My mother has been gone 44 years now. I was 21 when she succumbed to colon cancer at age 55. Although I can hardly remember what she looked like, her sayings and morals spring to life in my head, and often pop out of my mouth, almost on a daily basis.
For instance, when there’s a reason to procrastinate about some necessary task, like an early morning workout, the internal conflict set into play is “never put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” as opposed to “the early bird catches the worm.”
Mostly, though, I find myself spouting her pearls of wisdom when I’m around my grandchildren. “Waste not, want not,” I say when they play with the food on their plates. “Monkey sees, monkey does,” automatically slips out, when, one by one, they start banging their cups on the table. “Do what I say, not what I do, never bite the hand that feeds you, little corns have big ears, children should be seen but not heard,” and they all look at me as if a Jedi just landed in the kitchen.
I can’t help it. The force is with me. I’ve become an unwitting vehicle for my mother’s presence.
Out window-shopping, it’s back to internal musings: “Seek and thou shall find,” or don’t be “penny wise and dollar foolish.” And when I finally do take money out of my wallet to make a purchase, it’s “here today and gone tomorrow.”
Arguments revert back to verbal taunts: “It takes one to know one,” “you lie like a rug,” and “every dog will have its day” spew angrily out of my mouth, like a puppet pulled by strings of the past.
And when I’m dealing with a personal struggle or disappointment, my mother continues to provide a shoulder to lean on: “This too shall pass,” “where there’s a will there’s a way,” “there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” and, finally, “God helps those who help themselves.”
It seems unrealistic to me that my mother, who had an eighth-grade education, learned all of these sayings and repeated them so often during her humble life that they eventually became part of my vocabulary too.
“Where did they come from?” I asked my mother’s sister, who just turned 93. “Was there a chapbook or reader that children of your generation had to memorize when you were in school?”
“No,” she assured me. “Everyone in our Brooklyn neighborhood knew these sayings by heart, but we didn’t learn them in school.”
It makes me wonder what my mother was really like. Her having a moral at the ready to explain away so many of life’s challenges makes her seem smarter than I thought she was. With a better education, might she have become something more than just a woman wrapped in an apron stuck in an insular world? Imagine what she might have said had she been exposed to Shakespeare!
I want her back. I need to talk to her about this and find out more about this . . . and more about her. “Youth is wasted on the young” likely would be her response.
Indeed, it is. I was a kid, focused on my own destiny in the short span of time we shared. I didn’t pay attention to what my mother was imparting to me, with a few uttered words strung meaningfully together, day after day, year after year.
Thankfully, some part of my brain soaked it all in. I absorbed her life lessons and carried them into my own senior years. My mother may be long gone, but her gift to me lives on.
“Don’t fall down, or you’ll break your crown,” my 6-year-old grandson says when I trip over the rug at his front door.
There it is! My mother’s words coming out of her great-grandson’s mouth. I wonder what the chances are he will say this to his own child one day.
“Only time will tell!”
Bea Tusiani is the author of a memoir, “Con Amore: A Daughter-in-Law’s Story of Growing Up Italian-American in Bushwick,” and a children’s book, “The Fig Cake Family.” She is a previous contributor of “Guestwords” and lives part time in East Hampton.