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The Best Advice My Mom Ever Gave Me

The wisdom of mothers is one of those universal things that crosses cultures, eras, and ideologies, so it’s not surprising that I had my own nuggets of wisdom to cling to and, ultimately, pass on to my own daughter. If you had met my mother a few years ago, you’d have been struck by her class and graciousness; her ability, even as she approached 80, to make people feel welcome and included has always been her stock in trade. She’d have impressed you with stories of travel, and her deep and abiding love for education. But Alzheimer's is a cruel, cruel thing, and while she's still at the phase where her graciousness and passion for education and travel are still there and she can talk about them, her ability to understand the passage of time and remember who's alive and who's not, or even what decade it is have slipped away. The kernels of who she is, though still shine through for now, and I'm grateful for that on this Mother's Day.

What you might not pick up on right away upon meeting my mother is what created the woman you’ve just met; you wouldn’t necessarily realize that you were talking to a lady who was raised in a tiny Midwestern town, full mostly with people who never travel more than 50 miles from where they were born. You wouldn’t know that she fought the patriarchal expectations of the time and not only finished high school, but went on to get a doctorate in Early Childhood Education, and worked tirelessly her whole life to be of service to others. You wouldn’t see the scars she never talks about or the pieces of her heart that never really healed once they were broken.

But what I can share with you is what her struggles taught her, because those things are valuable for all of us.

Wisdom bomb #1: Always make sure that you make enough money on your own to support yourself and whatever children you have. Now, I’ve been blessed with a wonderful husband who is one of the greatest dads in history. But the lesson wasn’t lost on me. From the time I was young, she always guided me to maintain a downright Emersonian level of self-reliance. It wasn’t that I shouldn’t reach out for help; it was just that I should be prepared to solve my own problems if that help wasn’t there for me. This dogged individualism might not be in vogue in an era of self-care, and a lot of times I probably worked a lot harder than I maybe needed to, but there’s no denying the self-confidence that comes from knowing that you can count on yourself when the chips are down.

Wisdom bomb #2: Always keep a pair of black slippers in your lowest desk drawer. You know, just in case. I know that might sound a little low-rent, but I can’t tell you what a salvation that’s been. At least a dozen times over the years I’ve popped the strap on a sandal, gotten a horrible blister, stepped in a puddle, or had way too much faith in my ability to wear heels for eight hours. While this is very specific advice, it has a far deeper implication: plan for something to go sideways and have a plan B.

Wisdom bomb #3: When you start working at a new school (I joined the Family Business...that is, I became a teacher. Coming from a teaching family is, incidentally, like coming from a mafia family. Almost no one escapes The Life.), make friends with the Head Custodian and the principal’s secretary right away. No matter what the pay grades say, that’s who runs the school. Truer words were never spoken. But the bigger lesson here is that a person’s value is not always proportionate to his or her paycheck, and often the people with the smallest offices are the ones for whom you should be the most grateful.

Wisdom bomb #4: Be nice to your brother’s girlfriend. Let’s be honest. We’re all going to be forced into social situations with people we don’t like, sometimes even people who don’t treat us very well. And I confess that I was more than a little salty at having to learn this lesson all those years ago. In retrospect, though, sucking it up and playing nice (and, dare I say, being the bigger person?) meant not creating conflict that might have done long-term damage to our family, and the girl was a temporary speedbump in our history. The lesson I look back on 20 years later is the fact that sometimes, no matter how justified you may feel, you might have to take one for the team in order to serve the greater good.

Time marches on. I am, in many ways (and not so much in others), pretty far from the awkward teenager I once was. Now I’m the one hosting the holidays, and she’s the one asking if she can bring anything, forgetting that she no longer cooks. I’m the one tiptoeing into retirement from my 30-year teaching career, and she’s the one meeting friends for wine in the cul-de-sac. And now that she’s been awarded the coveted title of Grandma, she gets to spoil my daughter if she wants to, while it’s my job to teach my teen the lessons my mother taught me. I’m grateful for that kind of legacy.

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