Mother Load

The art of skinning a cat and other wisdom from Mama’s knee

By Nan Graham

Words of wisdom: We learn them at our mother’s knee . . . or our father’s. And inevitably, we pass them on to our children and their children. What were yours?

My daughter Molly told me the other day that she thought the most important thing I ever taught her was, “There are more ways than one to skin a cat.” It was something I heard from Mama in my preschool days. She has found this invaluable when confronting a tough problem and working through her options . . . and no matter what the problem, there are always options. I had no clue this was such a profundity or even memorable. Mama had a way with words. She was what they use to call a “card.”

Mama was always cryptic with her adages. “Never send one wild goose after another,” she would say when someone was missing in a store or had disappeared in the neighbor’s yard. The deal was that you had to stay put. The missee would eventually return to the missor, was her theory. This seems something of a slippery slope.

I do not rank this high in the “My Mama always told me”. . . list. I like Mama’s mini-lecture on my spendthrift tendencies: “I don’t care if that dollar is burning a hole in your pocket. Save it. You might be poor as Job’s turkey some day.” I knew that the Biblical long-suffering Job lost his shirt, plus every other stitch he owned, when hard times plagued him. But I never recall a scriptural reference about any of his poultry being penniless. And why would a turkey give a happy damn if his bank account were wiped out?

On sewing, which she seldom did, Mama could give you explicit instructions on how it must be done: “When you hem that skirt, you cannot fold the material under four times like that and hem it,” she would say, eyeing the four-inch-deep and half-inch-thick skirt edge that was going to be my hem. “It will never hang evenly. You will look as if you’re smuggling rifles.” She was right, of course, about it looking ridiculous, but I always wondered that anyone would suspect a teenager of such a nefarious activity crossing some national border.

On shoes: “Forget about not wearing white after Labor Day. Avoid wearing white shoes altogether. They always make your feet look like gunboats no matter what your shoe size.” Note the military tone of these admonitions . . . smuggling rifles, gunboat feet . . . remember it was the ’50s, so WWII was only a decade or so in the past.

“You should not only avoid evil, but also avoid the appearance of evil.” This proclamation was always delivered at breakfast, the morning after I had sat in a car in front of our house TALKING until the wee hours the night before. Flashing porch lights can only be ignored just so long. (I was a Tuscaloosa girl. Only Birmingham girls had the reputation for being “fast.”)

But Mama was right. I think of all the politicians who should have this advice tattooed backward on their foreheads so they could ponder the admonition every time they looked in a mirror. Think Clinton, Weiner, Weinstein . . . The scandal rate might have plummeted if this precaution were taken more seriously. Mama’s advice could have changed history.

Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.

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