Things I learned from my mother (because she is so smart)

By Louise Ure


I buried my mother last Friday.

It went about as well as those kind of things can go. In his eulogy, the priest said that he had another funeral to do in two hours, and that one was for a three-month-old baby so how bad could we feel about burying a 93-year old?

Pretty bad, I could have told him.

Holy Hope Cemetery is one of Tucson’s oldest, first populated back before Arizona was a State or a Territory. Before the Gadsden Purchase and during the time Tucson was part of Mexico. That probably doesn’t sound very old to my European or East Coast friends, but by Arizona standards, it’s Paleolithic.

When I was growing up, we’d go visit the family graves once a year on Memorial Day. I never saw a Memorial Day that was cooler than 110 degrees. We’d cut bunches of oleander – the only flowering plant we had – and stuff the stems into Sanborn coffee can/vases. A bucket of water would be braced between a child’s legs to keep it steady in the car.

There were no trees or grass at Holy Hope in those days so the marble angels and squared off grave markers sat flat on hard-packed desert dirt. We’d kneel as long as we could on the stone curbs that marked our area, bony knees burning and arms itching from our poisonous floral offerings. Our family names were at first the more foreign sounding Slaviero or Cosamini. Later family deaths had more American sounding names. Counter. Sellers. Ure. 

There’s grass there now, but not the picture perfect kind you’d hope for in a cemetery named Hope. Stubbly, yellow brown and choked with stickers and small stones for moral support.

It was ninety degrees when we buried her. Better than my remembered Memorial Days, and she always did love the heat. They’d laid out a swatch of bright green Astroturf  where the casket was and set up a small white tent and two rows of folding chairs. The rest of the attendees stood in the sun. But the tent wasn’t big enough to offer any shade and the Astroturf looked like a cheap toupee purchased long ago for a man who now has gray hair.

My 94-year old aunt sat alone in the first row, saying goodbye to her little sister and last original family member. I sat behind her so that I could wrap my arms around her. I didn’t want to tell her that they’d set up the chairs and the Astroturf so that my feet were resting on my father’s grave and I was sitting on my brother’s.

Never willing to recognize her own native insights and intelligence, my mother often told us, “It’s a good thing you got your father’s brains.” We always disagreed. Finally, fifteen years ago I sent her a list called “Things I learned from my mother (because she is so smart).”

I read part of that list as I stood behind the casket.

“Things I learned from my mother (because she is so smart).”

1.    Whistle. My mother had a whistle that could carry harmony in a song or mimic a bird or call children from three blocks away. And I learned that, to a child, a Mother’s whistle is the loudest sound in the world.

2.    Happiness is having everything you want. And you can have everything you want, if you don’t want anything you can’t have.

3.    Don’t sweat the small stuff. You’re only as big as the things you let bother you, and letting something bother gives someone else control over you.

4.    Turn the utensils around in your kitchen drawer so that you can see what they are. Handles all look alike.

5.    It is possible to love all your children and grandchildren equally. There are no favorites when it’s unconditional love.

6.    Save a little every week. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it adds up. And having a passbook at a bank is more fun than using an ATM.

7.    Appreciate other cultures. Speak Spanish with the right pronunciation. It is a part of our heritage not to be forgotten.

8.    Write it down. If it’s not on a list it won’t happen.

9.    Love words. Not just the crossword puzzle kind but all those that make the mouth sizzle and shiver. Appreciate where they came from and the joy of how they sound.

10.    Assume the best of everyone. You’ll be disappointed less than half the time.


Native Americans from Arizona (the Hopis? the Papagos?) believe that the arrival of a hummingbird signals a departed soul returning to say goodbye. On the day I left, a small hummingbird hovered at eye level near a mesquite tree to my left. I swear it had a shock of white feathers just at the crown of its head.


Rest in peace, Little Bird. You taught us well.




Jeanne Ure

Thank you all for such kind words two weeks ago when JT offered to share my sad news on her blog day. It means a great deal to me.

Today we think happier thoughts. Tell me, my ‘Rati friends, what’s the thing you’re most proud of your mother teaching you?


58 thoughts on “Things I learned from my mother (because she is so smart)

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Here’s to the life of a great lady.

    “What’s the thing you’re most proud of your mother teaching you?”

    To read, and to love reading.

  2. Karen Kennedy

    What a lovely tribute to your mother.

    I also am lucky to have a very smart mother, from whom I continue to learn many things. But one of the most important, I think, is that every person can teach us something. She taught adults for years–GED prep, reading and writing to people who could do neither, English as a second language–teaching Iranians, and others, to speak with a Southern accent.

    What seemed to satisfy her most was not what she was able to teach her students, but what her students were able to teach her.

    Thanks for the opportunity to talk about our mothers.

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Thanks for the touching story, Louise,

    My mom taught by example. Her biggest lesson…Respect for others. She was big on The Golden Rule.

    Something I’m afraid our society is losing.

  4. Sandy

    Louise,You were fortunate, especially to have given your mother the gift of the list.Things my mother taught me:There are certain things to which everyone is entitled by virtue of being born: namely, love, respect, and opportunity. The complete individual nurtures and nourishes not just the body but also the mind and the soul. A person must reach out to help out and to help up the stranger and the friend. Beliefs are both powerful and fragile: On the one hand, they inspire; on the other, they need us to fight for them. An independent spirit lights a path that brightens the way for others.

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Louise, that was beautiful. Thank you.

    My mother taught me the love of reading. My dad has come to reading late in life, after retirement, and didn’t really value it until then. My mom took us to the library regularly. She read to us (I particularly remember the Francis book about bread and jam). She had stacks of books by her bedside (gothic romances then) so I get my TBR habit from her. Now we share a love of reading mysteries. We live in the same town so we share books a lot but every phone call (about every other day) consists of what we’re reading. I guess book addiction is genetic. 🙂

  6. Louise Ure

    JD and Janet, love of reading and love of words. What a gift they passed on to us!

    Karen, I have a picture of your mother in mind now. And I adore the notion of Iranians with Southern accents! There’s a character study in there, I think.

  7. Louise Ure

    Wilfred, you and Sandy both have mothers who passed to you a respect for others. Mothers should rule the world. It would be a better place.

  8. Louise Ure

    PK, I’m glad she’s still with you and that you’re so close. The only thing better than sharing a meal with your mother is sharing a book.

  9. pari

    Louise,I would’ve slugged that minister . . .

    My mother taught me many things while she was alive and some in death.

    Among them:a love of reading; she was also the first person who actively encouraged me to write.

    an appreciation of the beauty around me — both natural and human made. From her I learned to see the glory of a blue sky gleaned through the stark branches of a winter tree.

    And because she was such an angry person, she taught me what that anger can do over time. It was a lesson she didn’t mean to teach, but it proved invaluable nonetheless.

    My heart is with you, my friend.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, what a beautiful tribute.

    My mom taught me a love of reading and words, of taking the time to tell a story and listen to others’, of the value of humor in even the darkest moment, and of loving so much, it’s nearly an ache, but worth every effort.

  11. Cara

    What a great lady, Louise! Thank you for sharing her. Assume the best of everyone, that’s wonderful.My mother came to my reading last night despite the rain, she’s a little unsteady on her feet, but pointed to a book on the shelf ‘Mary’ the story of Lincoln’s wife and said ‘you gave me that for Xmas didn’t you?’ and there was this wonderful smile in her eyes…it’s a book thing, I guess.Very moving Louise!

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Oh — and perhaps most important, she taught me that it was perfectly okay to make the pie filling, but to save some on the side for certain little girls who didn’t like the whole pie, and that no one could make fun just because someone’s tastes were different.

  13. Louise Ure

    Pari, I couldn’t decide whether to slug the priest or not. In some ways he was right. We were celebrating a life. Those parents would be thinking about a life unlived.

    And the anger lesson … oh yes, mothers also teach us by example, even when they don’t mean to.

    Cara, to be able to give your mother a book — or a flower — and receive a smile in return is my idea of happiness.

  14. Louise Ure

    Toni, I think my mother would have identified with your notion of “loving so much that its nearly an ache.” When I first traveled Europe with my sister we’d get letters from home that said “I stand at the kitchen window and look down the street just in case today is the day you return.”

    Keep eating the inside of the pie, my dear.

  15. billie

    Louise, I love the hummingbird sighting – and seeing the photo of your mom, I feel certain it was her! She is absolutely beautiful. May her spirit stay close.

    Toni, my mom used to make me an extra bowl of lemon pie filling for just that reason!

  16. Janine

    My Mother taught me to be kind to everyone and give them a smile because maybe, just maybe, no one has smiled at them for a long time. And she taught me to read, and encouraged me to read, which has nourished me all these years.

    And I’m going home tonight and arrange my silverware drawer pursuant to #4. What a grand idea!

    You are your Mother’s gift to us all, Louise, and I know your memories of her will help you through the grieving process.


  17. Cornelia Read

    Dearest Louise–thank you so much for sharing this wisdom with all of us. I’m in total agreement with Janine, that you are your mother’s gift to all of us, and I’m so grateful to Mrs. Ure for that (I’m also going to rearrange my silver drawer, as soon as I have one again!)

    Things my mother taught me:

    Don’t let your jib luff.

    Stay with the boat if you capsize, and never put any kind of weights in your pockets, under your lifejacket, because that’s how Chris Neff drowned.

    A marriage isn’t over when you’d rather be with someone else, it’s over when you’d rather be by yourself for the rest of your life.

    If you can’t think of anything to say, ask the other person about him or herself. They’d rather talk about that anyway, no matter how witty you think you are.

    How to use fingerbowls, and that when Will Rogers drank his, Queen Victoria drank hers so he wouldn’t be embarrassed.

    Other stuff too, but that’s what first comes to mind.

    Love to you, Louise.

  18. J.T. Ellison

    Louise, thank you for sharing this. I’ve been worried about you.

    I’m a big believer in signs, and I think that’s one thing I got from my mom. She gave me many things – tolerance, patience, a love of reading, but the superstitions are something that really draw us together. Say Bunny Rabbits on the first day of the month, lift your feet going over railroad tracks so you don’t lose your lover, blow a kiss at a yellow light so it won’t turn red, throw salt over your left shoulder, always enter a new home with bread, salt and a bible, so you don’t go hungry, your life is seasoned and your soul shriven.

    She always said the women in my family were witches. As a child, when the phone rang and I knew who it was, I was entranced with the idea. As an adult, I see that it’s sometimes more about being attuned to your surroundings, being open and willing to expect the unexpected, to believe in your soul when you see something you think might be telling you something.

    Dusty saw my belief in this firsthand in Chicago. It may not have helped, but I believed every word I told him. The hummingbird was most definitely your mother, letting you know she’s out of pain now. What a wonderful sign.

    May you rest in peace, Jeanne. And may you, Louise, know the joy of being loved, today and every day.

  19. Louise Ure

    Billie, I think the hummingbird legend is true. When they hover and look you in the eye, you’ll know who’s visiting you.

    And Janine, your mother with her smiles sounds like a fine woman. I suppose mom’s advice would work equally well for the silverware drawer but she used it most judiciously for the kitchen utensils. Spatula blade out, big spoon facing you, etc. It’s only a problem when you grab the knives.

  20. Louise Ure

    J.T., what lovely words. Knowing that you love and are loved in return is true joy.

    We followed all those same superstitions in my house, plus others like not putting a hat on the bed or leaving the house by a different door than you entered. And if you drop a spoon it means a woman will visit. But I’ve never heard the one about the yellow lights. I’m now going to adopt it.

  21. Denese

    When my dad died I was lucky enough to be working in the School of Social Work at LSU. Even though he was 84 and I was 49 they allowed me to grieve. As they said, “It’s your FATHER.” And, “It doesn’t matter how old they are or you are, it hurts.” I miss my dad everyday and take the time to remind myself to appreciate my mother (who lives in our backyard) as well.

  22. Jake Nantz

    Wow. Powerful stuff, Ms. Ure.

    The thing I will always remember about my mother was that she raised me to be independent. It’s okay to accept help from someone, but when you allow yourself to rely on anyone else it becomes a dependency no different than an unhealthy addiction, and you can’t stand on your own two feet.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    As always, your post is poignant and thought-provoking. What a wonderful way to celebrate your mother’s life.

    I’m with Cornelia in that I shall shortly be rearranging my cultery drawer. And yeah, Pari, I probably would have punched the priest, too …

    My mother was only 18 when I was born, so she has yet to be raised to the heights of elderly reverence. I always hoped she’d teach me how to drive a forklift truck, but I guess I missed out on that one.

    What else has she taught me? Never ask a man to do anything when he’s hungry. Always clean the bath before you get out of it. And if you think that overtaking gap is a little small, put your foot down and go for it anyway … ;-]

  24. Louise Ure

    Denese, a nurse friend of mine told me this week to be good to myself right now because you never know how or when some harbinger of a parent’s death will sneak up on you. And she said it’s not a matter of days or weeks, it’s maybe a year. I think your co-workers had the right idea.

    Jake, she made you strong. That’s clear in all the correspondence we’ve seen from you here. And I’ll bet she’s proud of you.

  25. Louise Ure

    Zoë, I think I love your mother. The fact that fork lifts might even have been an option … and that she’s got you driving like a mad woman. You’re definitely your mother’s daughter.

  26. Kaye Barley

    Oh, Louise – beautiful. Thank you.

    One of the most important things my mother has taught me, and continues to teach, is how to laugh out loud. Even at things others don’t really see the humor in. Laugh loudly and boisterously and enjoy it.

    and to say the word “shit.” only when appropriate, of course.

  27. R.J. Mangahas

    Louise, a lovely tribute to your mother.

    Two very important things I learned from my mom. One: She gave me the foundation to become a decent cook.

    And two (and perhaps more importantly): she was the one who inspired me to write (she worked for a magazine years ago in the Philippines)

    Love ya, Mom!

  28. Judy Wirzberger

    My mother taught me to always check to see if the toilet seat is down, never to wear underwear with safety pins, what I think of myself if more important than what other people think, and when I’m reading a book I can never hear her calling me to do work. But most important, when rearing children enjoy whatever stage they are in because the next one will be more challenging. She also taught me to sit on a barstool with my legs crossed, never smoke while walking down the street, and too much eye makeup makes you look like a whore. Oh and then there was that thing about not sleeping around because when you run into the guys later in life you never have to look away.(We lived in a small town and I was a virgin when I got married)

  29. Katherine C.

    Louise, you’ve made me want to meet your mother and that line from the letters: “I stand at the kitchen window and look down the street just in case today is the day you return.” that’s just beautiful. Obviously you inherited your gift for words from her.I have learned countless valuable lessons from my mother. My favorite, as many have already said, is the love of reading. Equally important however, is that no matter how tired/stressed out/busy/down on your luck you are, you always have something to give — even (and sometimes especially) if it’s simply a shoulder to lean on an ear to listen and an arm to hug.

  30. Allison Brennan

    Your mother is an incredible woman. It’s never enough to say I’m sorry, but you and your mom have both been in my prayers.

    My mom is an infinitely patient person. While she didn’t pass that trait on to me, she needed the patience in dealing with me. Unconditional love comes from mothers. Of everything, though, the one thing I’ll always appreciate is that my mom never once told me to put the book down and turn off the light because I had school the next day.

  31. Katherine C.

    Oh, and the priest? Even if he believed he had a point, that was totally inappropriate. One of my great-grandmother’s had a minister who once told her (after running down one of her small children in a cart/wagon when they darted into the road … not clear whether it was at the time or later — maybe even the funeral) told her she should get over it, because she had 12 more at home anyway. Jackass. And there, see, he made me break one of my Lenten offerings. I hope he’s happy in his little corner of Purgatory (there’s no way a man with that attitude has gotten into heaven yet, he’s still got a few more decades to go). Putz.

  32. Louise Ure

    R.J., she gave you cooking and writing? Both such creative gifts from the heart!

    And Judy, what a litany of love from that fine lady. I particularly like the crossed legs on the barstool.

  33. Louise Ure

    Katherine, at the time she said that “I’m standing at the kitchen window line” it simply broke my heart. I thought it to be the pure essence of Catholic guilt inducement — a rarified version of the more famous Jewish guilt.

    And your minister? Hardly a Christian. I hope his cockles will be singed while he waits for entrance to the Pearly Gates.

    Allison, you seem the most patient of souls! And I love the fact that she didn’t tell you to turn off the light. (Just like I love Cornelia’s mother waving from the front door and telling her children “Talk to strangers!”)

  34. joylene

    When we buried my mother, the minister told us to mourn. He said while it was wonderful to celebrate her life, we were left with a huge hole in our lives. Accept the grieving process, he told us. Acknowledge the big gap where her being once stood. No one will fill that gap. But one day when the pain is tolerable, wonderful comforting memories will. And a new relationship will develop.

    My mum’s been gone 10 years and I’m still aching for her presence, her counsel and her companionship.

    Deepest sympathies for your loss, Katherine. 91 or 23, it hurts just as deeply.

  35. Lisa

    LouiseWhat a beautiful post. Thank you for your courage and your love.

    When my father died, my godfather told me to go on and be the best person I could be and my father would never really die. Clearly, you’ve been doing that already for years. It only helps a little, but it does, somehow.

    My mother’s greatest lesson to me?That it’s better to be different and be yourself than try to become the checked box the world asks for.

    You’re in my prayers.

  36. Annette

    Louise, thank you for sharing something so personal.

    My mother has always been an avid reader.She drove us to the library at least once a week.I became a librarian.My sister became a writer.

    Mom is very proud of both of us.

  37. bfs ~ Mimi

    My heart aches for you. I know your loss so well. Thank you for such a beautiful description of ~ well, of the one you loved and will always love. You will always be speaking to her, and in 15 years, you will still remember something you need to tell her.

    We are fortunate to have had those wonderful mothers, and we will never, ever let them go. They will always be with us. Your mother sounded like a delightful lady.

  38. Louiseure

    Joylene, that’s the best advice I’ve heard from a minister or a priest this week. Let us grieve. Let us wail the loss. Let us celebrate what we had and we miss.

    Lisa, your godfather was right. As long as you live for yourself (keeping your father in mind) he will live forever.

  39. Louiseure

    Annette, a librarian and a writer? Your mother will be doing backstrokes with angel wings when she gets there.

    BKS: I can’t imagine 15 years without her. Can you teach me how to do that?

  40. EC Sheedy

    There is never a *right* time to lose your mother. There is never a time when it won’t hurt. Your mother sounds and looks to be a beautiful woman, Louise. Certainly, you will miss her.

    My mother has been gone for many years now, and to this day I think of all the questions that I didn’t ask her. I would like to have had the chance to know her as one woman knows another, but it was not to be.

    What did she whisper to me . . .Always have your own money.If you don’t have a fever, you’re not sick.And read, read, read.

  41. Ann

    Lovely essay and tribute, Louise.

    What did my mother teach me? To love reading. To love words. To love music.She also (inadvertently) taught me: Always be in a position to support yourself and your family. Always.

  42. Fran

    My vote goes with the “slug the priest” contingent. He should never have mentioned it.

    My mom taught me to love books, to be willing to try new things and go new places, and to talk to strangers because sometimes they need it. She’s been gone over a decade, and I miss her every day.

    You have given a beautiful tribute to your mother here, but I suspect the true measure of your tribute to her is you yourself. You are most precious and generous, my dear.

    The grief will take you suddenly and unexpectedly for a while, and that’s how it should be. I found that those were the times when I had long talks — through tears — with my mother. And I know she listened. Yours will too.

  43. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Slug the priest is right, that’s horrifying.

    BUT –

    This is a lovely topic and lovely ongoing tribute to your mother, LU.

    I’m not really very good at conflict but very time I face any kind of bully or irrational opposition, I open my mouth and my mother’s voice comes out. She is so much stronger than I am, but I am somehow able to channel her in those moments when I need her.

    My mother taught me how to flirt. Not consciously at all! Really, she will talk to ANYONE, and they end up feeling good about themselves, and always go away from the encounter glowing and maybe just a little flustered, in the best possible way.

    She and my father loved dancing and parties so it made all of us kids rabid to be adults and have that kind of fun.

    And she took us to art museums all the time. She told me – “If you train yourself to see art and beauty in anything you look at, you’ll have a great life no matter what your circumstances.”

    All of that – priceless.

  44. Louise Ure

    EC, I, too am wondering about all the questions I would have asked her. (You’d think in the 57 years we had together that I would already have asked them all, but alas, I find more.) So far I’m just making up the responses I think she might have given.

    Ann, your mother has given you both practical and inspirational advice. You got the whole package rolled up in one big hug.

  45. Louise Ure

    Fran, you said “the grief will take you suddenly and unexpectedly.” Shit yes. And I don’t know how to control it. Does it ever go away?

    And Alex, she may have taught you how to flirt (and what an apt student you are!) but she also taught you how to make friends at the same time. Priceless advice, indeed.

  46. Janet Reid

    What a lovely tribute to your mother! I wish I’d known her, she sounds like one of those ladies it would have been fun to sit on the back porch and cackle about the vagaries of life with.

    That priest sounds like a callow pup. At least I hope he was. Otherwise, despite your mom’s urge to see the best in people, I want to stand in line to slug him too.

  47. Rae

    I’m late, but wanted to say how lovely your post was, Louise.

    My mother taught me to be hopeful.

  48. Gayle Carline

    I’ve been hesitant to post here. Louise, your post was a beautiful tribute. The pastor at my husband’s grandmother’s funeral said, “we write our obituary by the life we lead.” Your mom led a life worthy of remembrance.

    I was not so lucky. The thing my mother taught me was how not to be like her. I’ve learned to be independent and not clinging, to look within people to find their beauty and not judge appearances, to let my son be who he is and not try to live vicariously through him.

    When my mother on her deathbed, I raced 2,000 miles to say our good-byes, crying most of the way. I got to the hospital too late and, I’m sorry to say, stopped crying immediately. I was more upset about a deathbed scene with my mom than her passing.

    From the other comments I’ve read, I’m so glad to see that other people have great relationships with their moms and don’t take them for granted. I can only hope to be that kind of mom to my kiddo.

  49. M.J.

    Louise -that made me cry and of course the bird was her!

    My mom died way to early – at 68 – she taught me too much to list and I love her so much.

    But two things came to mind. In dying she taught me love never dies. And in living she taught me “not to die twice.”

    She explained that this way:

    She got cancer when she was 39 (I was 12 and my sister was 7). My mom said (and lived this totally) if she’d spent her time and her thoughts from then on worrying about it coming back she would have wasted the next 30 years and had nothing to show for it but stress and strife.

    She said you’re going to die eventually whether you worry about it or don’t. So why waste all that time.

    She lived every minute of every day and when the worry came she replaced it with something beautiful or funny to think about. She believed anything was possible – and proved it to me.

    She did live all 27 of those 30 years totally healthy and even when it did come back it was gentle and she never was in the hospital or on pain meds and died at home as firecrackers exploded over the East River out my parent’s window on a Fourth of July in New York City.

    Damn, she was the best.

  50. M.J.

    And Louise, the grief softens and it turns into this lovely proof of the love so when it hits you – a year from now and after – its makes you so happy you had her – the grief in its strange way becomes a celebration every time it hits.

  51. Christine Carey

    My mom passed away this past December and this post warmed my heart.Things I learned from my mom –Cooking requires lots of spices and if it smells good together, it will work.-Gardening is more than just pulling weeds. -It’s also watching the rainbows in the water coming from the hose.-Family dinners make for close families.-It’s okay to cry and even better to forgive.-It’s okay to just let the phone ring. They’ll leave a message.

  52. Christine Carey

    My mom passed away this past December and this post warmed my heart.Things I learned from my mom –Cooking requires lots of spices and if it smells good together, it will work.-Gardening is more than just pulling weeds. -It’s also watching the rainbows in the water coming from the hose.-Family dinners make for close families.-It’s okay to cry and even better to forgive.-It’s okay to just let the phone ring. They’ll leave a message.

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