With thanks to Story Circle Network, for publishing this piece in their 2018 anthology Real Women Write,
Having grown up with a mother given more to issuing orders than advice, those pearls of life wisdom she chose to pass on stood out—both because they were rare, and because she so clearly lived by them herself. Given our entirely different personalities, and her impatience as a mother, I spent the first three decades of my life, resisting, defending against, and otherwise distancing myself from my mother’s influence. Once she no longer felt responsible for me, and we were both adults, that all changed. She is now 93, and I am grateful to have had all the time I needed to appreciate her wisdom, and how she has modeled two important life philosophies.
Her first and most abiding piece of guidance comes from the famous Calvin Coolidge quote. Be persistent.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
All of my siblings, and all of our children received printed copies of this quotation from my mother. In her mind, being persistent meant that work was important, and one worked on tasks until they were finished (and before play). When my mother said she would do something, she reliably and competently did it, and expected the same from her children. Details mattered, excuses didn’t. My mother had learned English as a 13-year-old refugee, she married at 20, had four children, earned a degree in languages before 30, began a career as an interpreter and translator at 40 and worked until she was 85. As a dreamy kid easily lost in a book or on a bike ride, this disciplined, regimented view of how to get things done didn’t sit well with me, and led to much conflict. Now, however, I recognize how my own work ethic, and confidence in what I can accomplish derives from my mother’s early advice and her example.
Persistence derives in part from my mother’s early German upbringing, but her second piece of guidance actually surprised me when I heard her offer it. Do the thing you can never do again. When presented with a choice between two desirable activities or experiences, my mother advised, do that which you are unlikely to have the opportunity to do in the future. At first glance, this sounds like an amazing grasp of the obvious, but given the rule-governed, rigorous, orderly pattern of her conduct and expectations, this advice demonstrated a narrow but powerful rebellious and adventurous side of my mother. She became a pilot, a skier, a master seamstress, and a semi-professional vocalist. She hated cooking, and did the minimum necessary. She never attended a PTA meeting, and stopped shopping for us as children as soon as we could take a bus and handle money ourselves. She assumed we did our homework and never checked. (We did). We all got driver’s licenses on our 16th birthdays, and she never drove us anywhere again. We had loose requirements for curfew and where we were allowed to go because she believed we were smart enough to stay out of trouble. (Mostly we were.)
Recognition that she had a tightly controlled, but energetic piece of her personality that led her to make some unconventional and sometimes challenging decisions about her own life and relationships went a long way toward helping me understand that people are multi-dimensional, and that her more severe and regimented behavior could in some way be mediated by this ‘bad girl’ side of her. Believing that life offers us chances to do the unexpected and perhaps scary, and that we should take those chances, helped me to realize my long-held dream to become a novelist.
My mom’s independence and disregard for what others thought of her choices added to the evidence in her own life that satisfaction lay in working hard, being persistent, and remembering to capture the unknown. I have nothing but gratitude for this wisdom.