My mother dispensed some puzzling advice: “Don’t grow old,” she was fond of saying.
This always brought me up short. It seemed hard to imagine that the woman who thought I was God’s gift to the universe was advocating my early death.
Less morbid but equally impossible was another one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “Don’t be like me!”
This is like asking a duckling not to imprint on the first living creature it sees. For better or for worse, we women bear the stamp of our mothers.
My advice to my own daughters is more pragmatic:
- Pay off your credit cards on time and in full every month.
- If you want to save money, never order alcohol at a restaurant.
- The secret to delicious cakes, cookies, and brownies is to always under bake them.
What I’m really saying to my daughters, of course, is DO be like me—sober, responsible, with no greater vice than a sweet tooth. That way, assuming your sugar consumption is under control, you’ll be sure to grow old, with a measure of financial security to boot!
My daughters, now in their mid-twenties, roll their eyes at my advice. They find it hilarious that I’ve never had a hangover.
“Have you ever had ANY fun?” they ask.
“I have fun!” I protest. “I hike, go to the movies, listen to NPR . . . “
I’m beginning to see how I sound just as impossible to my daughters as my mother sounded to me. The difference is that she tried to warn me away from the trap of similarity, while I’m inviting them in.
I’ve attempted to heed my mother’s advice not to be like her, determined to escape the black hole of despair she sometimes fell into. Taking to her bed in the middle of the day, my mother tried to fill that void with cigarettes and Agatha Christie novels and Hostess cupcakes. I do not smoke. I do not read mysteries. I never nap. The empty calories I consume come from artisanal breads and flourless chocolate cakes, not the bologna sandwiches and stale baked goods my mother favored.
Still, she pops up within me, having seeped into my pores despite my best efforts. I, too, embarrass my children by chatting up the grocery store clerks in the check-out line or fulminating against those with different political views. Unlike my mother, however, I never hurl ashtrays at the TV screen when politicians I loathe appear. But that’s only because I don’t smoke.
My mother followed her own advice—she did not grow old. Done in by three packs a day and all those Hostess cupcakes, she barely squeaked past 70. I hope to defy her particular counsel about aging. But I’ve long stopped fighting the fear of becoming her. Now that my mother is gone, I wish I was more like her. For one thing, I realize there’s a whole genre of detective fiction I’ve missed! And how I’d love to hurl invective if not ashtrays right along beside her at various presidential candidates. I’d give anything to tell my mother how glad I am she passed on to me her politics, her humor, her intelligence, her passion for social justice, and her deep, deep love for her children.
My daughters still fear turning into me, just as I once feared turning into my mother. They can’t imagine a worse fate than the dull, safe life I have mapped out for myself and seek to impose on them. They don’t yet know that such a life might be worth emulating.
Since I never co-signed for my daughters’ credit cards, I do not know if they are now paying exorbitant interest and late fees to banks, or how many expensive cocktail bars show up on their statements.
But already they make a mean chocolate cake. I guess there’s hope that they’ve been listening after all.
What’s the best and worst advice your mother gave you and/or that you’ve given your kids?