57 Varieties of Wisdom: Sooner or Later, We All Quote Our Mothers (and Fathers)

Mother and Me after ice cream

As I intimated in my last post, the response to my Facebook query asking for examples of sayings from parents was amazing. Fifty-seven responses in all, counting multiple entries and conversations about entries.

Then my Facebook friend Linda Hoye posted a Mary Englebreit painting featuring these words: “Sooner or Later, We All Quote Our Mothers.”

I have quoted my mother often. But I am only now becoming aware of how often. Our whole family remembers this aphorism in song: “When we all work together, how happy we’ll be.”

Since it’s taken me a long time to recognize my mother’s words (“Sooner or Later” turns out to be later for most of us), I decided to ask my twenty-something and thirty-something children what they remembered as sayings from me and my husband Stuart.

Most of what they remembered were little expressions we used (“Just in the niche of time,” instead of “nick.” A few Pennsylvania Dutch expressions such as “strublich” and “nixnux.”) But my daughter did remember one aphorism for each of her parents:

About me: “You sometimes said ‘suck the marrow of life’ or something like that that half way grossed me out just a little bit.” 🙂

About husband Stuart: “‘Good ingredients = good results.’ (when referring to cooking … I remember him making real mint tea and taking off the bad leaves of the mint while saying this).”

I chuckled to hear that my one aphorism, stolen from Henry David Thoreau, halfway grossed my daughter out just a little bit. Now there’s the very definition of eye-rolling!

Below is the collection remembered from parents collated from Facebook.

Here’s how the conversation got started: “My father said, ‘if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.’ What did you hear?”

My daddy, my brother, and our dog, about 1955.

Daddy, brother Henry, me, and our dog Teddy

1. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. (X2)

2. My mother: We grow too soon old and too late smart.

3. Dad (mom some as well) when something was painful, or life was a challenge–“you just need to/have to rise above it.”

4. My dad had a unique saying that governed his generous approach to business dealings: “The other fellow has to make a living too”.

5. My dad’s favorite line with my youngest sister was “Remember who you are.” Seems a lot more original than what he used on me when I was kid– “If you don’t know what to do, spit in a shoe and tell the teacher it’s half past two.”

6. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

7. “Let’s all sing like the birdies sing, like the birdies sing…..” Sure, he could be wise, but what I really miss is the silliness.

8. My Dad: “If at first you don’t succeed, suck, suck, suck until you do succeed.”

9. You’re burning the candle at both ends again…..

10. My dad (thinking this was hilarious): “If you need anything, call me. I’ll tell you how to do without.”

11. He also said (w/ 3 daughters on the farm and chores like stacking wood): “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.”

12. Dad always said there are two sides to every story, even a stick on the ground.

13. ” Many hands make light work” was a favorite around our house.

14. Just because everyone else does it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

15. Father: “Eat up. There’s more downstairs in a thimble.”

16. And when he wanted his children to get up and work at 5:30 am: “Day is dying in the west.”

17. My father had these crazy Pennsylvania Dutch sayings that had a moral story to them but made no sense in English. You’re prompting me to get my sisters to help me remember and write these sayings down!

18. My grandmother: “If you don’t watch your figure nobody else will either”

19. My mom: “ya can’t have nuthin’!

20. My dad would say: no education is ever wasted. My mom: I have every faith in you!

21. My Grandmother always said “idle hands are the devils workshop” and the only time her hands weren’t working on something was when visitors came by visiting. I may need to reinstate this practice in my own life.

22. How about this, “Life is not a bed of roses,” or its associate: “Live is not a bowl of cherries,” to make us kids realize that life was tough and we’d better not expect an easy time of it.

23. Remember who you are. (X 2)

24. My mom would say “stop looking at life through rose-colored glasses.” My grandmother always just said “stay out of trouble.” My favorite comes from my dad, my here: “Remember, when times are tough, I love you!”

25. First impressions are too important to miss.

26. From my Dad, ” Anybody can be like everybody. It takes character to dare to be different”.

27. My mother always reminds me “Done is better than perfect.” I have to remind myself of this many times a day.

28. From Uncle Buzz: ” either do it right, or don’t do it at all”.

29. How about the song/phrase quoted often by Mother “When we all work together how happy we’ll be, when my work is your work and your work is my work, when we all work together how happy we’ll be.”

30. “Many hands make light work.” My student leaders all know that saying now…spreading aphorisms around the globe!

31. You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.

32. A good name is more valuable than great riches.

33. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

34. Money: when you get some, save some, spend some, give some away!

35. “Patience is a virtue,
Possess it if you can,
Seldom found in women,
Always found in man. ”
My son recalls hearing his Grandpa Brubacher say this quite often, just a little sexist eh?

36. My husbands favorite comment to poor unsuspecting cashiers who ask how are you? His response: “Every day above ground is a good day.” And every funeral you walk away from is a good funeral.” Yup, the grocery clerks just love that one!

37. Although “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”…”Every dog will have it’s day.” Woof!

38. Of his grandchildren “One word from me….and they do what they like”

39. My dad’s tough love-“I’d feel for you,if I could reach you.”

40. “This too shall pass” and “If those other fools can do it, so can you!”

41. If you don’t have a goose, take the hen. Thank the Lord and say, “Amen.” And quoting from The Little Engine that Could, ” I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”

Notice that some sayings contradict others.

42. Dad said, “Take all you want. Take two.”

43. My mom always said, “If you are not going to do it right, you might as well not do it at all.” But the one I heard most often in my dating years was “After midnight is the Devil’s workshop.”

44. My dad always said, “You got your brains from your mother. I still have mine.”

45. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”

46. Remember who you are.

47. My Granny said: “The further away from home you get the meaner the people get.” Yep. I grew up in the mountain hollers, where families never moved away + ‘strangers’ rarely came.

48. My dad, “you make your bed, you sleep in it.”

49. Dad, in response to my sister’s and my table behavior: “Sing at the table, whistle in the bed, the boogie-man will get you by the hair of your head.” Thanks, Dad; I have panic attacks now every time Mennonites want to sing table grace. *kidding*

50. My dad, after I’d come home from a date in high school: “How’d you make out?” He claims to have no memory of this, which I find very convenient.

51. Ana Lisa’s grandparents had a neighbor who used to fill gaps in conversation with, “It’s like I say that in a way a person never knows.”

52. My dad, “you make your bed, you sleep in it.”

53. On this blustery snow day I am glad to report that I am “snug as a bug in a rug” and that kind neighbors cleared my driveway with a snowblower proving once again that “all good things come to those who wait” and “actions speak louder than words”!A final word on the temp…”cold hands, warm heart”!

54. My grandma said Keep on keeping on.

55-57: Since first reading your post on aphorisms I have become keenly aware and highly entertained to note that half of my speech is in that form! And really with no distinct memory of why or from where.I hadn’t really thought about their non-use as a means of promoting individuality in my children, but rather an attempt to avoid being like my parents (perhaps the same thing). It is an intriguing phenomena, that seeps into our vocabulary unconsciously from all kinds of sources, literature, teachers, media, relatives etc. I think they add a folksy, albeit cliche and yes, sometimes irritating, sense of poetry to our speech using literary devices like metaphors and alliteration. Being a very visually oriented person ( “a picture paints a thousand words”) I am probably drawn to the imagery, heck what is more fun, to be UPSET or to “have a bee in your bonnet” or “your knickers in a knot”? Moral teaching, espousing of virtues and values, and an mental picture all wrapped up in a phrase, quite brilliant really…”every cloud has a silver lining”…but alas, “beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.” Or as they say, “each to their own.” Thanks for the romp, it’s been fun but I better stop myself!!


What role do you think these aphorisms play in forming our characters? Do we become who we are because of such shared wisdom or despite it? Chime in below. Will you be more or less inclined to sprinkle your speech with aphorisms after reading these?

Shirley Showalter


  1. shirleyhs on February 11, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Patricia Oakley sent me a copy of this Garrison Keillor song which nails the plain speech of country people — and the way that speech patrols the boundaries of ambition and connection to the larger world. Brilliant humor and insight.http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media_player/popup.php?name=phc/2013/02/09/phc_20130209_128&starttime=01:14:00.0&endtime=01:18:48.0

  2. Tina Barbour on February 11, 2013 at 10:00 am

    I didn’t realize how many aphorisms are intertwined with my own speech and thoughts until I read this list. It brought back memories that I didn’t even remember when I commented on your post on aphorisms last week! I think the shared wisdom does inform who we are and how we act, at least to a degree. Hearing “Just do your best. That’s all you can do” helped me develop an attitude of wanting to try my best. “If you can’t say something nice . . . ” reminds me to watch my tongue. “Pretty is as pretty does” reminds me that actions are more important than looks when we’re dealing with others. Thank you for sharing these, Shirley!

    • shirleyhs on February 11, 2013 at 10:13 am

      Thanks, Tina. Isn’t it great to have so many generations of wisdom collected here from so many families? Some of them are wonderful reminders to ourselves for today’s challenges. Next week we may need others. And some of them we may want to delete from our own vocabulary forever.

  3. Joanne Hess Siegrist on February 11, 2013 at 11:33 am

    I love many of your posted aphorisms/slogans. While some are silly, many hold significant wisdom. Next I offer 3 new ones not on your post this day – some of my personal favorites: Grandpa Hess said this to his 6 sons: What’s a pretty dish with nothing on it? Remember that beauty is only skin deep. From a Swiss friend, a recent seminary grad: Choose culture of honor in others by finding flakes of gold in their dirt. From by kitchen display: What can I do… in spite of unfairness and troubles? Brainstorming… always looking for new, positive options!

    • shirleyhs on February 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

      These are too good to escape, Joanne. Thanks for sharing them with us — and for your positive spirit. I like the emphasis on doing something rather than stewing in negative juices! That’s a spirit that contributes much to the world!

  4. Ray Evans on February 11, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    These old sayings are what adds color to the black and white character of folks, without them most of us would be tongue-tied. Folks would only see us only in black and white! (“An apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze”)!

    During most of my twenties I was a redwood logger I would not post, most of what we said and did here, some of it would be too vulgar even for my character now!

    It’s been fifty years since I was a logger but I know that because I was, it has left a lasting impression on me.

    Just recently I read an old book, (published in 1936) about loggers, full of information dating back to the late 1700s. From the contents of that book I realized that we were just acting out the role, in my time, of logging characters that passed before us. I suppose this would also be true of seamen, commercial fishermen, construction people and all the rest! When it comes to the trades, I guess, (if you get the role, you have to act the part)!

    TOG, (the Old Geezer From Geezerville)

  5. shirleyhs on February 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    You bring up an interesting point, Ray. Various trades and regions have their own distinct expressions. They vary all the way from droll to flamboyant. One of the reasons I love Mary Karr’s memoirs and her talks is that she uses Texas tall talk she learned from her father. So colorful! Probably she’d love to hear your logger expressions, too. That language is part of who you are.

  6. Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    It’s funny, Shirley. Ever since I read your first post, I’ve been trying to think of things my parents said all the time and even with these prompts, I still can’t think of any. What I know is that they lived the words rather than saying them. For instance, they lived, “just get it done.” If a job was in front of them, they started immediately and worked at it until it was finished.

    Oh! I did just remember something my Dad said more than once. He said, “Pay off loans as fast as you can. The interest will kill you.” I guess his words sunk in because I’ve always followed that advice.

    • shirleyhs on February 11, 2013 at 9:30 pm

      Actions speak louder than words might have been your parents’ motto! I remember really admiring them as I read your memoir.

      And the advice to avoid debt is really wise. I too have tried to follow that one.

  7. Sharon Lippincott on February 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    How I appreciate this amazing list. My family was not big on aphorisms, and I never realized how prevalent they were in other families. This list should be a godsend to fiction writers! You could build a character around a carefully selected three or so.

    • shirleyhs on February 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      I agree, Sharon. Here’s a list that could help many different kinds of characters come alive on the page. The possibilities range from demonstrating creativity to underscoring conventional wisdom, depending on how the author was shaping the character.

  8. shirleyhs on February 13, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    From Jim Juhnke, via email: I’ve been away from my computer, so didn’t get our family aphorisms in on time for the list of fifty-seven. Our family was in transition from a Swiss-Volhynian German dialect to the English language. The most memorable aphorisms were German. For example: Der faule Esel schleppt sich todt. (Literally, “The lazy donkey carries itself dead.” An admonition when someone carried too much at one time, rather than making two or more trips, raising prospects of dropping the whole load or hurting one’s back.) Was mehr ist wie Dreck geht von selber weg. (Literally, “Whatever is more than dirt goes away by itself.” An admonition to a child to get out of the way when mother or grandmother are cleaning.)
    –Jim Juhnke

  9. shirleyhs on February 13, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Jim, thanks for giving such great examples of how hard it is to translate aphorisms from one language to another. And thanks for interpreting as well as translating! I’ve sometimes envied my friends who are bilingual. You have more than two languages, you have at least two cultures and hence a broad perspective on the world.

  10. Richard Gilbert on February 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    You have a real treasure trove of sayings there, Shirley. Lately I have been thinking of what my father liked to say when something nice happened: “That’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.”

  11. shirleyhs on February 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    I like your father, Richard. He made me laugh tonight. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Gwen snider on January 28, 2022 at 6:11 pm

    My dad’s quote, “Two birds in a one horse town!” and “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!” and “If you first don’t succeed, try try again!” Mom said , “got nothing to do go spit in a shoe!”

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