Margaret Nelson: View From the River – Lessons learned from my mother       

Published: 05-11-2023 2:19 PM

With Mother’s Day approaching, I have been thinking about my mother. She was the quintessential post-World War II housewife and mother. Here are lessons I learned from my mother:

-- Your dinner plate should be color-balanced. Oh my, if you served macaroni and cheese with corn and summer squash (yellow). Or a white fish with parsnips and mashed potatoes (white). If she inadvertently served a one-palette plate, she would chide herself and let us know that just wasn’t right.

-- It is possible to use too much Elmer’s glue. As a Cub Scout leader, she developed many crafts for little boys to make, and Elmer’s was in common use. One Cub Scout had a penchant for using way too much Elmer’s glue on his projects, much to my mother’s chagrin. I remember his name, but I will never tell.

-- Lists make the world go round. My mother made lists, lots of lists. Cleaning out her desk drawers, I found the yearly, monthly and weekly cleaning lists. A day of the week for laundry and ironing. Another day for dusting and vacuuming, etc. Chore lists, including who was washing and who was drying dishes on what nights. Long before Pinterest was created, she had a little notebook she labeled “Mary’s Good Idea Book.” There were menu lists, too. My father once told me that when they were first married, he was in awe of all the meals my mother would need to plan and prepare over the course of their marriage, which totaled 46 years. (Yes, my father was old-school male breadwinner, and definitely not bread-baker.)

-- Always keep a gift drawer stocked. The gift drawer contained items that would work for a baby shower, a last-minute birthday gift or a secret pal gift exchange at church. She knit baby booties in blue, pink or yellow between major knitting or crocheting projects. She embroidered pillowcase pairs with “Mr.” on one and “Mrs.” on the other for bridal showers.

-- Never buy something you could make yourself. Need a dress for the prom? We’ll make it. Your brother needs a sail for the sailboat he built? Get some canvas and make it. Need pants long enough for a tall teen in a short world? Teach your daughter to sew and make them herself. If a special-occasion cake was needed, she, of course, decorated it herself. If someone gives you bushels of plums, make plum jam that your family will eat for at least a decade.

-- Look your best. Every Friday she had a standing appointment with Evelyn, her hairdresser, for a wash and curl. Just before my father came home from work, my mother would change from her house dress to something a little nicer, comb her hair and put on some lipstick. Now she was ready to greet my father with a hug and a kiss.

-- Follow your dreams. She didn’t have money for college. While working a summer job, she met a wealthy businessman who discovered that she wanted to go to college and offered to loan her the funds. She worked while attending college. After graduation, she got a job teaching home economics to junior and senior high school students for five years and paid the loan off. Thus ended her career aspirations. She didn’t particularly enjoy teaching adolescents, but found she loved working for the University of Maine Extension Service during the summers. Motivated adults she could handle. But what she really wanted was to create a home for her family, which she did. 

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-- Humming is a sign that all is well. My mother hummed – a lot. Which was good. I found it very calming to hear her humming. I am told by multiple family members as well as those with adjoining offices to mine that I hum a lot as well. Pray tell, what is the problem with that?

-- Be involved with your community. Step up and volunteer to help where you can. Cub Scout den mother, Girl Scout leader, PTO officer, actress in the local plays, member of the choir, the ladies mission society, she was there, and she was helping.

-- Stay connected with family and friends near and far. She wrote letters, lots of letters, to relatives in Ontario, her sister-in-law, her college roommates in other states, her kids in college. She would host get-togethers, show up for special events, stay in touch.

The most important lessons I learned from my mother: love your husband, love your kids, make your home a welcoming place, always have homemade cookies on hand, laugh a lot, be present.

Missing you.

Margaret Nelson is executive director of The River Center Family and Community Resource Center in Peterborough. She can be reached at