80 Years in Eight Days — Day Number Seven: 10 Lessons Learned

For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher.  Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me.  Here’s a list of 10:

1) How to make a friend.  My first friend was the boy who lived next door.  He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd.  I was only 4 when we moved.  Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children.  I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway.  I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard.  She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name.  He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin.  She asked him to repeat it, slower.  With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I.  I had my new friend!

2) How to take a break.  My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation.  I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii.  My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced.  We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps.  By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken.  I have been an avid napper ever since. 

3) How to join a community.  My mom was my first Girl Scout leader.  She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way.  I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence.  It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us. 

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4) How to make a pie.  This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions.  Pie crust is tricky.  It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to.  You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively.  At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”.  That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan.  She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it.  Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process.  Making a pie involves a lot of decisions.  Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more.  What and when do you delegate?  When do you give up control?  It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking. 

5) How to iron…or not iron.  My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life.  He did not use Kleenex.  They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them.  He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing.  We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control.  I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school.  When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform.  My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now.  Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it. 

6) How to study.  My mother and I have similar learning styles.  We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song.  The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device.  This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music.  Write it down; make it up.  Works for us!

7) How to interview for a job.  The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place.  I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way.  I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume.  My mother lit a fire under me.  We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director.  The rest is history.  I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding.  It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind.  I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it. 

8) How to be appreciative.  One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation.  It’s a win-win activity.  It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something.  It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate.  The trick is not to be shy.  Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific.  When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin.  I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite.  “Oh!  It’s like Anadama bread!”  She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon.  She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now. 

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9) How to be tolerant and open.  It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche.  My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly.  It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval.  I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless.  My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her.  She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out.  I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.

Familiar breakfast room

10) How to keep learning.  Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic.  I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day.  I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies.  She relates bits of fascination every time we talk.  She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together.   I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!

 

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved