Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in print in the Village Soup Times in 2007. Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 8, we are reprinting Eva’s column in honor of her mother, who lives in South Thomaston, as well as all of our mothers who teach us so much.

 

In mind of Mother’s Day, lessons my mother taught: balance your checkbook, work ridiculously hard and don’t stand under the big crane.

My mother never taught me how to clean the house or do my hair; instead she showed me how to fry doughnuts and do my income taxes and replace a windowpane that’s taken a rock. She doesn’t know the names of the birds, or the rules of soccer, or how to knit, but she would say of anything, “read a few books about it if you want to know.”

As a small child I remember getting a lot of instruction of an almost industrial sort (thus, the aforementioned advice about the crane). She told me to stay away from ropes and cables and chains in tension, like when someone’s towing a car out of the ditch, never stand too near the tow line because it could break loose violently. She reminded me several times, as a preschooler, to avoid watching men welding, which I couldn’t resist. We lived where there were a lot of construction sites, and I was entranced by the showers of sparks. I think some of what I thought was welding might have been just grinding. As hard as I tried to avert my eyes, it was difficult not to look, but I never got the painful “welder’s flash,” the “sunburned” sensation that feels like a handful of gravel in your eyes after a few hours.

She used to sew quite a bit when I was little, and I remember her saying, “always buy enough extra fabric so you can match the plaids or patterns.” She did exacting, careful work, and taught lessons in patience in that sewing room. I still have some of the brass buttons with the cornucopias from the red coat with four pockets that she made for me when I was a preschooler.

We were taught one must never mistreat a book, even a book you don’t like…presumably somebody somewhere would. “The Puppy Book” and “The Turtle Book” were never tossed into toy boxes as mere playthings. Ripping pages or scribbling in books was seriously naughty. In high school I never could bring myself to highlight a book or write in the margins. (At my kids’ schools, where they must purchase their own copies of each English-class novel, they are in fact required to do this highlighting; their grandmother and I might wince.) We bought books for a dime at yard sales and rescued books from other people’s trash. I am, as a result, most grateful for the existence of local second-hand book stores, so I can in good conscience get rid of books I don’t need (difficult as that is) without committing the sin of throwing them away (which I cannot do unless they are terribly, irreparably damaged). That’s just how I was raised.

Mom also believes that education is of primary importance, but education doesn’t necessarily mean schooling. She taught me to read before I started school. Educating oneself is just as good as going to school and a lot cheaper. She let me play hooky a lot, but I think that was because she knew most of my hooky-playing time was spent reading and writing.

There were good lessons in dealing with hard times. Mason jars were everywhere. We didn’t hire roofers and plumbers…we learned to do the repairs ourselves. One thing that still means a great deal to me is the recollection of lovely Christmas dinners with friends over, and Thanksgivings that truly were feasts, when there was certainly no money to spare. Birthday cakes were elaborate and often unique. We did without a lot of things before the ax fell on food; perhaps that is why I am so attached to the edible part of every celebration. My husband and children aren’t surprised to see our household observe every holiday from Hanukkah to Greek Christmas to Lughnasa to Cinco de Mayo as long as there’s food involved. My mother’s holiday food traditions were reliable comforts, recipes we learned to make as we grew up, as Christmas and Thanksgiving would seem sparse and peculiar without them…cranberry bread (preferably with each berry hand-sliced to make those little wagon wheels), “Ernie Cookies” (ginger snaps, named by a 5-year-old for the flat, round disks eagerly demolished by the Muppets on “Sesame Street”), and Whiskey Cookies, a pale, buttery variant of chocolate chip cookies, laced with brandy or bourbon, a recipe I have never seen anywhere else.

My mother taught us that anything can be done by either brute strength and willpower, or enough book learning. My family moved furniture for others sometimes, including upright pianos, gas refrigerators and other monsters. No matter how heavy, we learned it could be done. Likewise, any new job or responsibility, no matter how daunting, might be bravely tackled with some studying ahead of time. We never heard “it’s too much work” or “I’ll never understand how that works.”

We were always reminded to be quiet and well-behaved while driving through Hartford, Conn. This might not make sense now, but in the early ’70s, when we made that trip with some frequency, the traffic was an awful snarl of left-handed exits and four-lane chaos. We kids rode in the Dodge van, usually standing up in the back holding on to the bench seat, to reduce carsickness (no seat-belt rules then, and my stomach hated the ride). We knew that Hartford was for some reason hard work for the driver, and there was to be absolutely no bickering or chattering, and no questions, until safely through that mess.

I guess “be quiet while driving through Hartford” might be more or less a metaphor for dealing with a lot of things.