There are two things you can do for your mother on Mother's Day. One is to say "thank you." (Over lunch, with flowers.) The other is to ask her for advice — even if she's not convinced you really want it.
"I don't think kids take any advice from their parents after they're 12," my mother told me last week. "But maybe they'll consider it. If they consider it, that's all you can ask."
Lois Doyle McManus is 87, and arthritis is getting in the way of her piano career. Her most recent performance, a concert with a community college orchestra, was last month. She claims it was her last stage appearance, but she said that the time before too.
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She's had a fine, adventurous life. The daughter of a newspaper columnist and a high school teacher, she grew up in Oakland and New York during the Depression and World War II, attended UC Berkeley, started a career as a model and actress, and then, in 1951, married an advertising executive in San Francisco.
"If your dad hadn't proposed, I would have gone back to New York and tried acting," she said. "Good thing he did, although I kind of regret not trying it."
Instead, she found occasional work in the Bay Area, appearing in local television programs, commercials for Chevrolet and newspaper ads for Safeway. She raised three sons, played the piano and traveled. At 76, she flew unaccompanied to Vienna to buy something she had always wanted: a grand piano. She nursed my dad through a long and difficult illness until he died in 2008.
She also played another role — serving as a one-woman public opinion poll for her newspaper columnist son.
Lois McManus, a moderate California Republican, is a rare species: a genuine swing voter. Her first vote for governor of California was for Earl Warren. The first president she voted for was Harry Truman, but Dwight Eisenhower coaxed her into the GOP.
She voted for Ronald Reagan four times — twice for governor, twice for president. (She supported him from the outset because she thought property taxes were too high and because the Free Speech Movement had brought chaos to her beloved Berkeley.) But she also voted for Barack Obama, twice.
Over the years, her election-year choices have been pretty reliable guides to who would win. Her streak of winning votes includes Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Obama. (The election of 1992, when she stuck with George H.W. Bush, was an exception. "Bill Clinton was never my cup of tea," she explained.)
That's why I use her as a one-person reality check. She's looking for a candidate, never mind the ideology, who looks like a strong and sensible leader.
So what does she see now?
"I've decided both parties are crazy," she said. "The 'tea party' is crazy; they'll ruin any Republican nominee, as far as I'm concerned. But the Democrats are off the wall too."
But then, she's a hard voter to please. "I'm pro-gay marriage and pro-life, and I feel strongly on both. Nobody else agrees with me, though."
She was impressed by Obama in 2008. "But I was going to vote for McCain until he picked Sarah Palin [as his running mate]. If he had that kind of judgment, forget it."
Now, however, "I'm a little disappointed in Obama," she said. "I just don't think he's been as strong as I want him to be. He seems to dither on big things. He's dithered over Syria. I don't want to put boots on the ground, but somebody needs to do something. Obama just seems to let things go, hoping for the best. It's not going to improve without some decision."
She's got some advice for Congress as it ponders taxes and spending: Go ahead and bite the bullet. Elderly voters aren't as naive, or as greedy, as you seem to take them for.
"They're going to have to fix Social Security and Medicare. Those of us who are using it are aware of it. There's something terribly wrong with a medical system that spends as much money as this. We're willing to do our part.
"Taxes are going to go up. They have to go up. But everybody's got to be in it."
That's the World War II generation speaking. Congress could do worse than to take my mother's counsel.