Mother knows best

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My mother occasionally favored little quizzes -- and a bit of humor -- to make a point. The example I remember best went like this: "Why do you toss sweetcorn into boiling water the minute you get it in the house?" Answer: "Because you cannot take the boiling water to the cornfield." We got the message: The corn was finest when very, very fresh, and that was the way we had it, brought to table after only three minutes in boiling water.

Mom offered up other guidelines that were amusing or even life-changing. Here are the ones I paid the most attention to:

  • Start meal preparation by setting the table. This was to fool my father by making him think the meal was close to delivery even if it wasn't. I don't know if he was fooled, but we frequently relied on this tactic.
  • Party dresses should come in only three colors: white, black or red. I thought white signified a wedding and black a funeral, so my first party dress at college was bright red.
  • And for dancing, wear high heels. This makes your high-stepping on the dance floor look elegant and makes you feel that way, too, Mom said. She was right.
  • Get a teacher's certificate. My mother -- an English teacher -- figured there would always be kids to teach so I would always have work. I didn't ignore the advice, but I backed out of this one in the last semester of college.
  • Despite early indications, this ramble does have a connection with journalism and travel. The connection is in these last two bits of advice:

  • Read books; you cannot write unless you read.
  • Keep a diary when you travel.
  • I was slow to read without being prodded, but I eventually got the hang of it and figure my mother knew she had hit home about the time I kept the house lights on every night till all hours for however long it took to steam through "The Brothers Karamazov."

    Finally, it was Mom who saw to it that our family traveled. For us, that meant car trips, usually to visit relatives. Beginning when we were preteens, she equipped my sister and me with scrapbooks that we used to record trip details. That was the start of a lifelong habit that has paid off in a variety of unexpected ways, up to and including writing weekly columns.

    An entire bookshelf is now devoted to my collection of 32 soft- and hardcover notebooks, each containing daily trip reports for one or more trips, plus a record of hotels used, expenses and names and addresses of new friends met along the way. It is a fair bet those diaries will surface in this column from time to time.

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