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The Boston Globe

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Miss Conduct

Wisdom from mom

On Mother’s Day, Miss Conduct reflects on what she’s learned from Mrs. Conduct.

Lucy Truman

A FEW YEARS AGO, a friend and I riffed on a line of Mother’s Day cards for people who couldn’t in good conscience congratulate their mother as a Hallmark-approved “World’s Best” mom. We had slogans like “You’re the best mom I have!” and, of course, “You were a real mother to me.”

All holidays have their dark underside, and Mother’s Day can be painful for women who would like to be mothers and aren’t; mothers mourning children and children mourning mothers; all those whose relationships with their mothers or their children bring more pain than joy. Be sensitive to these folks. If you happen to be one, I hope you can use the day for some kind of healing. If you can’t, at least don’t use it to punish yourself.

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One thing Judaism has taught me is that holidays are for thinking about what they’re about (mothers, New Year’s, the harvest, whatever), not necessarily celebrating what they’re about. It’s a useful perspective.

I’ve been blessed with a mother worth celebrating. This January, she had three parties in two days for her 80th birthday, then promptly moved into an assisted-living facility. That’s style. She’s also worth thinking about, and when I do, three principles I’ve learned from her come to mind:

Keep ’em guessing: My mother is a sweet little widow who goes to church every Sunday. She’s also one of the tougher street kids ever to scratch her way out of Depression-era Queens. She gets an enormous kick out of playing against type. Which is how I learned that to get people to listen to you, you have to keep changing it up. Paradoxes intrigue. Critical questions are most startling when phrased simply. A double-entendre is never more hilarious than from a devout Christian. And everyone from Jesus to Johnny Cash knows that sinners’ prayers are sweetest.

Explain yourself when it counts: My mother may keep people guessing about what she might do, but she wants them to be clear about what she is doing. When she complains, she’ll say in advance, “I just want to vent” or “Help me figure out what to do,” so you know what kind of response will help. When she gives a gift, you know before unwrapping it if it can be returned — or if it’s a sentimental item that you’d darned well better cherish. I don’t know why she developed this habit (I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with my father and me and our somewhat . . . idiosyncratic personalities), but it’s wondrously adaptive.

Play to your strengths: My mother baked. Oy, gevalt, did my mother bake. And confect, like some mad escaped Oompa Loompa. And she can find something to compliment in even the most unlikable, unattractive person. My mother knew exactly what kinds of practical and people skills she had and worked hard at them and didn’t worry too much about the rest of it. Consistently playing to her strengths kept her from going crazy trying to be all things to all people. And it meant that when her special abilities would be most useful, people would think to call on her.

Happy Mother’s Day, to all of you. And to one special you, in particular.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP?Write to her at missconduct@globe.com. And get advice live during a Boston.com chat with Robin Abrahams on Wednesday, May 15, from noon to 1 p.m.

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