Happy Mother's Day! Fourteen Things My Mom Taught Me

Ambrotype of a mother with baby in a bonnet
Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

I haven’t lived with my Mom since I was 14 and, on a week’s notice, moved in with my Dad and his girlfriend.

So I missed out on some of the things Moms traditionally teach their daughters. Yet my Mom, explicitly and by example, has taught me a lot. She’s 75 and I’ll see her this summer — usually only every two years as we live so far away and money is forever tight for both of us.

It ain’t how to make an apple pie and choose a great mascara, but her lessons have served me well so far:

1) The safest choice is not necessarily the best or wisest, even if it’s by far the most popular. My mom traveled alone throughout Central and South America, a great-looking unattached woman, for years in her 40s. She lived in Lima, Peru for a while and I used to get imported to meet her for Christmas and vacations. Not your typical “Mom” behavior, but such adventures we had!

2) You can travel far and wide and for a long time if you’re willing to live low. She didn’t hesitate to eat sardines in her hotel room if it meant staying out on the road longer and having more fun. She didn’t need the false reassurance of a fancy hotel room or upscale neighborhood as she dressed carefully and modestly to avoid attracting undue attention to herself.

3) When things get really bad, find the hotel manager and cry. Traveling alone as a woman, especially for long periods of time, is often really fun but sometimes really lonely and frightening, especially if you are alone and sick and your loved ones are multiple time zones hence. I ended up alone at 25 in an Istanbul hotel room with the most severe allergic attack (after hours in the Bazaar looking at very dusty rugs) of my life. I feared I might drown in mucus, so hard it was for me to breathe. The hotel manager, of a tiny, nothing hotel, took me to the pharmacy and translated for me and got me something that worked very well.

4) Wedge a chair beneath the door to keep out the bad guys. They can break into the windows, of course, but a solid wood chair under the doorknob is a good deterrent, something she learned in the Amazon.

5) Watch your money very, very closely: APRs, bank fees, money management fees. No one will ever protect it as well as you will. A smart, educated woman will never (right?) blithely hand her money to someone whose “explanations” make no sense to you. It was on her advice I made sure I had a pre-nuptial agreement to protect my assets, handy after the husband quickly bailed.

6) When you’re terrified, stay calm. She has survived six kinds of cancer. She is the Timex watch of women.

7) Save, save, save, save, save. You can never, really, save too much money — especially if you are a single woman with no pension. A shmancy new handbag or designer shoes can mean a month’s rent or mortgage payment. Which is really more valuable?

8) Good perfume, always. (Yes, a few splurges are OK.)

9) Write thank-you notes, promptly.

10) Wear pants with a waistband. It’s harder to realize how dumpling-esque you’re becoming if you succumb to the worst of all fashion crimes — the elastic, ever-expanding waistband.

11) Men are lovely, but non-essential to your survival (see lessons 5-7.) They can be great company, as your friends or your lawyer or your doctor(s) or your husband(s.) But the sun doesn’t rise and set behind any of them.

12) Laugh long, hard and often. Life is way too full of *&^$@!! to not enjoy every minute you can.

13) Every culture has its rituals and beliefs and customs. Ignore them at your peril and when in Rome, act as the Romans do. If that means wearing a salwar kameez or covering your head or dressing like a nun, so be it. It’s their country and you’re just visiting.

14) Cooking is OK, but a great meal in a terrific restaurant is divine. We lived a block from the Montreal Ritz-Carlton, and every Friday, the year she had her own TV talk show, we went for dinner. I was 12. Heaven! I still remember an amazing lunch — and my first pisco sour — at Carlin, in Miraflores, a chic enclave of Lima. (Cheap housing saves some $$$ for a decent drink or meal.)

(Here’s the gift I mailed to her — small, light, affordable and fun — from the Japanese company Muji. It’s NYC in a bag — eight iconic buildings and some cars, all made of wood. The Guggenheim or the Chrysler building, in the palm of your hand! They also have London, Paris and Tokyo, $14 each. My Mom was born in NYC, and married here, so I thought it might amuse her.)

Please give your Mom an extra hug for me.

What are some of the cool/fun/smart things she’s taught you?