Today my child asked me why I wanted her to take a bath before we went to a party.
“I’m just going to run around and get dirty the minute we get there, Mama,” she said. “It’s an outdoor party.”
As I poured warm water over her hair, I told her that long ago, my mother—her grandmother—would have insisted that everyone in the family show up to an event with clean fingernails, feet and hair. It wasn’t exactly an explanation, but it was a reason.
“Grandma Ellie must have known a lot of stuff before she forgot everything,” my daughter said.
“Almost everything,” I corrected her, jarred by my child’s comment.
My child has been well-versed in dementia for a while. Her grandmother lost most of her memory as well as the capacity to form new memories in a chance brain bleed just two years before her grandchild was born. My daughter, now almost four, has never known my mother as anything but the woman who must be cared for in a very special way.
There is so much she might have advised me at this stage of my life had she not suffered brain damage. There is so much advice she might have given her granddaughter…
Even though nothing catastrophic will happen to me, I decided to write down some of my own advice.
Just in case.
Here you are, my darling girl, some pearls from your mother.
That you won’t need, because I’ll give them to you in person.
Just in case.
1. Don’t underestimate the redemptive power of a hot bath at day’s beginning and end.
2. Get rid of underwear the minute the elastic wears out. Soft, well-fitting undergarments change your mood and outlook.
3. Immediately cease all athletic pursuits the moment you are injured. Rest, rest, and then rest some more. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then a pound of cure is priceless. One month on the bench may seem endless, but imagining a lifetime of pain will bring a month’s time into perspective.
4. Every time the temptation to buy something on impulse seizes you, take the money you want to blow on a magazine or a scarf and put that money in a jar on your desk. See how much accumulates in one month’s time. It will be an eye-opening experiment.
5. Smell books as much as possible. The moment you enter a bookshop, inhale—get drunk on pulp. Take paperbacks into your evening bath, along with you on subway rides, and to all your doctors’ appointments. Don’t spend that precious time staring at a cell phone. Screens drain you; books fill you up.
6. Take ten minutes and tidy your apartment if you’re going to be coming home late. It’s such a pleasant moment when you fling open your door to discover a clean house. No dishes will nag, no questionable smell from the trash bin will force you to do housework at 11 pm, and no unfolded laundry will prevent you from pulling down your bedspread and sliding in.
7. Always carry a little writing pad and a good pen. If 99 percent of the stuff you write down is useless, 1 percent is golden.
8. As for wardrobe: invest in a few flattering sunhats. Your skin will thank you. Learn many ways to tie a scarf, because why should the Parisians have all the fun? (They have loads of illustrated how-to books on this topic.) Red lipstick is a matter of personal preference—as is all makeup—but wear it at least once, because it’s pretty thrilling.
9. A little time spent feeling bad about yourself can be fruitful. New brain cells are forming as we wallow in a day of self-doubt, self-pity, and hard-core envy of everyone on our Facebook feeds. Sometimes we emerge sharper, clearer-headed and more ambitious after cocooning with 24 straight hours of Law and Order re-runs. Trust down time and even a (brief) bout of pessimism to be sources of creative renewal and hope.
10. Start and finish your e-mails with salutations. It’s easy to express goodwill with a little effort. It also makes you memorable.
11. It is easy to admire people who are cold, because they seem to possess worldliness, importance and nonchalance. Do not aspire to be like that, as tempting as it might be on days when the world seems to be entirely uninterested in your existence. Instead, be warm and kind and you will find a community of equally giving people.
12. Remember that conventional wisdom is just that. Take it with a heaping spoonful of salt and don’t be afraid to ignore it.
13. Frame especially useful lists of advice for your wall.
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