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My Mama Always Said...


by Faith Brynie, editor


"The way you manage your coal heap is the way you’ll manage your life."

by Hazel Gill
Ruskington, Sleaford, England

     "I can judge a person’s character from the way a coal scuttle is filled," my mother said, as she watched me pick the best and the brightest lumps from atop the pile of black diamonds. "Why can’t you be more like your sister?" she wailed. "She always shovels from the bottom of the heap and gathers the dust along with the lumps, so nothing is wasted. She is careful and frugal and will always have money in the bank. You’re a coal heap top climber," she charged. "You will be left with nothing but a pile of dust."

     Maybe, I thought, my mama was right about me, for I preferred the flame that burned so much brighter without the dust. Maybe a briefer flame, granted, but a hotter, more intense blaze that warmed my toes and my heart.

     "You’re extravagant and careless," Mama complained, as I rejected the economical fat meat I found on my plate day after day. She tried to trick me by hiding the fat beneath a slice of lean. I dug the fat out and fed it to the dog.

     "You’ll never have anything," my mother scolded. "Lots of starving people in the world would be glad to have that fat meant."

     "They’re welcome to it," I snipped and continued my heap-top-climbing ways when, in August, my sister and I were sent to Auntie’s on holiday.

     We got a half-a-crown pocket money each—to last the whole three weeks!

     I was broke in days, my money frittered away on crisps, chocolate, and lemonade. I begged a penny stamp from Auntie to write home for more money, please. My mother sent a sixpenny postal order with instructions to make it last.

     It didn’t.

     In vain, I begged my sister for a loan. At the end of the holiday—her half-a-crown still intact—my sister went to Woolworth’s and bought our parents a present. I went home empty-handed and penniless.

     As the years went by, money continued to burn a hole in my pocket. I always wanted the best, and my coal heap of a life collapsed under more than one financial crisis. "I told you so," my mother always said. "You treat money like water when you’ve got it. Then it’s gone."

     My extravagances included five sons, and we never had enough money. When the boys were young, my husband inherited some valuable stocks. We decided to cash them in and spend the money on private schooling for our children. Mama was horrified. "Good-bye to a sound investment," she said.

     Because I was a coal heap top climber, Mother left me nothing in her will. Her sole beneficiaries were my frugal sister and her husband. I don’t feel bitter, though. I’m sure she loved me and my sons, despite my failings, and I wished she could have lived to take pride in her grandson’s achievements. That investment in their schooling really paid off.

     I’m getting old now, and I can glimpse the bottom of my coal heap. Instead of the pile of dust my mother predicted, I see the faces of eleven lovely grandchildren. It looks like all the treasure any coal heap top climber could ever wish for.



"Your take yourself wherever you go."

by Rochelle L. Holt
Ft. Myers, Florida

     A city girl, I grew up on Chicago’s south side. As the oldest of five children, I took on mothering responsibilities at age nine because both my parents worked. In high school, I secretly cursed my existence: baby-sitting, cooking, household chores, homework, and my part-time job as a file clerk. I even despised Chicago’s climate—those long, cold winters and hot, humid summers.

     We would argue—Mother and Father and me—and I’d say, "I can’t wait until I’m old enough to move!"

     "You take yourself wherever you go," Mother would answer softly.

     I envied my friends who planned to go to college out of state. "I wish I could go," I moaned, convinced that once I was on my own somewhere else, I’d be liberated and happy.

     "You take yourself wherever you go," Mother repeated, but I still didn’t know what she meant.

     I left home for good when I graduated from the University of Illinois, but I found myself complaining no matter where I was living—Iowa, Mississippi, Alabama, or New Jersey. Through graduate studies, marriage, divorce, and a new relationship, I complained. I held 60 jobs between ages 14 and 48 and found fault with every one of them.

     Then, I was hired as an English teacher at the largest urban high school in New Jersey, and things changed for me. I saw life through the eyes of my students, most of them from low-income minorities. I stopped lamenting my fate when I confronted the realities of unwanted pregnancy, drugs, violence, and AIDS. I kept that job for seven years because I realized I was doing something worthwhile. I learned that place has nothing to do with personal satisfaction and contentment. If I felt useful and at peace with my purpose in life, then it didn’t matter where I lived.

     A mind that is flexible and nonjudgmental—one that practices unconditional love to serve not only self but others—can survive anywhere. Now I live in Florida and continue to teach. When my students get angry and eager to escape to some place else, I tell them calmly, "You take yourself wherever you go."


"Get a good night’s sleep. Things will look better in the morning."

by Libby Nelson
Fairfield, California

     Whenever something upsetting happened to me during my teen years, my mother always said, "Get a good night’s sleep. Things will look better in the morning."

     Mother repeated her maxim when, in my early twenties, I was rejected by the library school I had pinned all my hopes on. What crazy advice, I thought. How was sleeping going to make my problem go away?

     That night, I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, I called a more prestigious school and asked for an application. Having failed to get into the lesser school, I figured I had nothing to lose by applying to the better one. The better school accepted me.

     My mother died the year after I received my graduate degree. She never saw me become a librarian, buy a house, design my garden, and adopt an variety of cats. In the years since she died, I’ve had a hysterectomy, been abandoned by people I thought were friends, and been pressured out of a library job I loved.

     Although I threw myself into my career 150 percent, my boss hated me from the day I was hired. I worked at home on my own time and developed creative library programs that proved popular with schools and the community. But it seemed the harder I worked and the more credit I brought to my library, the more hostile my boss became. After six years of harassment, I felt as if a steel band were tightening around my head.

     One evening I came home physically ill. I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore. I felt overwhelmed by pain and frustration. That night, as I sobbed myself to sleep, I repeated my mother’s words—more for comfort than for insight.

     The dawn felt less overwhelming than the dark. I woke realizing I had options. That day, I resigned. Because I wanted to continue my work with children, I became a substitute librarian at six county libraries. I scheduled my popular programs into many other libraries and schools, and I earned my credential to work as a substitute teacher in elementary schools. I am also a part-time aide in a preschool.

     My career as a children’s librarian sparked my interest in writing picture books. Suddenly, without the pressure of my former job, story ideas popped out at me from every direction. I’ve sold my stories to children’s magazines. I have two books awaiting publication, and I continue to write.

     After so many years I have finally come to understand the wisdom of my mother’s words. Sleep doesn’t make problems disappear, but it does help emotions settle. Sleep gives the subconscious mind time to develop alternative solutions. I now repeat my mother’s advice to myself whenever I face new challenges

From My Mama Always Said, by Faith Brynie. Copyright 1998 by Faith Brynie. Excerpted by arrangement with Verity West. $8.95. Available from when you click here.