I have a friend who says the only time you should give someone advice is when they ask for it. Or in an emergency.
Apparently, my mother felt that childhood — my entire childhood — was a time of great emergency. Or that children are sort of implicitly asking for advice, simply by virtue of being so short. Whatever the explanation, when my mother opened her mouth, out would come advice.
For a very long time I felt my mother's advice was not very good. She never told me to do what I love. (She told me to get a job where I could make money.) She told me to marry someone who loved me more than I loved them. She told me to wait until I was married before having sex. She told me not to take time off between high school and college. Her advice tended to the conservative, to a world-view that matched her experience: be careful, don't take risks.
When I turned 18, the advice trickled off. What had once been a monsoon became an occasional shower and then stopped altogether. At times when I could certainly have used some advice, she hesitated to tell me what to do. She'd said enough, was the basic idea. It was my time now.
What I realized when I woke up this morning thinking about my mother is that the best advice you can give children is unspoken. Children do not listen when you give them advice. The minute you open your mouth to tell them they should always put on sunblock or when they get old they'll be as wrinkled as aged apples their eyes glaze over and they start thinking about how much they love Skittles and wondering if they have one left over in their pocket. My son, who's reading this over my shoulder, claims he does listen to my advice. Today, that's his job. It's Mother's Day after all, the one day when your children have to take your advice, or at least listen to it.
The truth, though, is that children don't listen to you. They watch you. And these are the things I've seen my mother do: She sits next to old people at parties because she likes to hear what they have to say. She doesn't give her grandchildren nearly as much advice as she gave me. She hugs them and tells them they're wonderful. She gives money to homeless people. Through her entire working life she has never taken as much as a pen from her employer. She shows up on time. She does her job. She doesn't gossip about her co-workers. She loves to learn new things. She was the oldest employee at Microsoft during the years she worked there. People might not have known that because she is not a grumpy old person: she is light and airy, gracious, kind, generous. My mother's glass is not half empty. Even in a drought, you have to carry it carefully or it will spill, because it is so full.
The first time I saw my parents dance was at my wedding. A swing band was playing and most people were sort of shuffling around the floor and wondering when dinner would begin. My mom and dad were magical. They danced with the authority and grace of people who've been together a lifetime. My mother never told me she could do that. It would never have occurred to her to think this beautiful thing she could do was of any moment. It was just what she did.
The advice my mother gave me didn't generally help me much. And it matters not one bit in the end. The things I saw her do are the things that count. My mom doesn't talk about why she lives her life the way she does. I don't know if it was hard not to steal pencils from her employer or be married to my dad for fifty years. It's just who she is. She's a fine person and a wonderful mother, even if she was wrong about sex.