How to Win Friends and Influence People Like My Mother Does

My mother has a boyfriend.

“His name is José,” she says, slowing pulling the car into the parking lot of the golf club in the hills behind our house. We are headed for the driving range. “I wonder if he’ll be there today. He always drives up in his little maintenance cart and goes, ‘Ooooliviaaaaa! Ooooliviaaaa!’ And then he gives me free balls.”

“Why?”

She shrugs, “He just likes me a lot.”

José is about 40 and married with five kids.

“I have three jobs!” he told my mom, “It’s hard to make a living!”

“Does your wife work?” she asked him.

“Sure,” he said, “but just one job.”

My mom doesn’t pry, not because she’s polite; she’s not interested. Disinterest is, from what I’ve observed, a seemingly foolproof way to cultivate magnetism.

But my mother doesn’t have to pry. It’s only a matter of time before José tells her his life story: where he immigrated from, what his other jobs are, how he met his wife, and how he found a job at this golf club, how his parents are doing and what he hopes for his children… it’ll all come out at some point and my mother will not really have asked any questions except for the standard, “How are you doing?”

José is not alone. My mother has a string of odd, hopeless suitors – widowed men at another golf club, unhappily married men at the badminton club – and short term paramours, strangers she’s met on planes and trains and in other areas of waiting. And it’s not just men. It’s women too. Not lesbians (though who knows, there might have been a few), just lonely women whose husbands have died or cheated, whose mothers are ill and mothers-in-law are overbearing, whose children are disrespectful or uncaring or greedy.

They all need someone to talk to. Someone who will listen. Because it is also true that people who talk a lot find alluring people who talk very little.

My mother is such a person. Her open, smiling face implies that she is all ears. She’ll nod with understanding right when you need her to and usually, that makes the person feel better. She’ll compliment you. She’ll say hello, she’ll smile back. If you ask, she’ll provide short, sage advice, honed to razor sharp (or is it warm milk bath) effectiveness over years of experience:

“You can’t control what other people do,” she says, “Just manage yourself.”

Cathy, my sister-in-law says it best, “Talking to your mother is an easy, happy thing.” This in contrast to my father, who, though kind and generous at his core, is outwardly critical, bossy, judgmental and showy. He is honest and direct and thinks everyone’s skin is as thick as his.

I take after him, a blessing and a curse.

But my mother’s open face masks a closed mind. Not that she’s narrow-minded. I mean, she’ll probably spend a tenth of second quietly judging your life choices if they’re worth judging: Why did you cheat on your wife? Why the hell did you marry that man? Why did you spoil your kids so? Why not try and see the good parts of your mother-in-law and if you can’t do that, figure out how to distance yourself from her? But it’s all over in a tenth of a second. That’s all the thought she’ll allot to that. Mostly she is accepting and understanding. Not because she actually accepts or understands, but she thinks you should in order to be happy. After all, life is what it is and what can you do but look on the bright side and do the things that make you happy? Life golf?

She parks the car.

“Go get a golf cart,” she says.

“But we’re not playing the course, just going to the range.”

She goes to the back and lifts a full bucket of balls from her trunk, “I know,” she says, “But I don’t want to walk and I have all these balls leftover from last time.”

You’re not supposed to take balls or the bucket home from the driving range, but José gave her too many balls last time and what was she supposed to do, waste them?

“If you get a cart we can put it in between us and no one will see,” my mother says; it is the most obvious solution in the world.

A small example of how my mother lives. It’s not about breaking rules or not giving a rat’s ass, it’s about letting things be. Avoidance, some might call it, but mostly it’s this: you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine, don’t honk or swerve or cut me off and we can happily share the road and get to the same place. Or the complete opposite ends of the world across from which she’ll happily wave to you.

We hit a few balls, and I lose patience, having lost my beginner’s luck, but my mother swings beautifully, hitting each ball with a crisp, bright ping into the air. She’s been practicing. 200 balls a day plus whatever José brings around, which is sometimes another 200. The drugs she’s taking for Parkinson’s amplifies compulsive behaviors – iPad playing, most notably, but also, thwacking golf balls and badminton shuttlecocks.

Half an hour later José shows up in the green maintenance carts. He is wearing a purple athletic shirt he got for free at a race against child obesity.

“Ooooliviaaaa! Oooooliviaaa!” he says, just as she said he would, “Where have you been?”

“Europe,” my mother says smiling, “And Canada!”

They chat a bit and he smiles at me, nodding, “She is your mother?”

“Yes,” I say, smiling too. But clearly I do not have the same effect on him, despite our resemblance and my youth.

“Your mother is a very nice lady. Very nice.”

He heads back to his golf cart but not before surveying the ball situation.

“You want more balls? I bring you more. I have to drop off this ice in the vending machine, but I’ll be back.”

“Don’t trouble if you are busy,” my mother says.

“No trouble Olivia! Not for you!” he drives away and gives me a light wave, “I’ll be back later!”

He drives off, the golf cart wobbling down the hill.

“That’s my boyfriend,” my mother says, smiling mischievously.

“Do you ever say anything more than hello?”

“He does,” my mother says, and tells me what she knows about his wife and jobs and kids.

“Why does everyone tell you their life story?”

“I don’t know,” my mother says, peeling off her gloves. She reaches into her bag and takes out a small jar of nuts, the doctor advises her to do a lot of things, but eating nuts is something she liked doing anyway, “It’s a lot of blather. But they want to share so I just listen.”

A few minutes later José is back with a clear plastic bag filled with balls.

“All new Olivia! 300!”

I am done for the day and do not want to hit anymore. He quickly pours half into my mother’s Range Servant and turns to do the same in mine, but it’s too much.

“Okay okay!” he says, tying the plastic bag up, “I save them for you next time.”

We watch him drive off again, over the rolling hills now dried from the drought.

“I should give him something for Christmas,” my mother says. I agree and throw out ideas: gift cards, food baskets, something both he and his family can enjoy – but judging from the delight on his face when he saw my mother, serenely swinging away, and the eagerness with which he returned, her open-faced but secretly uninvolved attention, was gift enough.

Also: A Note on My Mother and An Update From My Mother

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