Lessons from my mother

Growing up, my mother responded to certain situations with cliches that have stuck with me.

When I would complain about a friend, she'd chide me with, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” When I would argue with my brother, she’d remind me, “You get more with honey than with vinegar.”

Looking back, she taught me many things. She showed me that generosity was about much more than money. That being social meant, most of all, being genuinely curious about other people. That homemade food has the power to bring people together and make them happy.

But one of the most valuable lessons was one she never learned herself.

When she was 76, she was dying from diabetes and complications from a broken hip. There was a family reunion in Pennsylvania, and we traveled two hours by ambulance to the great surprise of everyone who never expected she could make the trip. There were many tears and many photos. 

When we showed the pictures to my mother, the first thing she said was, “I hate the way I look in photos.” I couldn't believe it. I thought to myself, You’re 76, dying, and you’re still worried about how you look in a photo? When does it stop?

Yet, as my mother would say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I could recognize in myself the same negative self-image and petty self-loathing. When does it stop? Maybe never.

I thought of how tiring it must have been for her to have carried that baggage around for seven decades. And I resolved then and there to try and take myself less seriously, to drop my own baggage and practice walking more lightly through life. 

For this and all of her lessons, I’m grateful. Every time I smile for a photo, or bake cookies, or talk to a stranger in the elevator, I think of her. 

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

Dancing at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

The best gift my mother ever gave me

Growing up, my mother’s lack of education and limited worldview were infuriating and embarrassing. Though she raised me, she seemed so different from me. That led to a sense of detachment and indifference. There were times, when she had moved to another state, that months would go by before I’d think to call, usually prompted by a reproof from my older sister. I didn’t seem to have anything to say.

Yet today, more than ten years after my mother died, I think of her almost every day. All because of a gift she gave me.

How I saw her

My mother, born Fiorentina (“Flo”) Bruno, was the youngest of 7 children all raised in New York City. She didn’t graduate high school and she married a man, my father Joseph, who didn’t make it past the 8th grade. “The 13th Joe,” she reminded us, hinting at her bad luck. Her life seemed tinged with disappointment and regret, a lingering sense that things should have been different.

Even at age 76, lying in a hospital bed with a broken hip she’d never recover from, she was still reminiscing about her best years as a single woman working in the gloves department at Macy’s.

Belated love and respect

Mom and me at my sister's weddingIt was only when I was older and my mother was into her 70s that I started appreciating her. I started noticing how other people loved and respected her. I saw I’d taken for granted the qualities that made my mother special.

Despite having little money, for example - our family car was purchased for $25 - she was extraordinarily generous, always handing out small gifts for people. “Just a little something,” she’d say.

And the food! My best memories of my mother are of her in the kitchen, cooking and baking. We may not have had much but we always had good food and guests to share it with. On Thanksgivings, we could sit at the table for 3-4 hours as she presented course after course. Every holiday, she’d make special trips to deliver her homemade cookies, cakes, and breads to family and friends. She’d stay up into the night till her hands would ache from rolling dough. One Easter she made 40 loaves of bread.

She was fun, too. How could I not love that? She’d tell jokes, dress up for Halloween, host parties. The very things that embarrassed me then are the things I admire about her now.

Yes, she had regrets. But they stemmed from simply having a thirst for life and wanting more from it. As I entered my 40s, my condescension turned into empathy.

The best gift she gave me

There was one other quality she had, her best gift, that she somehow passed down to me: my mother was genuinely interested in other people.

“Are you a Gemini?” she’d ask a complete stranger while I rolled my eyes and skulked away. Though not everyone engaged her in conversation, many did. She was charming, genuinely curious about people, and could talk to anyone. As a result, she had an extraordinary social network of people who cared for her.

When I was a child, I was too shy to even answer the phone. But, as my mom would say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and through her actions she influenced me, instilling in me her interest in other people. Now, I’m just like my mother, talking, talking, talking simply because I like people and like getting to know them better. And now it’s my own children’s turn to be embarrassed.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

I regret the missed opportunities. I did too little, too late. But there’s still a way I can show my appreciation for what you gave me. There’s an opportunity, with every person I meet, to share your wonderful gift. Each time I do that my life becomes a little richer and my bond with you becomes a little stronger.

Now, although you’re gone, you’re with me every day.