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.
Related posts: Emily Blunt’s Stunning Portrait of Womanhood in Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and How to Create True Intimacy (and Avoid Gossip’s Tempting Secrecy).
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6 thoughts on “My Mother’s Finest Moment”
A precious recollection of your beautiful and wise mother. Filled with a mother’s grace in that teachable moment, she passed along a virtue so necessary in our path to holiness. And, you had the grace to receive it. Thanks for this post!
That means a lot coming from you Jerry! Yes, your insight about the path to holiness is the real value of that lesson. Words that have returned many times when I have needed a wake-up call!
I have fond memories of your mom. She advised me on how to read the Scriptures and by her example she showed me important qualities of a Christian. During a challenging time time in her life, when being catty would have been tempting, she resisted and lived those qualities. As I sit here in the backyard on this beautiful morning reading your memory, I am inspired to think of my mom and those subtle but powerful lessons he taught me. Thank you. God bless you.
Jerry, this means so much to me! Reworking this piece for Mother’s Day I am still in awe of that line “the women of the family” and how it changed my thinking. I sat on the county Child Protection Team for years with your mother and I know her kind heart too. God bless you both!
Thank you Maria!
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