When young, I admired my mother’s ability to make a decision.
“Janet,” she’d say as I sprawled on the couch rereading Little Women, “you need to learn how to change Blaine’s diaper. Quit wrinkling your nose and gagging. Come here.”
She ordered me to brush my teeth and lace my shoes. She decided my book-besotted mind needed the challenge of clarinet lessons. At a church social, she insisted I dance with Justin Clinton, a runty mouth-breather who rested his chin on my hipbone.
She told me to adopt a hobby: perhaps a collection. Then, when I suggested I collect ice cream—trying to eat and list 100 different flavors in a year — she replied, “Oh, good grief, Janet, no!”
I began to imitate Mom’s take-charge behavior. I confiscated the tube of toothpaste Ruthie Tuckett was snacking on during Sunday school. I explained Betty Anderson had not turned a correct cartwheel because her legs were bent like a rolling potato bug.
I stepped out of my role as Queen Lily in the fourth-grade play and impressed the audience by correcting the mistakes of my fellow actors: “The word is chocolate, Ronald, not chonklate, and Bruce, you shouldn’t teeter on your throne. Sit still!”
I told my sister, Barbara, her bangs looked ugly and fixed them with pinking shears. Before we went to church the next day, Mom painted the bald spot on Barbara’s head with brown shoe polish.
Then, one hot September day, I wandered into the sticky kitchen where Mom was bottling peaches. I had an important question: how should I describe myself to my pen pal? Imagine my dismay when the woman I admired and imitated told me to write that I was tall, with mostly uncombed hair, and bossy — very bossy.
I didn’t mind the uncombed part; it was true. But bossy? My jaw bounced, fell to my chest and stayed unhinged for days. A strangled sound escaped me.
Without seeming to notice my need for CPR, Mom said I could lose friends if I continued telling everyone what to do all the time, acting like the boss of the world.
At that indignity, my eyes bulged, my face flashed hot, and I shrieked like a peacock chasing a peahen, “What do you mean? You’re always telling me what to do.”
Mom tapped the handle of a table knife on the lids of some cooled jars to check their seal, then answered me: “Janet, helping your child learn and improve is being a mother. Correcting friends for their lack of perfection is being rude. I’m a parent. You’re bossy.”
Tears worked their way down my face.
In a room silent except for my sobs, Mom used her dishtowel to wipe the edges of jars she had filled, and continued: “You can’t say everything that pops into your head. How would Mrs. Bigelow feel if I told her that when she sings in her backyard, dogs howl and hide? What would Mrs. Beck think if I mentioned her habit of taking seconds ‘to fill her sweet tooth’ has given her a bottom as big as a washtub?”
A giggle spluttered through my sobs; Mom smiled, “You know I would never say those things. People would feel bad and begin to avoid me. You need to think about how your words make others feel, Janet.”
She pulled a rack of sterilized jars from a steaming pot of water. I skulked away, muttering.
Despite my hurt feelings, I remembered the words my mother delivered in a steamy kitchen as she canned peaches.
I consider telling my husband he should thank his favorite sweater for its service and trash it. I’d like to inform a cousin the phrase “you know” shouldn’t begin every sentence — but I don’t.
Thanks to my mother’s lesson, I keep my thoughts to myself.