my dog had had her dinner yet. Most of all, of course, she worried about us, my brother and me, and that didn’t stop when we were out of the house and married. Much of what she worried about were really trivial things, but because I lived with her and absorbed so much of her, I picked up the habit. I’ve gotten much better as I’ve gotten older, though, and I suppose both of us learned to cushion our anxiety with the aforementioned sense of humor (and a little bit of anxiety medication).

Love of reading. She used to read us stories at bedtime every night, and I learned to read by following along in the book with her while she read. So I was reading at age four, and I haven’t stopped since. I remember my mother belonging to one of those mail-order book clubs, and I would devour the bulletins she received with the month’s offerings, though the books themselves were too sophisticated for me. But I did join a couple of book clubs for kids at different times. Later on my mother’s taste turned to true-crime stories, and that couldn’t have diverged more from my taste. She loved Ann Rule, who seemed to write a lot about family murders; I always wondered how my gentle, refined mother could enjoy such grisly stuff. She told me it was real life and that I was too sensitive. I said I didn’t want any part of that kind of “real life.” I preferred my classic novels. It was hard for me to watch her get to the point where she couldn’t read any more, not because she lost the ability but because she just couldn’t process or retain what she read.

Most of all, though, she taught me love. Her love was always unconditional; there was nothing she wouldn’t do for my brother and for me, for my father, for her siblings and their spouses and children, for anyone she cared about. My mother liked to put on a pretense of enjoying being a loner, of hating to be bothered by social obligations, but I know that she enjoyed being with good friends and with all of her extended family. We lived in Illinois until I was nine, far from my parents’ families in New York, but we would travel there in summers to see them, so we developed connections that have deepened and lasted over the years. Your family is really all you have, the people who will be there for you, and I’m grateful to have had a wonderful one.


  1. A lovely post!

    Just stopping by from the a-z!

  2. What a touching and lovingly shared list Elaine. Even in the attributes you feel she didn't pass on, you can see the connection of it between the two of you anyway. As a by stander throughout these posts, I can honestly add a few things to the list that you didn't mention. Compassion, patience, commitment, grace, empathy.... I could run out of room here. I have no doubt that she always has been (and still is in the land of Alzheimers and lost connections) quite proud of you. You are her defining legacy.

  3. I wish I'd paid attention when my mom wanted to teach me to sew. She made the most beautiful things and how I'd love to have that skill now.