All my life, my mother has known the right thing to say.
Rick Bragg with mother Margaret Bragg
Rick Bragg with mother Margaret Bragg

When I cut my own hair, as a child, she did not castigate me, though I looked like I had done it with a Weedwhacker and my bangs made it seem like one of my eyes had dropped 2 inches down my face. "Maybe," she told me, "you shouldn't be pointing sharp things at your eyes," allowing caution, not criticism, to stick in my mind. When I cut it again, as a grown man, she told me it looked nice and neat, when in fact it looked like I was on a chain gang in the Depression. I went to get it fixed, and the stylist said, "Oh, Lord," then combed some hair over the gapped places, charged me $20, and sent me home. My point is, that stylist did not love me like my mother does, and so did not even try to spare me from myself.

When I write a book, my mother reads it first. Your first critic should be one in your pocket.

"That," she always says, "is a fine book."

She points out the typos—she is good at that—and nonsensical things with a gentle, "Now, hon, you need to look at this..."

I guess I should not be surprised. Mothers, as a group, tend to know the thing to say. They know, when you come home from seventh grade with a red C- on your science project, it is only because ol' Mrs. So-and-So is a good friend of Mrs. So-and-So, so little Elrod got an A because he has better connections in the high-stakes world of Alabama public education.

It is why, when I have done good in my life, I have given her the trophies. They sit in dust on her shelves. From time to time I fail, and she says the right thing then, too.

"Son," she says, "I don't need a plaque to know what kind of man you are."

And that is why I love her.