My mother Mary was born in 1938, on the eve of WWII. To this day, she believes that the poverty and panic felt all over the world at that time were actually bred right into her bones as she lay incubating. She claims her mother, my grandma Kathryn, was so poor and desperate during her entire pregnancy that all she had to eat were boiled eggs and coffee. Thus, when little Mary was born, she was already riddled with sickness and sorrow and a life-long aversion to milk, preferring instead straight, black coffee even as a small child.

My mother is seventy-three now, and despite her life-long struggles with maladies and melancholia, she is still going strong, still sipping black coffee. And if she’s not nestled in a Percocet haze, she’s still full of anxiety and advice, some of which I actually take to heart now that I’m a mom, too. 

Here are the ‘Golden Rules’ of life, as gleaned from Mother Mary:

Be a trend-setter – If you have the nerve to ask, “How do I look?” be prepared for this answer. Even if you are a chubby, self-conscious teen-ager; or a newly engorged breast-feeding mother trying to stay in your top, this is the only response you’ll hear from Mother Mary. A response that’s wildly off-key most of the time. But one I find myself saying to my own offspring now. And meaning. Because the whole point of life is to get to the point where you don’t care if you fit in or not.

Speak Well, And Often – My mother was not keen on the art of listening. “So boring!” she’d cry, forlornly. What she admired were tantalizing talkers. “Somebody needs to say something! Might as well be me!” she’d laugh. “If you’re going to tell a story, make it interesting. And use correct grammar!” I grew up believing Mother Mary might actually have been a Native American spirit-girl in one of her past-lives. I had no doubt that she talked to a pirate hanging off the mast of the Jolly Roger each day as she drove to work. Mother Mary taught me that every person has a story to tell, even me. 

Be Humble and Gracious and Worthy of Forgiveness – Mother Mary was in charge of all the Sunday School performances when we were growing up. On the day of one Christmas production, the manger that was meant to hold baby Jesus kept breaking. Right before the show she loaded my sister and me into the car and drove to Home Depot. We ran down the aisles until we located a single screw that would hold the manger together. Then we raced for the check-out line. But it was clogged with people waiting to check out. She pulled us two girls to the side and motioned for us to bow our heads. Covertly she whispered, “Dear Lord, please forgive us for taking this screw, but we need it for your little manger.” Then we ran out of there, the stolen hardware in her pocket. In the car my mother said, “Don’t worry, girls. The Lord will forgive us. He understands.” And then she giggled wildly all the way back to church. And we laughed, too, and believed what she said. Because that’s the essence of Christianity, right?

Play the Piano – This is just common sense. And good manners. And required ‘personal growth’ for a red-haired Scandinavian-American.

Be Prepared…to Change Your Mind – Back in the early 90’s, my mom needed a new car. My sister Lorraine went with her to pick one out. When they arrived at the dealer’s car lot Mother Mary walked straight over to the salesman and said, “I’m here to buy a new car. I want it to be blue and it must have manual window rollers. Don’t try to sell me anything with those new-fangled automatic buttons.” When the salesman tried to interject about the superiority of automatic windows, my mom cut him off immediately. “When I drive off the Coronado Bridge some day I need to be able to unroll the windows and swim on out of there, don’t I?

The salesman eyed her, stunned. Very quietly he asked, “Why would you drive a brand new car off the Coronado Bridge, Ma’am?”

And without a moment’s hesitation, Mother Mary said, “I think about driving off that bridge every day of my life, young man! One of these days it’s bound to happen, and when it does, I want those manual rollers….Just in case I change my mind at the last-minute! Now let’s see what you have.”

The salesman closed his mouth and led her straight over to a light blue car with manual windows while my sister cringed with shame. Mother Mary bought that car on the spot. And nobody questioned her willingness to drive off the Coronado Bridge. Or change her mind.

Wear Some Lipstick! Her words on this ring loud and clear: “You have to wear lipstick. You just have to. It lifts up your whole face. And goodness knows you girls need all the lifting you can get!”

For my one and only Mother Mary, such wondrous words from ancient worlds bestow blessings and sweet comforts on you, this day and always:

Hail Mary, full of grace

Our Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…