I was a buck-toothed, knobby-kneed kid who thought for years that “finding a parking spot” meant parking on a spotted part of the street—one with bird poop on it, say, or bubblegum. None of that stopped Mom from discussing my writing as if I were a full-blown adult.
“This is really nice,” she would say, before naming things she liked about the latest story or book report. Then came the “but” (there was always a “but”), followed by stuff she thought needed improving. One indelible day when I was 10, we sat side by side on the family-room couch, poring over a piece I had written about swimming. Mom’s brown eyes grew teary. “Lissie,” she said, “you’ve got what it takes to write for a living someday.” For that to happen, though, I was going to have to get used to revising—a lot. Draft after draft after draft. I had seen Mom, a children’s author who would eventually have more than 80 books to her credit, do just that. I had also seen the pre-deadline panic, the mid-editing fervor, the post-publication glow. “I’m ready, Mom,” I said. I worked harder on that swimming essay than I had worked on anything. Even before it got accepted by my school’s literary magazine, I knew it was good. The high lasted and lasted. My path as a writer (and an obsessive reviser) was set.
Since losing Mom to cancer in March, I’ve thought back many times to those early writing sessions. In ways large and small—often deceptively small—she was a brilliant life coach before that term even existed. If she’d gone pro with it, who knows? My brother and I might have shared her with a few million fans and Good Morning America. Instead we got her to ourselves as she led by word and example, embedding lessons within lessons. (That day on the couch, for instance, she revealed as much about parenting and teaching as she did about writing.) Here are just some of the things Mom taught us that have guided me ever since:
At age 11, I landed a plum gig on the children’s page of the Brooklyn Phoenix: Each week I asked other kids a hard-nosed, penetrating question (“What animal would you like to turn into?”), took their pictures with my red Polaroid Electric Zip!, and published both. Then the children’s page folded, and I crumpled along with it. Mom hugged me and sympathized a bit before suggesting: Why not call the Brooklyn Heights Press and ask if they need a kid?
“But what if they don’t?” I protested. It was a regular newspaper—for grown-ups.
“Then at least you tried,” Mom said. “And we’ll think of something else.”
As you’ve probably guessed, I called. Within days I was on assignment, taking pictures of my neighborhood’s more impressive potholes, with my brother standing in them for dramatic effect. Decades later, Mom’s advice still helps me squelch my fear of refusal. People sometimes tell me no, of course, but it’s amazing how often they say yes.
2. Keep your eyes on the real prize.
This may put off some parents in today’s “we’re all winners” culture, but in second grade when I brought home a trophy from a bowling party (the first time I’d ever bowled), Mom raised an eyebrow. “Did everyone at the party get a trophy?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. In that case, Mom informed me, it wasn’t worth much. To deserve a prize, you needed to accomplish something special. Maybe you’d win and maybe you wouldn’t; either way, you had the satisfaction of pushing yourself to do your best. At the time, I was miffed. There I stood with a sparkly trophy, after knocking down two whole pins, and Mom was being mean about it.
But over the years as I chased goal after goal, I realized she was right: Whether I won an award or not, no one could take away my pride in the work I had done. And whenever I did achieve something, Mom cheered harder than anybody. As a kid, I jumped with delight when she’d occasionally display my art, not on the fridge like other moms, but in a frame on a wall. As an adult, some of my happiest moments came when she’d phone, clutching my first poetry collection, and say, “You know what my favorite one in the book is?” Each time, it was a different poem. Each time, I felt fired up to write more. (Lately psychologists have “discovered” the importance of celebrating loved ones’ achievements. They should have just interviewed Mom.)
3. Give back. Then give some more.
Over the course of her life, my mother—along with my father—spent thousands of hours volunteering for New York organizations and causes. If you really love a place, she would tell us, you have to help make it better. Her own mom had told her the same. But while I admired my parents’ zeal and saw my brother become a stalwart volunteer himself, I rarely pitched in. I was too busy with my day jobs, I told myself, too focused on my own growing family.
Then, three years ago, the editor of my favorite poetry magazine died. He had once asked me if I could take over his job—a volunteer position—but I hadn’t given him a definite answer. Now it seemed that if I didn’t step up, no one else would. Should I? Editing would be a huge commitment. I might even have to turn down some paid work. I thought of Mom and all her meetings and campaigns, her conviction that they were the right things to do and made her life more interesting. Maybe, at last, it was my turn to help a place I really loved. Today, after giving hundreds of hours to the magazine alongside talented friends, I know the joy Mom wanted me to have, the heady sense of collaborating on something far bigger than I am.
4. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.
The fall I started college and my brother started high school, Mom hit the books again, too. She already had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but to reach her newest grail—becoming a landscape architect—she needed a different bachelor’s. For four years, Mom commuted by train from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, N.J. Almost every night she stayed up late, drafting blueprints, copying out notes from her classes and, for the first time, forcing herself to do tons of math. She also kept writing kids’ books.
At my own college in New Jersey, where I mostly stayed up late to hang with friends and eat Mystic Mint cookies, I wondered how she managed it. I still don’t have a clue. But I do know that Mom’s persistence—which led to a thriving second career in landscape design and botanical art—has boosted my confidence for my less exhausting reinventions. If she could do what she did, surely I could teach college classes, leave a staff job to freelance, and (yes) edit that poetry magazine.
5. Play every day.
Before you decide Mom was nothing but work-work-work, I should mention she loved word games, crossword puzzles and silly songs. She taught us the “right” way to eat an M&M (split it between your teeth into round halves and suck the chocolate out of each), and how to make “snowflakes” by strategically biting slices of bologna. Ice cream cones were most important of all, as they could be sculpted by the tongue into endless shapes, including (I can’t believe she did this in public) the torso of Dolly Parton. Though I don’t think she ever said so, Mom made it clear that playfulness and humor are rejuvenating, necessary parts of life. Small wonder, then, that since her death, the rest of us have often used one-liners to cope with our grief.
Was it seemly for my father, brother and me to joke that Mom’s obituary should read, “In lieu of flowers, the family requests chocolate and wine”? Or for us to snort with laughter at the thought? Undoubtedly not. But I’m positive Mom would have approved.
6. Focus on the good.
Mom always assured me that, from the day we were born, my brother and I had grown steadily more fascinating and wonderful. I began to find this claim puzzling when, as a young adult, I thought back to stretches during the teen years when half my communication was in the form of grunts. But now that I’m a parent, I understand. Every time Mom praised our nonstop improvement, she was making a choice: a choice to see the good in us, even when there was plenty of insolence clouding it over. A choice that allowed her, hours or minutes after one of my spats with her, to hug me and say, “I can’t imagine a better daughter than you.” Just like that, she helped us push past our differences.
A few weeks ago, I sat on a bench beside my knobby-kneed 10-year-old, down the hall from where her choir practices. The day before, we had been furious with each other—Lily, because I had criticized her manners; I, because she wouldn’t admit I was right. But here in the hallway, I sat with a short story of hers on my lap and tears in my eyes. I had read it during her rehearsal, I told her. It was really terrific: the pacing, the dialogue, the part about the fairy’s roof coming off. She might want to tweak a few things, but I knew she could handle it; this was her fourth draft, after all. “Lily,” I said, “if you keep this up, there’s going to be no stopping you.” And she snuggled up to me, eager to discuss draft five.