Woodworking again: Things my mother taught me

By Ruth Wood
Posted 5/8/24

One of the best lessons I learned in college began in a dorm room, where eight or nine 19-year-old women sat around complaining about how awful their mothers were. We all had grievances to share, and …

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Woodworking again: Things my mother taught me


One of the best lessons I learned in college began in a dorm room, where eight or nine 19-year-old women sat around complaining about how awful their mothers were. We all had grievances to share, and it was so-o-o-o-o satisfying to have them substantiated by our peers. I lived in that smug bubble for quite a while, probably until my first visit home and realized how nice it was to have a mom there happy to see me and glad for my help in making dinner, etc., etc.

A few years later, when I brought my fiancé home at Thanksgiving to meet mom, the smug bubble took another hit. I had warned Dave that my mother was kind of stiff, overly cautious, not very sociable, etc., etc., etc. But he had a great time helping her out in the kitchen, and especially the day after, when Dave offered to make turkey tetrazzini out of leftover meat. He spread cooked spaghetti in the bottom of a regular cake pan, lay white meat over that and covered all that in a rich white sauce, then baked it and cut it into six 6x6-inch servings. We each had one. Then my mom asked for another . . . then another! Dave was totally taken by her wonderful appetite and appreciation for his cooking.

Needless to say, the next time I tried to bring up my mother’s deficiencies, he was her staunchest ally. “I love your mom!” he’d insist. “She’s got so much energy and enthusiasm, how can you berate her???”  Well, I thought, because I had to take it on the chin a few times when I inspired her wrath. For example:

My parents had divorced when I was 5 years old, and from that point on, my mom was chief breadwinner, household manager, and double parent. We’d left behind all relatives when we moved to the Chicago area two years earlier, so my mom was strapped with every responsibility. And she took that very seriously. The budget required careful management, something I totally ignored one day when I came home from school hungry. I indulged myself in a slice of bread slathered thickly with margarine and an extra dollop of jam. Before I finished eating it, a friend showed up at the door, and I left the incriminating half on the kitchen table. My mom of course found it when she came home from work. Her reaction would make one think that I’d stolen the week’s food money. But her wrath drilled home two things: One, you don’t take more than your share; Two: Even if you’re not strapped, it’s criminal to casually disregard the value of the food you have. These days I drive Dave a little crazy putting any leftover portions in the fridge and insist on using them. Dave, who grew up with his parents owning a restaurant, has found this a silly obsession, but out of deference to his mother-in-law, he’ll eat a heated-up meal now and then.

My nitpicking took another hit at a later visit, when the three of us were standing around in mom’s kitchen and the phone rang. The call was from a woman who was both a high school classmate and a member of our church. Patsy was not a popular person. She was inviting me over to play cards with her and her parents, which I had done on a number of occasions in the past. I politely turned her down. When I hung up, I told Dave that I had felt obliged to hang out with her now and then—even though she was impossibly nerdy, because of the church connections. My mother was indignant about this description and lit into me in a way I’d never seen her do in front of others: “If that’s the way you feel about her, then you shouldn’t pretend to be her friend!” Dave agreed, and there I was judged guilty of hypocrisy by two of my supposedly stalwart defenders.

My mother truly did live by the old saw: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” going so far as to never in all my life saying a bad word about my father—even though his less than responsible behavior was clearly the cause of the divorce.

The biggest lesson my mother taught me was by her example. She did what she needed to do; she never complained. She worked a hard factory job for 35 years and helped her three children grow up fed, clothed, and cared for. She never laughed much either—she didn’t have time to! And that’s probably the excuse I could use for joining my college friends in berating our mothers.

Once she was retired and her kids were all employed and successful adults, she laughed a lot. She became that Elsie that Dave knew from the beginning: fun-loving and friendly. A terrific role model –and, by the way, a great traveling companion—except that she insisted that I fill the gas tank as soon as it went below half: you never know when something could go wrong!!!

Woodworking Again, Ruth Wood, mothers, column