I’ll never forget an anecdote told to me by a male friend who had recently lost his father. He was an only child and on the day his dad was dying, he was called in to the hospital ward to pay his last respects.
The old fella was very weak and beckoned for him to move closer, indicating that he had something important to say. He duly leant down, not wanting to miss a syllable of these touching last few words:
“Son, when you mow the lawn ... for your mum ... always set the cutting gauge to one inch ... before you start ... or it’ll clog up the engine.” With that, he expired.
My friend roared with laughter as he told this story because it was apparently so typical of the old man, going out on a word of unrequested advice.
My mum was just the same — a compulsive advice-giver. She dispensed wisdom, whether you wanted to hear it or not, with almost every exchange. Some old chestnuts had been gleaned from her own mum, who died aged 85 after raising 14 children. Others were simply what she had learnt herself after graduating with a PhD from the University of Life.
In general these either began with “Always” or “Never”.
“... always wave back at the empty house when you are going out, so that would-be burglars think there is someone at home ... always put a piece of tin foil inside an envelope if you’re sending money — this stops the metal strip in notes showing through to potential thieves ... never allow kids to blow up balloons, because they’re a choking hazard ... always tip the bin men at Christmas to keep them on your side when you need a favour ... never put hot water in your bath first in case someone trips and falls into it ... “ etc.
Whatever the situation, mum had a tip. It used to annoy the hell out of me when I was a teenager, as she would appear to meddle in everything I attempted to achieve on my own, from making a simple cup of tea to learning to drive.
Later on, though, after I’d got over the belligerence of the teenage years and started to see sense, I accepted it readily as an invaluable part of my lifelong learning curve and came to rely on her with alarming frequency. Especially once I had kids of my own.
For example, without fail every Pancake Tuesday I would always ring home with the same question. “Mum, how do you make pancakes from scratch? What do I need for the batter?”
I never bothered to write it down or to even memorise the recipe because mum would be more than happy to oblige. In fact, come Shrove Tuesday ever year, she always had the recipe sitting by the phone ready for the emergency call.
Since mum died, I’ve always cheated and bought powdered batter mix from Tesco’s. And guess what? They never do taste the same ... Mark Twain hit the nail on the head with typical accurancy when he famously wrote: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Now as my own kids are growing up, I really wish I had written down all those arbitrary tips and niggling nags, because I too am beginning to feel that same maternal compulsion to meddle in what they do and how they do it. It must be some kind of instinctive human nature of the modern matriarch, to fuss and pry and stick our noses in just at precisely the same time as they want to start doing it for themselves without any fuss or bother whatsoever.
Particularly now, as my elder son has finished his exams and is preparing to leave home for the first time. I really don’t know where to start; there’s so much to do and so little time.
The obvious plan would be to begin with the basics: How to boil an egg — and take it from there.
This is going to be a very long (and possibly fraught) summer ...