Years ago I read the biography of Armand Hammer, the oil baron. In it he said his mother always said, “Make haste slowly.” I loved that. But then I remember thinking, What did my mother always say? and I couldn’t come up with anything wise and worth repeating. And from that thought, I went directly to what would my kids say their mother always said.
When they came home from school that day (they were 10 and 12), I asked them, “When you’re grown and living on your own, what will you say your mother always said?” They looked at each other and one of them, one of the little wiseasses, quipped, “My mother always said, ‘Eat your tofu.’” True, I had gone radical on our food trip, but “Eat your tofu” was all they could come up with? That was the legacy I would leave? In all their time living with me, I had never imparted any deep philosophical one-liners?
I took a magic marker and wrote, “As Armand Hammer’s mother always said and Josh and Dan Aronie’s mother began to say, Make haste slowly” and I taped it to the refrigerator.
I started asking people the same question. My friend Margo said one Thanksgiving her sister-in-law called her and pronounced, “You’re hosting the holiday this year.” Margo hung up and was mortified. Her sister-in-law was wealthy and had a huge house. Margo was broke and lived in a tiny space. She called her mom wailing: “I can’t do this. How am I going to do this?” And her mom said, “Honey, is there any way you can get out of it?” And Margo said, “No!” And her mom said, “Well, if you can’t get out of it, then get into it!” I loved that one too!
My husband said my mother-in-law always said, “There’s nothing common about common sense.” She had a lot of good ones.
Once when we were first married and she was visiting, I was making spaghetti. She said, “Where is your colander, dear?” I’m sure she thought it was weird that I took such a long time answering, since it was my own kitchen, but when I finally responded, I said, “Try the pantry,” and as she began walking over to the pantry, I said, “Oh, ya’ know what? i think it might be under the sink,” and just when she reached the sink, I said, “Actually maybe it’s with the frying pans.” She stopped and looked at her new daughter-in-law, holding back the disdain she must have been feeling, and said, “Everything has its place and everything in its place.” I said, OH MY GOD! That is brilliant. Plain profound. I called my sister that night and repeated the brilliance. Yeah, she said, my mother-in-law told me that one too. We laughed a sad laugh.
Of course I didn’t know where my colander was. I didn’t know where anything was. Growing up nothing had a place, and everything was in it. We had a junk drawer. Inside resided two Band-Aids half ripped open, bus transfers, grocery receipts, the unpaid gas bills and the paid ones too, used loose birthday and Chanukah candles with burned wicks, books of half-filled Green Stamps, tacks, paper clips, rubber bands, and three-quarters of a deck of playing cards, a flashlight that didn’t work, batteries rolling around — maybe good, maybe dead — a Phillips head screwdriver with no one in the house knowing what its purpose was, a few fortune cookies with the tea-stained menu from Dragon House, anything my mother didn’t know what to do with got stuffed in that drawer. Surprise, surprise, I had the same drawer with the same stuff, so my kids could continue the family chaos.
So here I was trying to come up with something weighty my mother always said, and starting to resent the fact that there was nothing, and added to that blame for my total lack of organization.
And then I got real. I remembered that the woman had three jobs. She didn’t have time to organize her paper clips, and she didn’t have the luxury of always saying something meaningful to her kids.
But then I also remembered being in her apartment on Sundays, her only day off. She lived in a building with a bunch of gossipy widows. And one by one, they would come visit her. One whispered, “Did you see Lucille’s gentleman caller leave this morning? That means he stayed all night.” And instead of my mother being shocked and ready to pass on the evil little tidbit, she said, “Oooh, lucky Lucille.” Then one tried to gossip about another neighbor, and my mother interrupted before the woman could get out her juicy delicacy: “Doesn’t Maryann’s hair look great?” I watched her deflect their stories time after time, and I knew she knew how to keep secrets safe.
So no, she didn’t have any memorable quotes, and her linen closet didn’t have her towels stacked and folded by color.
But she never said, Be a good friend. Be kind. Be a good listener. Be loyal. She didn’t have to say it because she did something far more powerful. She showed me exactly how it was done.