As a young girl, out and about in the world with my mother, when she would run into an acquaintance, invariably the woman would glance in my direction and say, “Your daughter is very pretty.” My mother would consistently respond, “The main thing is she is nice,” which always frustrated me, for I so wanted her to validate the woman’s words. I wanted Mother to respond just once, Yes, isn’t she? She really is so pretty, but she never did—not ever—not to me or to the various women we met.
It took quite some time for me to realize that what my mother said, and most important, what she did not say, were essential for the development of my own values. As I matured, I also concluded that sweetness and kindness towards others were traits that I greatly valued within myself. It mattered little whether I was born with attractive features, over which I had no control. What I eventually learned from my mother’s response was that one’s inner beauty was far more important than what could be viewed on the outside. Today, I am grateful for what she did not say.
When I was a teenager, my mother came home with a story about being at a function and meeting the mother of a son, Brian, on whom I had a crush. My mother introduced herself to Brian’s mother and mentioned that her daughter (me) knew her son. The woman responded, “I don’t remember hearing your daughter’s name. If my son doesn’t know your daughter, then she must not be very much.” My mother recounted the conversation to underscore one essential factor in our lives—that snobbery would never be tolerated—that no one should see oneself as better in any way. Even at 15, I was appalled that someone would make such a comment with the pretense of feeling better than another. I grew up with the inherent understanding that pretentiousness and arrogance due to power, social status, money, position are unacceptable.
Once I had a job where we all had to wear badges and the color of the outline around the badge corresponded to the rank of our jobs within the organization. I noticed that when the elevator door opened, even before people looked into each other’s eyes, they first glanced at someone’s badge to determine the person’s position. It angered me that so many people based their decisions to talk with others on their designated colors.
At an academic conference I attended, our badges had dots next to our names. Initially, I did not realize that some had two dots and some, four. I eventually learned that these dots reflected whether we were affiliated with two-year or four-year institutions. One professor who rode with us in our shuttle to the convention made it very clear that he was not interested in having a conversation with, us, the two-dot professors.
So much goes back to my mother’s simple but essential phrase, the one that used to annoy me because of her lack of validation of another’s compliment—before I truly understood. Fast forward 25 years and as a young mother, I was often stopped by those who would see me walking with my three little boys and comment on how handsome they were. After I thanked them, the words came flying out of my mouth before I had the chance to really process what I had said: “They are sweet boys, with kind hearts.” I responded honestly, with similar words as my mother’s from long ago. My sons were more than just their pleasant facial features, and this was the lesson my mother had instilled in me.
Our looks might fade in time, but our consistent, inner beauty cannot be erased by our years. While I long to hear my mother’s voice, long since silenced, her words remain deep within, always reminding me of the direction of my moral compass: The main thing is she’s nice.