IN PRAISE OF MOTHERS Mum knows best
Being kind to others, dressing appropriately and making a mean béchamel sauce – Dolly Alderton, aged 29-and-a-half, celebrates what she’s learnt from her mum
Have you ever wondered what you’ve passed on to your kids? I can tell you: a lot. You may not realise it, but it’s a certainty that at some time or another your son or daughter has given your opinion on something, which they’ve definitely passed off as their own. There were probably gaps in the education; things we’ve had to learn on our own. But there are lessons you taught us – first as you soothingly stroked our hair, or told us off – that we will always hold close.
‘Don’t wear a low-cut top and a short skirt,’ my mum always said. ‘One is fine, but never both. A high-necked T-shirt or poloneck with a mini works, or trousers with cleavage. That’s the rule.’
Despite my adolescent fondness for daring, low necklines and risqué high hems, I have finally learnt that this really is the rule. And just like all advice parents give, it was an updated version of something her mother had instilled in her. ‘The shorter the skirt, the lower the heel,’ she was always told. I’m sure I’ll reconfigure and update the modesty rule if I ever have a daughter of my own.
My mother told me not to get so drunk that I have a hangover: ‘One glass of water
She taught me to stand my ground,
to earn and demand respect, time and space. But she also urged me to make that ground the high one
for every glass of wine,’ she said (I once, as a surly teenager, foolishly pointed out that this stops you from getting drunk, which is surely the whole point of having a glass of wine in the first place). However, if I did, by chance, end up with a hangover, then Mexican eggs are the trick. Two eggs, cracked into a pan of chopped tomatoes, garlic and hot sauce cleans up your foggy head like nothing else.
My mum taught me how to make a béchamel sauce as I stood by her on a chair at the kitchen counter. She told me that a dash of Worcestershire sauce livens it up, that a touch of mustard in egg mayonnaise makes it extra delicious and vinegar keeps meringues cloud-like on the inside and crisp on the outside. She taught me how to cook roast chicken, baked potatoes, Victoria sponge and Delia’s all-butter shortbread.
She told me that if a stranger opens out their hand and asks for help, you help. Always. If you have your two last pounds on earth left in your purse – you give one to the person in need. If someone looks lonely at a party, you go and talk to them. I watched her show such compassion as I grew up – whether it was inviting the lonely, elderly woman in Sainsbury’s to come home with us, or always feeding the one-eyed cat who roamed round our garden. ‘You’ll learn, feel and receive nothing in this life if you can’t be kind’ – that’s what my mother taught me.
And, annoyingly, you have to be kind even when you don’t really feel like it. I’ll never forget the moment I was asked to slow dance for the first time, at my 13th birthday party, by a boy I liked so much I didn’t know how to handle it. ‘NO,’ I said, out of sheer embarrassment. ‘I DON’T WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU.’ The DJ was instructed by my mum to press pause on Westlife’s Flying Without Wings and she marched over.
‘Do you have any idea how much courage it would have taken this young man to come over here and ask you to dance?’ she asked me, as both the boy and I stared at the floor. ‘You NEVER embarrass a boy like that again.’ The music restarted and I danced with him.
She taught me to stand my ground, to earn and demand respect, time and space. But she also urged me to make that ground the high one. Turn the other cheek, treat anger with serenity, if someone’s being needlessly mean to you, they’re most likely very unhappy. I was told to try to understand where someone is coming from, to put myself in their shoes. That’s one lesson that I’m so glad she taught me; and one I’m still learning aged 29.
But there are also things I had to learn on my own. She never taught me how to do my own washing, for example. My mum and dad were from the ‘life is going to be hard for our kids the minute they leave home, so let’s make everything as comfy as possible for them until then’ school of parenting. This, in theory, is a fantastically privileged context from which to enter the ravenous, blood-thirsty jaws of The Real World, but it also meant I didn’t do my own laundry until I was 24. Or load a dishwasher. Or drive (I still don’t, and hope one day my parents will move closer to me so that The Alderton Gold Standard Chauffeur Service that I became so accustomed to in my teens will resume).
She also, maddeningly, never taught me to be on time. My mum was always late, and I followed by example. And just as I despaired as I sat on the bench waiting for my mum’s car to finally pull up at the end of the school day, my friends now do the same as I keep them waiting outside cinemas, at bars and at restaurant tables. I learnt to always carry a book with me to kill time while I waited for my mum, and now all my loved ones have had to follow suit.
But the importance of kindness is the thing I have always carried with me; of handling the hearts and pride and hopes of other people with sensitivity and care. The one thing a parent can’t teach their child is how important it is to be kind to yourself; to show patience, support and understanding of your own flaws, foibles, quirks and mistakes. I imagine this must be one of the most frustrating parts of being a parent – to know that no matter how much abundant love and endless lifts and loads of laundry you provide, ultimately only your child can find a sense of self-acceptance. Thankfully, in the end, I learnt to do that, too.
While I am appreciative of the wisdom my mum passed on, which I try to apply to my everyday life, it is, for some reason, the thing I forget to thank her for when I ring or go home for the weekend. So, for the benefit of myself – and also on behalf of a lot of other women and their respective mothers – I want to say thank you for everything you taught me. You remembered all the important stuff.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton (Penguin) is out now
Snap: Dolly and her mum enjoying some photo-booth bonding
We may have handed down these precious lessons, but what about the more practical pointers? GH investigates a generation’s lost skills on page 52.