As a young boy, lo, those many years ago, I listened to my mother—not because I always wanted to, but because I quickly learned that not doing so could have severe consequences. She’s been gone ten years and more, and yet I find I’m still listening, especially now, living in this pandemic world in which we find ourselves.
“Wash and brush your teeth first thing,” she’d say, “and brush your hair. Make your bed before you get dressed, then come down for breakfast.”
She didn’t tell me to shave, of course, my being but a stripling who had no need to do so. But I was told to put my pyjamas away and drop my dirty clothes into the hamper on my way to the kitchen.
I didn’t need telling every day, but the reminders were frequent enough. And woe betide me if I neglected any of the tasks.
Fast forward to today, and you’d see this past-mid-seventies man I have become still making my bed right after returning from my first visit of the day to the bathroom (where, of course, I wash and brush my teeth). I still don’t shave, at least not every day, but I do brush my hair assiduously.
After slipping my PJ’s under the pillow, I get dressed (always neatly, if not stylishly), gather up any laundry, and head for the kitchen.
My mother always had breakfast ready when I got there, sometimes preceded by my brother and sisters, and she watched closely to ensure we ate everything—juice, oatmeal porridge, toast, and milk.
“Sit up tall,” she’d say. “Lift your spoon to your mouth. Lean over your bowl. Hold your spoon properly.”
My remembering it like this might make her sound like a martinet, but she was not. Neither was she a nag. She simply wanted each of us to be the best we could be, and she had strong opinions as to what the best looked like.
Today, my breakfast might consist of cottage cheese with fresh fruit mixed in, and a couple of oat biscuits; or granola with fresh fruit and yogurt. Green tea has replaced the glass of milk, but juice is still a staple. And while I am eating, I sit straight, careful not to lower my chin to the bowl.
“Don’t leave your dishes on the counter,” my mother would say when we’d get up to leave the table. “Put them in the sink. And make sure you fold your napkin and push your chair back in.”
To this day, my napkin is rolled carefully into the napkin ring, the chairs in my kitchen sit squarely around the table, pushed in just so. And no dirty dishes adorn the countertop (although a dishwasher has replaced the sink to receive them).
Our reward back then, as we tumbled out the door to school, was a smiling kiss from our taskmaster. We expected it, looked forward to it, and remembered it often throughout the day.
Looking back, I think these instructions from my mother helped prepare us to face the world in front of us. The subtle sense of accomplishment we gained from completing such simple chores, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it, instilled a sense of confidence in us that we were more than up to the task of dealing with whatever might befall us.
Of course, we were uncomplicated souls back then, my siblings and I. As a senior citizen today, I would have expected myself to be much more jaded by now, much less naïve, not so likely to be swayed or influenced by simple rewards for elementary tasks.
Yet, here I am, confined to home because of the dreaded pandemic swirling around us, unsure as to what might lie ahead, needing that jolt of confidence more than ever. I’m making my bed first thing every day, brushing my teeth, sitting up straight at the table. I’m doing the dishes, the laundry, the numerous other household chores that keep my shrunken world from toppling over the edge into chaos.
And why? Well, the answer to that is simple.
I’m still listening to my mother.