Lessons My Mother Taught me
My mother had a way with words. How well I remember her asking my dad when he was going to find time to “dig that hole shut,” referring to a hole left by a fence post. It’s that time of year when I begin to cast my mind ahead to upcoming family anniversaries: my mother Ruth’s birthday on 12 January, her passing on the Ides of March, and the celebration of my marriage to my excellent husband, David, on the first of March, St. David’s Day.
My mother is so constantly with me and it is because of her love and care that I have become the woman I am. She taught me everything I know.
And of course, growing up on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin had more lessons. I was a pretty good farm hand, even though I was the youngest and smallest helper in our family. And I could be relied upon, even though I upset Daddy once when helping him bale hay. I was driving the tractor and must have been ten or twelve years old when I failed to stop for an enormous clump of hay and sheared nearly every pin the baler had. He was pretty exasperated but was understanding and patient too, not faulting his young sidekick for her inexperience, although I can still hear him muttering to himself as he labored to replace the pin and repair the baler so we could continue baling.
Mother was more the disciplinarian, although she was the original “one-minute manager.” She had expectations for us kids and she needed our obedience. You screwed up or didn’t carry out orders, you knew she was unhappy. But she didn’t let it linger and never held grudges. I remember well the sting of the leg switching I got for not feeding and watering the chickens several days in a row. (I never forgot that chore, ever again.)
In looking after each other as well as our farm animals, many of them dear pets, under Mother and Daddy’s tutelage, we learned that the family was a unit, a team, and that we had to work together to be successful. Mother insisted that I take Gardening as one of my 4-H projects since I was going to have to help weed it anyway. At least this way I would benefit if my carrots won First Prize. In properly grooming and feeding my Brown Swiss show cows, Martha and Lady Bird (yes, I wrote to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson in 1964 telling her that I had named my heifer after her) I had come a long way since my youthful thoughtlessness about the chickens.
Being a farmer’s wife and a full-time registered nurse, she had to multi-task, using her time and energy wisely. She made the most of every action, every step. She was a talented seamstress, cook and housekeeper, too. Our house was not new or modern but it was neat and tidy. We were never allowed to go into town wearing barn clothes. They may be patched but they were clean. Recycling was a way of life, whether it was clothes passed from one child to the next or using my uncle’s old wedding trousers to make a new dress for me. And I am happy to say that I am my mother’s daughter: I can multi-task, sew, clean, cook and recycle with the best of them.
We had laughter in our house, too. I am sure that I inherited my sense of humor and love of practical jokes from my dad though. He was a “little stinker” when he was a boy, one of seven children. On Saturday mornings we’d try to get Daddy talking about “the old days” and his shenanigans so that we could delay doing the outdoor chores. Nowadays, I’m pretty lucky that my husband is so forgiving when I turn my “humor” toward him. Understand, though, my little pranks are few and far between– don’t want to overdo anything– and they are never mean-spirited. I think of them more as responses to his sometimes mysterious ways. I thank him for bringing out so much creativity on my part.
My best “effort” called upon my sewing skills. He was forever grousing about the ill-fitting boxer shorts that I had bought, since lord knows the man will never set foot in a store to buy any apparel for himself. Best I remember is his complaining about how the shorts must have been designed for a man of a different shape by poor Malaysian seamstresses in some sweat shop in Kuala Lumpur. The poor boy had trouble with the way the fly was cut in the shorts so he would complain endlessly about the “overexposure” in everyday wearing, if you get my drift.
The patience my mother had taught me finally came to an end one day, though. I took a pair of the shorts and carefully sewed the opening shut. My practical Swiss heritage coming to the fore, I figured that the best way to deal with recalcitrant boxer shorts was to follow my mother’s advice: if the hole is too big, sew it shut! I then neatly folded the shorts and placed them two or three pairs down into my husband’s dresser drawer.
I am master of waiting, another valuable lesson Mother instilled in me, and waited patiently for him to finally get down to that special pair. He didn’t notice the alteration at first. It was only after several hours when he had to relieve himself that it became apparent. If only you could have heard the first bewildered noises that came out of that bathroom, at first thinking he’d put them on backwards and finally the dawning that his sweet wife had played a trick on him. After a hearty laugh together he had to agree it was a good joke. And he does not complain about ill-fitting boxer shorts anymore.
Mother also took great pride in teaching us kids not to litter. In fact, we helped pick up trash that non-thinking yokels had tossed out of their cars along the road where we lived. By some stroke of the stars being in the right alignment, I also married a man who fulminates over the brain dead who toss their beer cans and fast food trash out on our country bi-way. By a stroke of luck, my brother-in-law collects rare steel beer cans. He once gave me six or eight Wisconsin-centric ones. Wouldn’t it be a great laugh to strew a path of them along our lane to greet my eagle-eyed husband when he returned one day from the post office?
As I watched from afar, I spotted him slam the brakes on, jump out of the car and pick up a can. I only wish I could have heard the muttering as he only went a short distance and had to stop again to pick up another can. I am sure he was saying it was bad enough to pick up the trash along the road, but now to have to pick up cans on our own entryway! At least I didn’t scatter the remnants of an ash tray. That would have given him apoplexy.
But he was laughing when he got to the house and high-fived me at how he had been hooked at least initially. Something about the fact that the cans carried names like Breunigh’s, Rhinelander, Huber, and Hackstein instead of budweiser or miller lite (lower case intentional) gave him a clue.
Most mysterious about this man, though, is his apparent affliction with “male pattern blindness.” He can spot a piece of cellophane cigarette pack wrapper along the road “even from a galloping horse,” but he can’t see his own glasses on the counter before him. He’s facetiously convinced that I “hide” things from him. Just this morning, we went into this shtick as he took forever to come out of the house. The pups and I were impatiently waiting to go on our morning “walkie.”
When he finally emerged he said he was late because he had not been able to find his gloves. He had left them on the chest freezer and when I wanted to retrieve something from it earlier, I moved the gloves to the shelf above the freezer and level with his eyesight. So my current ongoing effort is to teach him “Ruthie’s Rule No. 1: If at first you don’t see it, LOOK AROUND.”
As I get ready for my anniversaries, I am reminded of my great love for my mother, my father, and my husband, even though I sometimes have to “hide” how exasperated I can get with him. And I haven’t even mentioned his selective hearing.
In these early days of a new year when we are thankful for our blessings and resolve to do better in this new beginning, I will do my best to shine my own everlasting light on everything in my command, keep things out in the open, and keep smiling, especially when planning my next practical joke to help the man keep things in perspective.
Now If I could only teach him how to tie his boot laces correctly – double knotted, as my mother taught me, so we wouldn’t have to stop on our walks where he stoops, takes off his gloves to retie them and then promptly walks off with his gloves still on the ground – where I “hid” them …
- Photos: provide by the author.