Jo Giese shares lessons of decency, generosity and gratitude passed down by example
By Bliss Bowen
“The beauty of learning a lesson and incorporating it so fully that it becomes part of you, as if it were your original chromosomal material, is that you can casually pass it on without even noticing.”
So writes EMMA and Peabody Award-winning “Marketplace” and “This American Life” journalist Jo Giese in her charming new memoir, “Never Sit If You Can Dance: Lessons From My Mother,” which is officially released next week (conveniently just before Mother’s Day). Giese will discuss it Tuesday at Diesel Bookstore in Santa Monica.
The book’s sweetness is grounded in honest emotion and the astringency of Giese’s warts-and-all memories of her parents. Chapters are organized by specific pieces of life wisdom gleaned from her mother, Babe (“Never Show Up Empty-Handed,” “The Happiness of Giving and Receiving Flowers,” “Make the Best of It”), and a few that Giese writes she learned “the messy way — by doing the opposite of what Babe did” (“Never Leave a Compliment Unsaid”).
“It’s a joyous book,” acknowledges the former Venice resident, who now resides in Malibu with her husband. “There are gentle and tender things in there, even the thing about the good goodbye” — that is, walking guests out at the end of a visit and waving goodbye until they’re out of sight, thus extending the caring embrace of friendship.
An effervescent sense of appreciation animates Giese’s conversation as it does her book; she asks questions, offers compliments, and strives to make a human connection. It’s tempting to ask what she’s learned during her career about the kind of stories people want to hear. But really, the answer’s in the book.
Babe is at once ordinary and emblematic of her generation and yet too intriguing to easily forget; a feminine woman of her time with a gift for embroidery and bringing people together in unlikely circumstances. (A description of an impromptu neighborhood campout at their house in Texas, playing board games by candle and lantern light while 1961’s Hurricane Carla raged outside, provides one of the most vivid passages.) People wanted to be around Babe — and now, according to Giese, they want to hear her lessons about decency, generosity, and why “Thank-You Notes Are Never Too Plentiful.”
“The feedback I’m getting from people as I travel around is that we’re living in a pretty coarse time,” Giese observes. “And some of the civilities that I talk about in the book that people used to take for granted … should probably still be part of our vocabulary.”
She writes about how her mother accompanied Giese’s self-taught, hard-working father on his business trips; while he made sales pitches to shipyard owners, Babe contentedly embroidered dish towels and pillowcases outside in the car. Giese understandably rebelled against what she perceived as her mother’s “silly, subservient behavior.” Yet as she writes in “Maybe We All Need Someone Waiting for Us in the Parking Lot,” the arrangement served a practical purpose: it strengthened the marriage.
“If Willy Loman had had a Babe to kick back with, and laugh with, and have a scotch and soda with after his sales calls,” she writes, “how different his story might have been.”
“Sheryl Sandberg wrote this book, ‘Lean In,’” Giese says now. “Well, my parents didn’t need to be told that. They were a team, and they were doing this together. David Brooks in The New York Times writes a lot about the idea of independence; that we’ve just carried that too far in this country, that everybody has to be independent rather than codependent or interdependent or in relationship. I think there’s a lot of value to that.”
Numerous bits of wisdom rang true and caused this writer to smile throughout the book, as various passages triggered memories of a beloved grandmother, mother and small-town traditions, such as anonymously leaving flowers on neighbors’ porches for May Day. Others reminded of how many of us learned lessons despite our own stubborn will.
“Isn’t that the truth though?” Giese says, referencing an amusing episode in which her parents compelled her to write out “I will be grateful for everything I get” 1,000 times after she was ungrateful for an oversized maroon coat. “When my mother had me writing those thank you notes when I was little, it truly, truly, truly felt that I would be midway through opening the present, the wrapping’s not even off yet, and she’s saying, ‘You’ve gotta write the thank you note,’ and I’m going, ‘Give me a break!’ But then these things do stick with you, and there’s a value to that.”
Giese recounts numerous questions she asked her mother. Was there any particular question she wishes she’d asked but never did?
“She was almost 98 when she died, and she outlived her three sisters, her husband and all of her friends, really. I hate death and dying, and when someone I love dies it just tears me apart. I’m much younger than she is and I haven’t outlived everybody yet, and I wish maybe she could have put that into words for me. But I think her philosophy about that was probably ‘Life is for the living and I’m still alive.’ So if there was a question, it might have been that one: How do you deal with death when it comes at you, and it keeps coming?”
In the poignant final chapter, “Sometimes Life Begins Again at Ninety-Five,” Giese invokes her own personal mantra — one developed as a result of being Babe’s independent daughter, and one she calls up as her mother is dying. It’s like a summation of cumulative wisdom shuttled between mother and daughter. She’d previously cited an Abraham Lincoln quote painted across a building on Lincoln Boulevard in West L.A. — “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be” — and observed, “Babe couldn’t have said it better.” Indeed. The beauty of Babe’s lessons is their simplicity.
The same is true of Giese’s mantra, a product of difficult, conscious choice: “In spite of what’s happening, it’s OK to be happy today.”
Try it. It works.
Jo Giese discusses “Never Sit If You Can Dance” from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (April 23) at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit jogiese.com.