Mum’s the Word

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.


6 thoughts on “Mum’s the Word

  1. The piece of advice I remember most from Dad was:

    "Life is a shit sandwich son, the more bread you have, the less shit you eat."

    Thanks Dad.

  2. My favorite is “A person who’s an asshole at 14 will be an asshole at 40.” I’m not sure why. Something about the authority with which he made this pronouncement really impressed me.

  3. Hmmm.. a momism – always let your husband think it was his idea.

    Dad – … nothing in life is free.

    I remember seeing Mom and Dad dance at your wedding. They were magnificent.

    Did you know that Mom had a scholarship to Arthur Murray? Aunt Teresa is quite the dancer too.

  4. I’m not sure my first comment was sent or not. However you correctly understand the 4th and 5th Amendment. I should know because I wrote the Miranda warning. If you want one send me your mail address. The last time I saw you was at Sunnyside, Lake Tahoe. If you are near Nevada City drop in. The person who placed that envelope in the mail invaded your privacy. It happens every day but it shouldn’t. If you need more advice ask.
    Best regards, Harold

  5. Hello Mr. Berliner — It’s an honor to have you visit. And thank you for checking my research — I’m relieved to hear it’s accurate. If I end up in the slammer, it’s good to know I can talk to you! (Just kidding, I’m going to pay my fine, once a real person comes to the door to talk to me about it.)

    I love this article about you, by the way:

    See you in Nevada City, Lily

    And P.S. — If anyone’s wondering what this is about, go check out the piece called “Photo Finished” — I think that’s the essay to which this comment is responding.

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