To my endless surprise, two of my children are graduating this spring, one from eighth grade, one from high school.
How did this happen? In my heart, we’re still looking at houses, choosing what town to move to, then a babysitter, next a grammar school.
The high-schooler was my first. With her arrival, I, a girl who never played with dolls, who never babysat, a girl whose only concerns were art, movies, and books, had to learn how to change a diaper, how to push little limbs into stretchies, how to finagle a stroller bearing a sleeping infant down the subway steps or up a set of brownstone stairs, how to care for a helpless little human being day and night. As she slept, I watched her, marveling as traces of relatives’ features and expressions crossed her face, then departed.
Overnight, I shed all semblance of self-consciousness or dignity. There were spontaneous parades around the dining room while we clanged on pots and pans to the tune of “When the Saints Come Marching In”; I sprawled on Brooklyn sidewalks while she traced my outline with colored chalk; to comfort her, I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” aloud on trains and airplanes, heedless of how many strangers were listening. She taught me how to play.
As for my graduating eighth grader – he was my constant companion for our early years in Teaneck. With my first two, there were daily trips to the playground in Park Slope as we walked the 10 blocks home from nursery school. But Number 3 was born right before our big move. He accompanied me on countless trips to hardware stores, furniture stores, paint supply stores, and gardening centers, good-naturedly approaching each chore like it was an adventure. I spent the early shock-filled hours of 9/11 curled up on his bedroom floor, watching the twin towers fall as he built his own towers with wooden blocks. With him at my side, I learned how to drive, painted the house, watched a hundred of my older children’s baseball and soccer games from the distance of the playground.
To me, all that happened just yesterday. But my curly-haired toddlers are taller than I am now, with their own interests and friends and skills and tastes and opinions and slang, moving further out into the world and away from me. In this short span of adult time, I’ve stayed pretty much the same, while they have grown to undreamt-of heights. They have acquired wings.
What do I have that I can give them? What advice? What wisdom? How do I teach them to be aware of danger while simultaneously encouraging them to embrace experience? How do I pass over my system of faith and beliefs while also training them to see a thing from all sides, to ask good questions?
This Mother’s Day fell a day after the anniversary of my mom’s birthday. As we always do for her birthday and yahrtzeit, we met at a restaurant in the city, my brothers, my sister, and me, to share good food and memories. We remembered Mom’s deeds, her words, her sense of humor, all shaped by a hard life, and complicated by the disasters and disruption of the Holocaust.
We remembered her gleeful smile, her boundless good spirits, her childlike wonder. And then it came to me. I knew what I would tell my new graduates.
Mom’s Guide to Life
1. A difficult start in life shouldn’t keep you from having a good life. You are the master of your own fate.
2. Be a good listener.
3. Learn how to cook at least one thing, anything, very well.
4. Don’t mix a shirt that has one kind of pattern with pants that have a different kind of pattern. This is best left to experts.
5. Stand up for your rights.
6. Help people who would never tell you that they need help.
7. Look at all the sides in a story before you make any judgments.
8. Bite back those first words that rise to your lips when you’re angry. Think of another way to say it.
9. Read, read, read. Then read some more.
10. If you want kids to play your game, you might have to play their game first.
11. You will not need this one for a few years, but I’m telling you anyway: Give your children independence in order for them to grow. Whether you like it or not.
12. Learn how to tell a good story.
13. Treat all people with respect.
14. Be a good friend.
15. Happiness is about being happy with what you already have.
16. Remember only the good things.