My mother taught me to cook—with a patience that, as I look back now, seems nearly holy. Maybe because of the let’s-get-this-done mindset that led me to major in engineering, I have always valued efficiency. In cooking that means perfectly chopped vegetables in their respective bowls. Color-coordinated knives for different meats. The spices arranged in proper order before cooking begins. A precise scale for weighing ingredients just as the recipe says.
It turns out that’s not how good cooking works. My mother isn’t exactly carefree in the kitchen, but compared with my own anxiety about precision, her intuition seems aggravatingly breezy and calm. She just knows when food is done. While I would stand watching the kitchen clock, she’d call out casually from the living room that the bread was ready. And she was always right. How is an engineer supposed to learn that skill?
My mother taught me to sew as well. In the abstract, sewing is a better fit for people with an engineering slant of mind. Thread the bobbin, following the sewing-machine instructions. Pin the thin manila paper on to the cloth, as the pattern’s instructions say. And there you are.
What my mother does seems more instinctual. She showed me how to do things on the fly, looking at a pile of scraps and seeing how to combine them into something beautiful, quirky and fun. She taught me how to sew quickly and smartly, taking in a waist or hemming a pant leg with an easy confidence. She taught me that sewing, like cooking and much else worth doing in life, is more art than science.
Children learn their lessons imperfectly, and I’m still trying to apply all that my mother has taught me. Since I was a toddler, she’s aimed to make me independent, assured and competent—the conditions, she thought, of happiness. And only now do I see how wonderful that training was, and how much more I have to grasp of what she taught me when I was young.
But that’s the condition of all of us, isn’t it? The thing we’re supposed to remember on Mother’s Day? The lessons we learn in school often have finite application. We learn a particular fact or technique. But the lessons we can learn from our mothers are lifelong skills and the deep truths that get richer and more important as the years go by.
Ms. Bottum is the Journal’s Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow.
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Appeared in the May 6, 2022, print edition.