Unsaid Lessons My Mother Left Behind

Joe DeProspero has two sons, a wife, and is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” He talks about the highs and unsettling lows of parenthood while always being entertaining and engaging in the process. Author of the dark comedy fiction novel “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt” Joe is working on releasing a parenting humor book. He currently lives in New Jersey and can be emailed at jdeprospero@gmail.com or followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.


It’s easy to learn things from people who won’t shut up. For instance, I learned a great deal about college basketball and why I should be excited about it from famously boisterous announcer Dick Vitale. I learned about democracy from my know-it-all politics professor in college. But the important stuff? The lessons that help mold you as a person, facilitate connections with others and help you to become a functioning member of society? I learned those from someone who never had to shout them in my face.

My mother was (and I still don’t feel comfortable using the past tense) the kind of person you wanted at your party. She was the kind of person you’d call when you wanted to escape the stresses of your career and the evils of the world. But one thing she wasn’t was preachy. Never. I always appreciated that about her.  Sure, she let the hammer fall if and when I failed many, many science tests in school, but she tended to mind her own business when it came to my decisions beyond the age of 18. Regardless of that fact, I learned invaluable lessons from her, sometimes intentionally and sometimes completely by accident.

Mom and me at my band’s show, 2008

In no particular order, here’s what I’ve learned from mom, either through her actions, words, or lack of words.

Kindness is contagious

It was nearly impossible to dislike my mother. And I’m not just saying that because she’s my mother. She was unbelievably amiable, always pleasant in her dealings with others and her smile and laugh were downright infectious. Because of that, people around her tended to be friendlier, happier and in better spirits. It’s often stated that “misery loves company,” but what doesn’t get said enough is that happy people create more happy people.

If you have something to say, even something negative, say it

You may hate the reference, but that John Mayer song holds a great deal of truth. In the song, “Say” he includes the line, “It’s better to say too much, than never to say what you need to say.” I remember it often, especially how it relates to my parents’ marriage. Hard feelings fester and eat away at you over time. Despite my mother’s cheerful disposition, I often believed that she held her negative thoughts inside so as not to hurt feelings. This probably explains why she rarely had anything to say to my father, who she was divorced from by the time I graduated college (to be clear, I’m not pointing a finger at either of them, but it was obvious that communication wasn’t bountiful). Whenever I’m at odds with someone, I think of the silence that too often surrounded my childhood, and for better or worse, I say (or type) what’s on my mind. If you’re a regular reader of mine, this much you know.

Be remembered for your smile, not your title

Put another way, work to live, don’t live to work. I don’t think my mother was ever passionate about her career, but she still left one hell of an impression on people she worked with, co-workers from two and three jobs ago attending her funeral services, devastated. The thing is that, while she wasn’t passionate about her job, she was passionate about her family and how that job provided for them. And you pretty much never heard her talking about work at the dinner table, nor would anyone distinguish her by what title she held or what company she worked for. When she died, people remembered her laugh, her sense of humor, and “that time we got silly drinking gin and tonics.” I’d prefer to be remembered for those things, too.

Don’t waste time on a bad friend

More often than I’d like to admit, I’ve tried breathing life into a friendship that was clearly dead on arrival. Since I’m such a loyal person, I tend to clutch onto relationships, even if the other half of the equation isn’t doing the same. Many years ago, when I was just a teenager, I noticed that mom’s best friend, who normally was a mainstay in our house, hadn’t been around in months. Glumly, mom informed me that, despite her best efforts, this woman was showing no interest in continuing the friendship, so she was no longer pursuing it. I know it hurt my mother to accept that, but I understood that we all come to a point where we’ve “done all we could.” Unfortunately, immediately following mom’s death, I also lost a close friend, who no-showed the funeral services entirely. I stopped reaching out afterward, and not surprisingly, he followed suit.

Treat your guests like kings and queens

Coming from an Italian background, this one was a given. But I learned at an early age that, when you have people over the house, you feed them. A lot. Almost to the point of making them physically ill. And you make them comfortable. It’s an Italian thing. It’s what we do. Mom’s opinion was always that, if you didn’t want to treat your guests like family, why bother having them over in the first place?

Don’t be defined by bad news

Shortly after my mom died, I overheard someone describing me to another person on the phone. I was explained as, “That guy whose mom died at age 59, he found her body, and then he told his grandmother, and she died too.” I know it’s an easy point of reference, but I truly hope that at the end of my life, I’m remembered more for the way I reacted to bad news than by the bad news itself. Losing mom forced me to flex a muscle I never knew was there. But despite the inherent sadness and gloom, her death also provided a learning opportunity. I learned that I can either succumb to life’s challenges or grow stronger from them, for me and for my children. Every single day, I’m striving to accomplish the latter, no matter how unnervingly sad her absence makes me.

I think the most important lessons are ones we learn from the actions of others, and not necessarily specific words that were said. As parents, whether we like it or not, our children will learn their most important lessons from us. That fact may terrify you (it certainly does me). But I try my best to encourage my kids to make a positive impact on others, the same way my mother did for me. I can only hope that in 30 years, my boys have similar words to say about their parents.

So, before you go to bed tonight, think of the lessons you learned from your parents and how many of them you wish to instill in your own kids. Thanks for reading, as usual, and I strongly encourage you to join this conversation by adding a comment below.

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