I will never forget a particular conversation my mom and I had when I was 11 years old. It took place on a bumpy ride on a Kansas dirt road somewhere between the beauty parlor in town and our home on the county line.
I was chatting aimlessly about school and friends when something I said troubled my mom. Instead of taking me to task head-on, however, she came at the problem from an unusual angle–capitalizing on a “teachable moment.”
“Peggy,” she began calmly, “do you know what the word ‘catty’ means?”
“Well, it refers to a certain kind of woman who likes to put down other women and talk about them behind their backs. Running down others makes us feel a little better about ourselves, but it doesn’t last. And catty women aren’t respected by anybody.”
Mom delivered this message as if it were just casual information that might interest me. She kept her eyes on the road. I can still see her profile, fashionably coiffed in a stiffly sprayed bubble cut; she was wearing dark, cat-eye sunglasses that were very cool at the time.
Then Mom added the part that embedded this message in my head for life.
“None of the women in our family are catty,” she said. “My mother isn’t, and neither is Grandma Lena. Aunt Mara isn’t catty either. It’s just not how we are.”
The bombshell for me was that my mom had just subtly included me in powerful company: the women of the family.
And I realized she was right about the women in our family, though they were a pretty diverse group–my soft-spoken, working class secretary Grandma Ted; my strong-willed, fundamentalist, camp-meeting-going Grandma Lena; my beautiful, carefree, would-be hippie Aunt Mara, and my own stylishly conservative preacher’s wife mother–none of them, different as they could possibly be, was the least bit catty.
It was brilliant.
My mother had somehow managed to portray the varied women in my family as a unified group, a company to be proud of, a circle I was welcome to join, provided I get a grip on the cattiness she’d just caught in my tone as I talked about some of the girls at school.
Mom went on to say that it’s important not to put other women down because each of us has faults, and we wouldn’t like it if someone put us down behind our backs. She said that cattiness can become a real trap for women bcause we tend to get gossipy in order to feel close to each other, to share “secrets” with our friends.
The problem, she said, is that those”secrets” often are repeated and wind up really hurting the person we were talking about.
There are other ways to get close to your friends, Mom said. Listen to their problems. Think of kind things to do for them. Stick up for them when others are being catty.
Mom had taken an ordinary ride in a dusty old rambler and turned it into a life-changing moment. She gave an 11-year-old girl a vision of womanhood.
That little talk made me want to become a woman of kindness and character, a woman who could be welcomed into the company of women in the family because she, like them, was not catty.
“The teaching of kindness is on her tongue,” a biblical phrase describing a good woman, fits my mother well and still attracts me.
It draws me to hope that I have honorably joined the women of my family. Though I haven’t always lived up to it, the ideal has been a wonderful corrective to the temptation to cattiness over the years.
Once, long after I’d become a woman with a family of my own, I told my mother how much that little talk when I was 11 had affected me. She did not remember what she had said.
All the more impressive, I think. No mother gets to choose the moments her daughter remembers. The times my mother may have worked the hardest to impress something on my mind are lost to me now.
But that casual ride home from the beauty parlor, that surprise phrase, “the women in our family,” that vision of womanhood as kind and compassionate, that hope that I might have those traits too, that moment stayed with me.
And that’s motherhood at its finest.
“My Mother’s Finest Moment” first appeared as a Colorado Voices column in the Denver Post.
Join Sparrowfare’s email list and you won’t miss another post. You will receive Reads that Feed: A Booklover’s Planner and Flight Fuel: an Eclectic Playlist of Hope in your inbox today!
Know someone who would enjoy this post? Please share Sparrowfare!