Don’t ever go to bed with dirty feet. My mother reminded me of that regularly when I was a child. I think it was her version of “Don’t wear frayed underwear in case you have to go to the hospital.” Then again, who knows? Maybe she had a thing about dirty feet. It was effective, though. To this day, I often check my feet before I climb in bed.
I polled my friends recently about the best advice they had received from their mothers, and though the wording varied greatly, the content was remarkably consistent. Our moms worried about our morals, our diets, our wardrobes, our futures, and our husbands. They advised us to be strong, sincere, polite, friendly, and respectful but to take no guff from anyone. Mothers advised us to work hard, study hard, play hard, and be good to our children. “The gates of heaven won’t open wider for you because you had the cleanest house … go play with your kids.” They cautioned us to be on guard lest we be taken in by jerks, perverts, and an assortment of other bad dudes. One eastern Kentucky Appalachian mother went so far as to insist that “Everyone is an enemy until they surrender.”
Moms warned us to hide coins in our socks so that we could call them when we inevitably got into trouble. (This was before the cell phone era. Pay phones took coins. Look it up.)
They encouraged us to get a good night’s rest before any big day and to drink our whiskey neat. Not necessarily in that order.
Versions of the Golden Rule were standard go-tos for most mothers. “Always treat others as you want to be treated.” “Pretty is as pretty does.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I must admit this nugget often was cast in my direction, normally following an incident during which I had explained to someone what I thought of them, their ideas, and often their dog. Now it seems reproving. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, though. That’s how things worked.
The work ethic featured prominently in mothers’ advice to their daughters. “Work hard, always in the direction of what you want.” “Genius is 99% sweat.” “If you want nice things, you have to work for them; don’t expect things to be given to you.” “Find out what brings you happiness, then figure out how to make a living doing that.”
Mothers often explained the work ethic and education as pathways to independence. Since most of the respondents in my wildly unscientific poll were over 50, making their moms at least over 70, I found this noteworthy. I didn’t expect to find women of that age holding independence in such high regard that they felt it deserving of mention to their daughters. Maybe I was blinded by my own self-centeredness. I thought my boomer generation had the market cornered on the glorification of a woman’s autonomy. Perhaps because they felt their independence had been compromised by their life choices, these mothers cautioned their daughters to guard their own self-reliance with vigor. Interestingly, in both bits of advice mentioning the importance of an education, there was an allusion to the threat of independence being forcefully removed. “No one can take your education from you!” “Finish college! It’s something no one can take from you.” Makes me wonder what threat there was in their lives.
On a lighter note, our mothers had very definite opinions about what we wore. Wrinkles (in our clothes, not on our faces) were the apex of many potential apparel missteps. “Don’t ever go anywhere looking like you slept in your clothes.” “Never wear plastic shoes.” “A purse with a loud clasp is cheap.” “Buy good bras.” “Take a sweater.” This last came from two different respondents. Both attributed the comment to their grandmothers.
A few mothers passed on cautions to us about the men we would encounter in our lives. Had we actually bought into some of these, it is likely none of us would ever have considered a second date with a member of the opposite sex. “Remember, the devil is in the world, too.” This respondent explained that her mother was referring to her ex. “Men only think of one thing.” “The more I know about men, the better I like my dog.”
The other viewpoint, however, was represented as well. “Marry a man who makes you his partner, not his servant.” “Never go to sleep angry.” “It takes a good woman to find a good man.”
Our mothers must have given a great deal of thought to our strength of character. They crafted and passed out bits of advice that seemed designed to give us comfort when life didn’t take the turns we wanted. I imagine them imagining us repeating these to ourselves in our dark moments. “Never give in. Right will win.” “Do the best you can. You can’t do anything more.” “Do what your mind tells you to.” “You’ll always have people in your life you don’t like. Don’t let them know it.” “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” “The rest of the world may not find you as special as I do. You’ll need to earn their respect.” “When you are sad inside and you have to go to work, put on your work face.” “Be true to your values.” “Never have any regrets.” “You don’t have to look far to find someone worse off than you are.”
Then there were a few random bits of advice doled out by moms that must have been given rise to by experiences in their own lives. The most charming and oddly comforting one I found was this: “Leave any public restroom cleaner than when you arrived. You are going to wash your hands anyway.” I won’t do it, but I like the thought.
The advice our mothers gave us was one of the many vehicles they employed to equip us with the tools and resources they thought would guide us as we embarked on lives without them by our sides. They drew on the best and sometimes, worst, of their own experiences to capsulize the wisdom they hoped we could draw on in a pinch. They loved us. And they told us, in so many different ways.
A few of my respondents had rocky relationships with their mothers. Alcoholism was mentioned more than once as the wall that neither mother nor daughter could often scale. For these women, I am so sad. I know, though, that these women have bent over backward to be better mothers to their daughters than they perceived their mothers were to them. They viewed their lives with their mothers in a mirror, and then turned the image around. Brava, them.
Whether your mother is with you today or, like mine, has been gone for some time (Louise Fogarty Higgins died at the age of 82 in 1996), you should count yourself lucky if your relationship with your mom was filled with love, laughter, and tidbits of advice we can use — to remember them by, if for nothing else. Happy Mother’s Day.
Love you, Mom.
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