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Don’t tell my mother

Food For Thought

Even though I’ve celebrated my 83rd birthday and am in no danger of having my mother discover I’ve broken one or more of her rules, I find I still feel pangs of guilt when I do. When we were kids, my big sister could blackmail me into almost anything by threatening to tell Mother I may have committed one or more misdemeanors. Whether I had or not, just the threat that Mother might be inclined to suspect or to investigate any such accusations was enough to make me knuckle under to my sister’s pressure. As a result, I suppose I ended up with an overdeveloped conscience and was, for most of my life, perhaps too conscientious in many ways. I carried those childhood “sins” well into adulthood and still feel guilty when I fail to comply.
One of Mother’s rules was we clean up our own messes. In the beginning, this was as simple as making sure all the little snips of paper made it into the wastebasket when I was cutting out paper dolls, or mopping up the milk I’d spilled. Later, that rule seemed unfair when it was applied to the pans, bowls and utensils I dirtied baking cookies enjoyed by the whole family. And what about all those pots, pans, plates, knives and forks I helped wash and dry almost every night after supper? Surely other people were responsible for the majority of those. This rule also encompassed the matter of putting away unfinished projects, such as sewing or craft materials. It soon became evident, as I grew older and such projects became more extensive and complicated, certain things couldn’t be tidied away immediately when I had to stop working on them. Paint and glue had to have time to dry, for instance, and it was permitted to leave these in an unobtrusive place for reasonable amounts of time. I vowed to someday have my own studio or workshop where projects could be left right where they were from start to finish. I found this saved enormous amounts of time and gobs of energy just by avoiding the unnecessary getting-out and putting-away each time I returned to the project. But most of all, I discovered I tended to get back to it sooner if it was allowed to remain right there where I saw it waiting for me, rather than having been hidden away out of sight. That rule needs revising if I’m ever to feel guilt-free.
Another rule she espoused but didn’t always follow, was to clean up as you go along. This applies to rinsing mixing bowls and wiping up spills, and putting pans to soak as soon as you are done with them rather than leaving everything for the big clean-up after the meal is over with. When hungry toddlers are climbing up your legs, or starving teenagers are sneaking drumsticks off the platter while you are still making the gravy, and a busy husband is sitting at the table with knife and fork in hand, it seems inefficient to spend time wiping spatters off the oven door or rinsing out that empty bean can. I know people who do clean up as they go along, and most of them are sensible enough to abandon that rule when time is limited. I tried cleaning up as I went along once. It was not a roaring success. I got so absorbed in scraping scorched cheese sauce off a pan, I burned the broccoli the cheese was intended for. That may have been attributable to my one-track mind rather than to a failure to follow Mother’s rule. I did feel like I’d let her down, though.
Another biggie was; If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Do you know how hard it is to keep your mouth shut when you are itching to blurt out the way you really feel about something? The ultimate outcome of trying valiantly to adhere to this rule had what must have been unexpected consequences from Mother’s viewpoint. I’m sure she hoped it would produce daughters who were kind, sympathetic, supportive and forgiving of the faults and insecurities of others. Two of my three sisters turned out to be reasonable versions of her anticipated results. The other, who was born with an over-abundance of boldness and self-confidence tends to say what she thinks and to tell others what they should think, and has never been known to “say nothing at all” when given an opening for airing her opinion. As for me, well, I told you at the beginning I was easily intimidated by her. The awareness I might inadvertently utter some words that could be hurtful, embarrassing or discouraging to another person frequently left me playing it safe by saying nothing at all. I got the reputation of being shy or socially inept—no good at small talk. Mother’s rule is partly to blame for my reticence. And a lifetime habit of listening to the boring, inconsequential things other people say in social situations bears the rest of the blame. I think Mother’s rule should read: If you can’t say something interesting, don’t say anything at all.