My mother, God bless her, was quite ordinary the way we ordinarily judge people. And yet, every time anyone ever said anything about Mom it was always more than just a nice comment, it was a rave review.
I can remember Mrs. DeSarro next door saying, “Your mother is SO nice.” And Mrs. Hein up the street saying, “Oh, I just LOVE your mother.” And Mrs. Lombardi, the grocer’s wife, saying, “She is my sister.”
It never occurred to me to ask why three neighborhood ladies would bother to tell a dumb little kid how much they loved his mother. Nor did it ever occur to me to ask myself why I have always been so happy, but now that I am old enough to understand things better, I think I know the answer.
Mom was one of those people who are born with natural wisdom. Although I can only remember two of them, I suppose I must have asked her lots of questions; but even if those two had been the only ones I ever asked her, they would have been enough to set me on the road to happiness.
Listen to the answers!
The first time came one warm summer day when I was 14. I must have looked worried because Mom asked me what was bothering me. It startled me for two reasons: because I was surprised it showed and because Mom never pried into my life.
“It’s a girl,” I told her, happy to talk about it. “We were in junior high together, but I hardly knew her. A couple of weeks ago she saw me in the stand where I work at the beach, and now she’s there all the time. She invited me to her birthday party. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but I don’t want her to get the idea I like her more than I do. Should I go?”
It was so crazy! The girl was a lot better looking than I was, a pretty thing with dark eyes, a warm smile, and a voice that could melt a snowdrift. I’d have been proud to call her my girlfriend, but whatever it is that kick-starts that engine, it just hadn’t happened.
“That’s a decision only you can make,” Mom told me.
“But how can I make it? I never know what’s right.”
“Yes, you do,” she told me. “We all do. When something like this comes along, just do what feels right. It’ll be the right choice because the one person you can’t fool is yourself.”
I went to the party.
I had a great time — so did the girl — and afterwards, life sorted itself out in the odd way it has of doing it in spite of how hard we try to screw it up.
I have never forgotten that advice: So simple, and yet so important. “Do what feels right.” It should be carved in granite and put on street corners.
The other time Mom gave me advice was when I had a problem she didn’t actually know about. Our high school counselor had taken it upon herself to tell me that I could not be a chemist, physicist or biologist because I was colorblind and couldn’t pass the lab courses. As a result, I had angrily thrown away the scholarship offers I had received and had decided that both college and that counselor could go straight to hell!
The trouble was that meant I had to do something else, and in New London, Conn., the list of “something else” worth doing was about as long as the list of living Revolutionary War heroes. When Mom, for the second and last time I remember, asked me what was bothering me, I faked it. I didn’t tell her about the bone-headed counselor. I said, “I can’t decide what I’d like to be. Everyone I look at except Pop (my stepfather) seems so unhappy.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said.
Didn’t seem so easy to me. “Easy?”
“Sure. Just do anything.”
“People aren’t happy because of the jobs they have; they’re happy when other people like them and respect them. That’s all we really need. Do any job you don’t hate; just do it well.”
Later in life, about the same time I took — and passed with As — all those lab courses I “couldn’t pass,” thereby earning a degree in chemistry, physics and biology, I took a few psychology courses that exactly echoed Mom’s advice. “Acceptance is critical to happiness,” the books said, “along with belonging and self-esteem.”
“People are ... happy when other people like them and respect them.”
You know what, Johnny? Mom should have written a book.
A lot of people might have been happier.