In the legacy left behind by my mother is a little notebook in which she used to jot down wise words to live by. Her favourite, as I recall, was a set of 12 Golden Rules for Living. It’s easy to find on the Internet today: If you open it, close it. If you turn it on, turn it off... but in her time, it was something that had come down from her father, and she kept it as a constant reminder to herself of the little things in life that meant a lot, the basic rules by which she and her many siblings were brought up.
Mother’s instructions never came to us as staccato Do’s and Don’ts. We never got a slap for misdemeanours before an explanation. Always, there was a story for us, and that’s how we still have most of those golden rules in our minds even if we have failed to practise them as often as we would have liked.
Some of us would volunteer to fill the buckets when there was a water shortage. We would open the taps, then sit down to write a letter or listen to a song — and soon the buckets would be overflowing and the water crisis became more acute than it had been to start off with.
Or perhaps we would go out to the garage to search for something and return fulfilled but forget all about locking up again, leaving us open to pilferage of whatever had been stored in the garage for use at a later date.
There were others who couldn’t help but bump into things and break them. To them, it seemed like all the fragile, handle-with-care items in the house practically begged to be barged into — and sometimes they were right. It was often someone else’s negligence that was responsible for many minor incidents of butterfingers and offending elbows.
“If you place a glass at the edge of the table, someone will come along and knock it off,” Mother would say. “My father never punished the one who dropped it in such circumstances,” she would add. “The one who placed it there was clearly to blame.”
“It’s all about anticipation,” Mother went on. “You have to think ahead to avoid problems.” Of course, we laughed at that. We told her that thinking ahead and anticipating trouble brought on trouble. It was Matter and Thought conspiring to make things happen because so much brain power had been spent on it...or some such gibberish that we made up on the spot to try and laugh off her homilies.
She didn’t give us a well-deserved whack for our impertinence. Instead, she let it go with a mild, “You’ll find out for yourself in due course.”
We did find out — after many needless minor mishaps. We finally learnt to be careful — and to anticipate – but in the process we became annoying and obnoxious to our own families with our endless lists of do’s and don’ts for every little step that was taken.
“Make sure the key is in your hand when you lock up or you’ll be locked out,” “Don’t leave the room when you’re pumping water — it’s so easy to forget,” and so on, ad nauseam.
All sane advice. But unfortunately, we were too busy to recount entertaining stories from the past and we didn’t have the graciousness to explain the why’s, as Mother had, to make the instructions palatable and to make them linger in the consciousness.
Perhaps that’s why those golden rules stay in the golden past and we rue their passing, but know not how to get them back.
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.