What is the best advice you ever received from your mother? Or your grandmother — or anyone else who might have fulfilled those caregiving and child-rearing roles in your childhood? What is the most memorable lesson she ever taught you?
My mother, Rose, did not dispense “advice” in any explicit way. She was a doer, not a talker, let alone a philosopher. She counseled loudly by the way in which she acted. The messages I took away as a boy included so many of the simple, most basic truths about decency and thoughtfulness — truths that are common knowledge yet, alas, not common practice.
Be considerate of others. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself. You don’t always need to have it “your way” — instead be willing to accommodate others.
As these humble truths suggest, Rose yearned to feel she belonged — to a circle of caring friends, to a network of good neighbors, to a family of supportive intimates.
In part, that yearning arose because she left her close-knit farming family of nine in faraway County Donegal, Ireland. In January 1951, at age 22, she arrived in Philadelphia after a three-week journey on the RMS Queen Mary. She knew no one in America except a maiden aunt who wrote Rose’s father, inviting one of the girls to emigrate. Rose once met her as a young girl.
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My mother was the only person in her family who ever left home. So I began to realize, long after my boyhood, that she must have felt lonely at times.
The yearning to “belong” must have derived from her the loss of her emotional anchor — her Irish childhood home; try though she did to recreate a version of it, in our little family, in our Philadelphia row house.
Those deep yearnings of hers only were partly fulfilled in America. Today I far better appreciate how she must have felt starved at times for feminine conversation and companionship.
Yes, she sometimes must have felt quite alone in a family of four boys, plus her husband’s four brothers, who landed in America — wave after wave of them, with nowhere to stay (for months, even years) until they got on their feet.
All of that reminds me further of a lesson she did convey in words. As a boy, I didn’t fathom it was her way of offering advice. She repeated the little remark countless times, in all kinds of seemingly unrelated circumstances. Yes, now I understand it to be a form of implicit advice: “People aren’t here forever!”
As a boy, on hearing that exclamation again and again, I would think to myself: “Well, of course not! What could be more obvious?!”
Over time I came to grasp that Rose was, perhaps only half-consciously, speaking about her own mother, who died when she was just 6 years old. Rose had one especially vivid memory of her mother.
On Nov. 6, 1934 — a cold, wintry day — her mother held her hand as they walked for two hours, carrying a box of “USA Biscuits” to the home of Rose’s 5-year-old cousin as a birthday present. Six months later, her mother died, not long after giving birth to her seventh child.
“People aren’t here forever,” my mother would say to me.
In other words: Cherish the moment. Don’t put off a kind word or gesture for later — or “the wee visit.” Give others the gift that you long to receive.
Yes, simple — but not so easy — truths to live by. Not so easy at all.
My mother died three years ago. I did a lot of caregiving in her last years. Did I do enough? For all that she gave me? In any case — I miss her.
“People aren’t here forever.”
What about you and your mother? It might be worth pondering this Mother’s Day the little lessons you were taught — and the lifetime it takes to learn them.
“Children learn what they live” goes the old adage. Yes, indeed. So why not whisper a word of thanks to her on this Mother’s Day?
Even if she’s not around to hear it. Or perhaps, especially if she’s not around. For all that she taught — not just in word but also deed.
John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia. He lives in Austin, Texas. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org