by Deborah Tannen
My mother always stood up for me and was fearless about speaking her mind, no matter who the audience or what the context. Anytime she came to a lecture I gave, when the moment came for Q&A, she'd raise her hand. On one occasion, a man in the audience challenged me. In any endeavor, he said, though women might do well, the true experts are always men—and he gave the game of bridge as an example. I replied calmly, trying not to show my annoyance. A few turns later, I recognized my mother. She stood up, faced the man, and said firmly, "I just want to tell that man that my husband and I play bridge every week—the women are just as good as the men!" The audience burst into applause.
When my mother was 90 years old, I accepted an invitation to speak at a women's group in Boca Raton because it was close to the Florida town where my parents then lived. As the date neared, it was uncertain whether my mother would be able to make it. In the end, she did—in a wheelchair, the day after emerging from a month in rehab following a monthlong hospital stay because of a fall. We positioned her wheelchair right up front, and, as usual, when I asked for questions, her hand shot up. I called on her, and she began speaking to me as if it were just the two of us in the room: She told me what a wonderful talk I had given, how proud she was of me—and how good I looked! For a moment I was afraid the audience would react with embarrassed silence. But the roomful of women laughed and clapped, delighted to have witnessed this moment of motherly praise. It was the last time my mother heard me speak, and her public pronouncement of private approval has remained like a parting blessing.
Deborah Tannen is the author of You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation and You Were Always Mom's Favorite!
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