I gave birth to my daughter in a large Manhattan hospital. The nurse assigned to me was not friendly. She led me through the early stages of childbirth in clipped sentences and sideways glances. I was scared and nervous; she seemed tired and annoyed.
I decided to try to charm her socks off. I said thank you whenever I could. I used her name. I smiled at her. I didn’t ask for anything. She ended up staying past her shift to be there when my daughter was born.
I had won the game my mother taught me.
My mother is probably the nicest person you will ever meet. She is so nice that she thinks it’s fun to combat surliness with niceness until everyone is friends. It almost always works.
I’ve seen her niceness work magic on waiters, customer-service representatives, and the person at a party everyone else avoids. She is as effective in person as she is over the phone. She often ends telemarketing calls with a term of endearment.
It is not an act. She’s not doing it to be ironic or as a piece of live performance art. She is operating from a fundamental belief in niceness. She is Mary Poppins, plying a generosity of spirit instead of sugar, and with curlier hair.
When my sisters and I complain about how someone is treating us, or fume at behavior we consider misplaced, my mother’s first instinct is to theorize about why the person acted the way he did. As youngsters, this was especially frustrating. We didn’t want to spend the energy on empathy because we were so exhausted being self-righteous.
But to this day, she reminds us that the external activity is linked to some internal sadness or confusion. We should approach that vulnerability with kindness, she urges, rather than run away in tears and condemnation.
Because she always comes from a position of niceness, I’ve never known my mother to be in an ugly mood. She’s human, of course, and has moments of frustration or anger. But they are just moments. I can recall her admitting to not feeling well twice. When she broke her hip, all I heard about was how comfortable the hospital beds were and what a good job my father did coordinating her care.
Not surprisingly, everyone who knows my mother loves her, and feels like she loves them back. My sisters and I share our mother with everyone we’ve ever introduced her to. I’ve had friends who call her some derivation of “mother,” partly as a nickname and partly, I think, as a shorthand wish. My children have friends who consider her a surrogate grandmother.
When someone so nice is your mother, you win the chance to see how niceness can be leveraged in so many ways, and in so many contexts.
My mother is the perfect wing-woman. She will chat with anyone, keep you company, and never act inconvenienced. She is never too tired to do anything. She will wake you up for your early flight, or wait for you to arrive home, or go with you across town during rush hour because you forgot something. She’ll tell you she was up anyway, that this is quite an adventure, and good for you, honey.
She will dig in and be your trench. She spent every afternoon of my freshman year of college on the phone with me. Me, crying on one end, her on the other walking me through, in baby steps, what I was going to do between the time we hung up and the time I would call her again the next afternoon.
She boarded a plane days after 9/11 to keep a scheduled visit. She has assembled several apartments’ worth of IKEA furniture. She has made exceptions to her rules to agree that a coach was being counter-productive.
My sisters and I are not like her. We are sarcastic, we complain, we swear. (She says “jesum crow.”) If we are nice, we learned from watching her. She taught us, sometimes as a game, sometimes as a teaching moment, but usually by example.
She is our mother. How nice for us.