—Nora Ephron recounting her screenwriter mother’s advice whenever life got complicated.
Nora did indeed–as her mother exhorted from her deathbed– “take notes, take notes!” And this past week we took note of two writers who also look homeward for “copy” and inspiration.
Venerable journalist and author Pete Hamill and new-media sensation Justin Halpern couldn’t have less in common; they’re products of vastly different generations, backgrounds, coasts, genres and sensibilities. But both hear the same muse: a larger-than-life parent whose penetrating words keep them humble.
During a talk we attended at NYU’s Journalism Institute last Thursday, Mr. Hamill spun lyrical tales of old New York, the city he first came to know and love by taking long walks with his mother. On one of those excursions, a very young Pete and his brother started making fun of a “wino” they saw begging. Anne Hamill rebuked them sharply: “Don’t you ever look down on anybody unless you’re giving them a hand to help them get up.” This lesson, he said, became a guiding force of his life and his rich body of work.
The same night, CBS aired a new sitcom, “$#*!” My Dad Says,” based on the eponymous Twitter-feed in which Mr. Halpern disseminates his father’s outrageous rants. The world according to the septuagenarian Halpern–featuring politically incorrect, X-rated observations about practically everything, and blistering put-downs of his slacker son (who still lives at home)–quickly spawned a massive following, a bestselling book and a TV deal! A recent tweet was Dad’s reply when Justin confessed he had butterflies about the premiere. “Nervous? In 5 billion years the sun will burn out and nothing you did will matter. Feel better?”
Ouch. Waxing– and wincing–nostalgic, we decided to examine parental pearls of wisdom, both given and received. Check out the comments section for some family jewels we solicited – from our kids’ generation as well. And feel free to add your own to the pile!
My father, who grew up in the Depression, worked until the day he died at age 79. His comments reflected that drive: “Time is money,” “Wake up, it’s another day of opportunity,” “Keep all your options open,” and “Always arrive at work 5 minutes before your boss does, and leave 10 minutes after he leaves, in case he forgot his hat.” My mother was famous for her cautionary: “Always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident.”
I asked my three adult children what sayings they recall from their father and me, and they replied: “Nothing good happens at 2 a.m.,” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,” “Be nice to people on your way up because you never know who you will meet on your way down,” “Run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes,” and the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I am happy to say that they have pretty much followed the advice.
Not only did my dad regularly say over-the-top “$#*!” like Justin’s– he said it in three languages! But beyond that, my late parents’ classic lines reflected their very different temperaments. My father, in high German, would regale my brother and me with baroque soliloquies about “morning’s golden hours” and sacrificing everything “to live but once in Paradise.” My mother was all about putting on the brakes. Constantly reminding me and my girlfriends, “Why should he buy the cow if he gets the milk for free?” she was the inevitable buzzkill, the counter to a burgeoning counterculture. Whenever I started dating somebody, she insisted – via yet another bovine metaphor – that I immediately check out his family: “Before you buy a cow, take a good look around the stall.“ I used to bristle at this, but came to understand she wasn’t simply being judgmental about others’ all-too-human struggles. She was urging me to steer clear of severely dysfunctional families in the grip (sometimes for generations)of pathology or abuse. I ventured inside a couple of those stalls and found the air was toxic, with – as Ma had warned – only a rare , heroic offspring able to break the cycle.
Of course, this same wise woman advised me: “If you really like a guy, don’t ever let him see you from behind in a bathing suit until after you’re married; if you insist on going in the water – BACK AWAY.”
Anyway, glad I ended up with a cow spouse who appreciates me from every angle, and who hails from a uniquely fine stall. My salt-of-the-earth in-laws, both 88, live around the corner and I marvel at their dogged independence, generosity and grace. I asked my husband what they had imparted when he and his four sibs were growing up. “Dad would say: ‘When you always tell the truth, you only have to remember one story.’” And his mother? Without hesitating an instant, and with a look of utmost seriousness, he formed a big zero with his thumb and forefinger. “She never needed to say a word,” he answered. “She led only by example.”