Accountability

In my recent blog post about Writing Letters, I mentioned that I never write to the grandmother that would probably appreciate it. I received an email the next day from an online friend. He first quoted from my blog:

The article on the radio today made me see just how important it is. And not just for older people who remember letter writing as a primary form of communication. Young people enjoy getting mail too. I think she’s hooked. And I’m glad she’s forging this relationship with her great grandmother. And I think she just might be having an effect on me. Maybe I could take the time to write a hand-written letter to Grandma too.

And then he gave his opinion:

I think it is sad that you can’t take the time to write to Grandma, but you have plenty of time to write several times a week to total strangers.

Ouch! When I say this is an “online friend”, I mean it. I’ve never met him in real life. We have never spoken on the phone. Our relationship has been forged completely on the web. Assuming his presented information is accurate, he’s old enough to be my dad. And in this situation, he played the role of an older, wiser mentor perfectly. Actually, he played the role a friend should play better than most of us do with our real-life friends.

Needless to say, I was convicted by his remark. I went home and found some stationary and a pretty card. I sat down and wrote to Grandma, stuffed the letter in the card, added a copy of a recent newspaper picture of Jane’s volleyball team, put it all in a stamped envelope, and drove to the post office.

His wife was purportedly angry with him for saying what he did the way he did. We talked a bit about it and it got me to thinking about friendships and holding people accountable. It even got me thinking about our general reactions to other people on a larger scale.

I work with a guy who was good at saying what needs to be said. We both like to talk and some of our conversations years ago tended to get long-winded. He came into my work area one day with a look on his face that made me nervous.

“We need to talk,” he began. He went on to make it clear that while he enjoyed the conversations, we needed to curb them. He was very serious and I was very uncomfortable. What he said needed to be said and I appreciated him having the character to do it.

I have still not grown up enough to be able to do the same for others. Out of worry for hurting feelings or a sense that it’s none of my business, when I’ve either had a problem with someone or noticed a flaw in their character, I’ve said nothing. Worse, I’ve often vented to others instead of approaching the offending character. What kind of a friend is that?

Now, I recognize there are limits. You shouldn’t just pop off anything that enters your head. And the way many strangers interact online is offensive and unhelpful. But if you have a relationship of mutual respect, like this online friend and I do, you can (hopefully) say what needs to be said without doing damage.

I have always appreciated the blunt people in my life, even when they anger me or embarrass me. At least I know 1) how they feel about me or what I said and 2) that they will let me know if a problem develops. Carefully avoiding hurting people’s feelings is a significant part of who I am. I’m not sure I can change that so I’m hoping to find a way to gently and oh-so-politely return the favor.

{NOTE: With my encouragement, this “blunt” online friend started blogging. He’s got a lot of funny stories to tell, which you can check out here. Having never met him, I sometimes wonder how true some of these fantastical tales are, but just like in the 2003 movie Big Fish, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. I enjoy them all the same.}

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Scribbled Names

As we passed out presents at my grandmother’s house last night, she called me over to tell me there were some envelopes behind the tree that needed to be handed out. I was very familiar with the envelopes. She has been giving everyone a Christmas card with cash in it for as far back as I can remember. Just like her mother before her.

I reached behind the tree and grabbed the little packet of envelopes. I slipped the rubber band off and pulled the first one off the top to hand to the recipient. As I looked down at the second envelope, I suddenly felt that I was looking at my great grandmother’s envelopes, not my grandmother’s. What had always struck me about great grandma’s envelopes was the shaky script our names were written in.

These envelopes looked just like those. I have watched my grandma age over the last few years. She falls. It takes her longer to recover from illnesses. She doesn’t argue her way as much. She sits more, travels less. Mentally, she’s the same as always. Physically, she’s entered a new stage of life. And while I’ve seen it, I haven’t faced it. Not until last night when I looked at those envelopes and realized she was now her mother and I am now mine. Life moves inexorably forward. Whether I like it or not. Whether I’m ready for it or not. Whether I accept it or not. I wonder if anyone noticed the tears in my eyes as I handed them their envelope with their scribbled name on the front.

Generational Differences

Hal is nearly five years old. We moved past the potty training stage well over a year and a half ago. We absolutely love not being tethered to a diaper bag or having to make sure you have a spare change of clothes. The time period of accidents is long past. Or so we thought.

The first poop accident occurred while the boys were camping in the northwest in June. Daddy had asked him to wait until they got somewhere so willingly took part of the blame. That was an exceptional incident under trying circumstances. Surely an isolated event.

The next one occurred a couple of weeks ago. Again, we were away from home at the art conference. Nevertheless, we started to get irritated. Both times, my husband threw away the underwear – one Thor, the other Angry Birds – because we just didn’t have the means to clean them properly. Both times, Hal got really upset. We thought losing the underwear would make an impression.

Accident number three was just last week. At home. His reason? “I forgot!” We had a long talk about how old he was and the need to pay attention to when he needed to go and not ignore it. The same conversation we’d had repeatedly back when this was a focus in our lives.

The next one was yesterday at my grandmother’s house. One thing that fascinates me is how he tries to hide it. As if we won’t ever notice the poop caked to his bum or the smelly clothes. I looked at the underwear – this time Lego Star Wars Darth Maul – and thought I really don’t want to clean those. So I said I was throwing them away.

He got upset. I asked if he wanted to clean them. He said yes. I clarified: “You want to scrub the poop out with your own hands?” He said no, he wanted me to, because that was my job. I explained that it wasn’t my poop and he was getting too old for me to deal with these problems.

I then told him to put his pants back on without underwear. He refused. I pointed out that he did not have any underwear there so he’d have to. He angrily chastised me for not bringing our vehicle to grandma’s that had his backpack with a change of clothes in it.

Eventually, we went downstairs with a towel wrapped around his waist. I told my grandma, mom, and aunt what happened and said I’d be right back since I needed to walk the plastic bag-wrapped underwear to the outside trash can.

My grandmother calmly pointed out that I could scrub them clean. I said I knew that but didn’t want to. She said, “Well, back when I was your age, we used cloth diapers so we were used to it.”

I responded, “Yes, and I used cloth diapers too but we are well past that stage now. It’s not worth it to me to clean them up. When he runs out of his character underwear, we’ll buy him plain white. It’s a good logical consequence.”

She shrugged and nodded her head. I found this to be a remarkable demonstration of generational differences. She lived through the Depression. She still washes her Ziploc bags and until she became too weak to do it, she would occasionally dumpster dive behind the day-old bread store to get free bread. It doesn’t matter that she lives in a nice two-story house with a comfortable income. That underwear can be cleaned, so it should. Why be wasteful?

I, on the other hand, grew up in a more comfortable time. I make very good money and the cost of a pair of underwear is insignificant. My time and comfort are much more precious to me than pinching a few pennies. It doesn’t matter that the underwear can be cleaned. It’s not worth my time to do it. Especially when I can wrap it into an object lesson for my child.

I’m not sure which perspective is better overall, probably hers. But, they both have their merits and justifications. And neither one of us is likely to adopt the other attitude.

Modest Humor

My husband and I recently had a weekend away from the kids. We’ve done this nearly every year for the last 4 years. We drop the kids off at grandma’s and then travel an hour further away to setup a booth at an arts festival. It’s a lot of work but we enjoy spending time together, just the two of us.

This year, however, things were different. The separation was not as complete now that Jane has a cell phone.

Early afternoon, I received a text that included a picture of Hal, asleep in the car with a string of candy hanging out of his mouth. Jane said, “Hal got tired while eating candy in the car.”

The following exchange ensued:

At this point, I shared the exchange with my husband, commenting on our daughter’s remarkable sense of modesty. He took the phone and typed a response:

I nearly choked laughing so hard at her response. We couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from her. It was remarkable that she had rightly discerned that that was how her father would talk to her, not her mother. It just hadn’t occurred to her that just because it was my phone didn’t mean it was me talking. He took the phone again.

I then texted her, hoping to gently chastise her for being so full of herself.

We may not have to worry too much about low self-esteem, but we may need to keep an eye out for an over-inflated sense of self worth. The latter can be just as destructive as the former.

Regrets and Reminders, RIP Grandma

My grandmother passed away Thursday. She was 85 years old but had left us years earlier, if only in her mind. My last memory of her was a visit at the nursing home. She didn’t remember who I was. That’s a rather unsatisfying memory for someone who can remember spending special moments alone with her when I was a young girl.

Searching back a little further, I can remember the last time she came to a family function at my dad’s house. She was frail and confused. Her face lit up with joy as she leaned forward to tell me a secret. “I’ve found this great new thing,” she confided. Looking down, I saw her patting the pocket of her pants. As if telling me about an incredible scientific discovery, she continued, “They call them pockets, and… you can put stuff in them.”

I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. That was a problem we all had there near the end of her cognizant time. We never quite knew if she was truly delusional or if she was playing us.

I can’t say for sure, but I believe that of all the grandchildren, I perhaps had the closest relationship with her. That could just be egocentric on my part, I will admit. I’ve never been very good at being aware of what’s going on in other people’s lives.

Grandma had three children and five grandchildren. Four of the grandchildren through my dad and one through my uncle, who moved across the country when his daughter was still a baby. My aunt, a wonderful woman, a librarian who gave me autographed books for presents, never had children and predeceased her mother a decade ago. I’m fairly certain that none of my brothers ever hung out at her house, just them and her. I did.

There was a wall at one end of the living room/dining room that was mirrored tile. The dining table sat in front of it. Some of my earliest memories at that house involved the extended family, including my uncle, sitting at the table, playing Uno. My dad was very competitive and my uncle liked to chide him. Sometimes we’d strategically play Reverse cards, just so Dad never got a turn.

My dad’s family was always a gaming family. Grandma had some wonderful old games. I loved going to her house to play them. One involved wooden blocks and a wrecking ball of sorts that you used to knock down the blocks. Another was a pumped-up version of hangman. They were stored in a little cabinet near the bathroom.

I can’t remember if I ever spent the night at Grandma’s house. I do remember spending time with just her, sitting at that table, playing games and talking. To hear her tell it, she had not had a particularly happy life prior to meeting my grandfather, a man I never met because he died long before I was born. Her stories of mistreatment were fantastical, enough so that, looking back as an adult, I am uncertain whether to believe them.

How much her husband loved her was always a strong component of the tales. He adored her and treated her like a princess. When he’d return from being out-of-town and the children would clamor for gifts, he always told them that she came first. He would hug and gift her before turning to them. Or so the story goes.

It doesn’t matter to me whether the stories are true. What matters is the memory of sitting there and listening to them. We loved our private time. We would conspiratorially talk about running away together or hiding me in the closet when it was time for dad to come pick me up. We had something special there for a while.

Teenage years change a person and I guess I became too busy for Grandma. Once I had the means to drive myself, I no longer seemed to find the time or desire. Looking back, I think Grandma was in many ways like a child. So perhaps our connection split when I ceased to be one myself. I don’t know.

My husband and I used to go to her house each year when I discovered she wasn’t setting up her Christmas tree. He would setup the tree and then go to sleep in a chair while Grandma and I decorated it and visited. It wasn’t the same as when I was a child, but I think the visits were meaningful to her.

Still, regrets and mistakes are difficult to forget. Sometimes we think we’ve dealt with them. We think we’ve put them away, moved on. We maybe even think we’ve forgiven ourselves. And then something happens that makes us face them again. How many wounds can we hide in ourselves? Hide even from ourselves?

I got married at 18. We went to the courthouse, without telling anyone. My mom found out, so she and my step-dad were there. But almost no one else knew beforehand. That means that in the days to follow, we had to call all of our extended family to tell them. To say it wasn’t easy for me is putting it mildly.

We sat beside each other, often holding hands, and took turns. He would call someone and they would respond warmly and congratulate him. I’d call someone and they would respond with silence or admonition. As the calls went on, I sank lower and lower and lower. I didn’t want to call anyone else. So once I had contacted all the people I was likely to encounter, I stopped. I knew there were two more people I should call, but I couldn’t pick up the phone anymore.

One of those was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, another wonderful woman who I spent time with as a child. The other was my paternal grandmother. I loved both women so much but wanted to avoid more abuse, not that either was likely to give me any. I thought maybe I’d call them later, when I wasn’t so down. I never did.

Grandma found out I was married when she saw a church newsletter that listed my rather unique first name with a new last name as having a birthday. She knew my birthday and she knew my name. And now she knew I was married. And that I hadn’t told her. I can still hear the hurt in her voice. If she had ever wondered whether we still had that special connection, she knew then that we did not.

Regrets. And reminders. We will bury her on Monday, January 7th. My 20th wedding anniversary. Regrets and reminders, what a bittersweet day that will be.

Germs’ll Make ‘Em Tougher

I have a dear friend who is a new mom and very concerned about germs. She dutifully followed the doctor’s instructions to keep the baby at home for the first six weeks. She also kept him away from children until he had his 3 month shots. And don’t even think about touching him if you haven’t washed your hands!

These may very well be good precautions that all mothers should take. In fact, I think more and more mothers are exceptionally careful about sanitizing their children’s environment. I am not one of them. Never have been, not even with my first child, and my children are almost never sick.

Daryl was born on a Wednesday, two days before Jane’s third birthday and three days before her party. Some of our friends assumed the party was cancelled. But, really, what is a mother to do? Tell her excited toddler that she doesn’t get to have her birthday party after all because of this little beast that she’s not sure she wants to accept into the household anyway? Take time away from cherishing my newest bundle of joy so I can try to remember who has been invited so I can call and tell them no?

Nah, party’s on! I even took him with me to Wal-Mart the day we got out of the hospital. I needed (wanted?) some things that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) let anyone else get. And of course, I couldn’t leave Daryl at home. What if he got hungry?

The day of the party, he was passed around and around. Every adult and even some children took a turn holding him. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone to wash their hands first. It just didn’t.

When Jane was in preschool, her teacher took me aside one day. “Jane keeps spilling her Cheerios on the floor and then crawling under the table to eat them! I keep telling her to stop but she won’t listen.”

I flashed back to all the times I had picked up Cheerios from the freshly vacuumed carpet and put them back in her bowl. Oh, shoot. Who am I kidding? The floor wasn’t vacuumed! When we got home, I had a very serious talk with Jane. “Jane, when you are at school, you need to not eat food that you’ve picked up off the floor. Okay?”

I come by my “germs’ll make ’em tougher” attitude honestly. For one thing, I’ve been an avid backpacker for many years. It’s a little hard to worry about germs and cleanliness when you are not showering for a week or two, conserving water, swallowing your toothpaste, picking up food from the ground and either eating it or packing it out, pooping while squatted against a moss-covered log. Some of that necessarily lax attitude is bound to seep into my front country life.

It’s not just the back country lifestyle, though. As I said, I come by it honestly. I seriously do not remember my mother being terribly concerned about germs. I can remember playing behind the backstop at her softball games. I would build intricate farms from whatever I could find on the ground. Sticks formed the fences that separated the animals. Rocks were the cows. Cigarette butts made excellent sheep, especially if the outer covering had come off. My mother always smiled and listened to my descriptions. She never yelled not to touch that stuff and go wash your hands right now, young lady!

She and I are outright germaphobes compared to my grandmother, however. I’ll never forget the day that I complimented her on this scrumptious gourmet bread being served at a family meal. “Where did you get it, Grandma?”

“Oh, that? I got it out of the dumpster behind the 501 Cafe.”

I spluttered, “You got it where? What were you doing in the 501 Cafe dumpster?”

“Well, I was checking the day old bread store’s dumpster next door and noticed that they had dumped some bread in this other one so checked it out. It’s perfectly good bread. It’s always wrapped in plastic. They just throw it away after it’s a couple of days old.”

I can assure you that I have never been dumpster diving and have no plans to try it out. But I’m also not going to fret over my child continuing to eat his ice cream after the dog licks it or finishing off that slice of pizza after it hits the floor. I do not expect everyone to be like me though, so I promise not to snicker (too much) if you exercise more caution with your own children.

I am sorry, Mommy

Dear Mother,

I’m sorry. I don’t know what I whas crying or gripping about. Sometimes I’m not sure how much you or daddy like me because you yell at me, but that because I’m spoiled rotten clear through.

Your Loving Daughter
Marie
P.S. I don’t know what I’d do without you or daddy.

sorry_note_marie

As can be seen from the signature, this letter was not written by Jane. It was written by my mother to her mother on June 7th, 1962, when she was just slightly older than Jane is now. My grandmother wisely added the date to the paper before storing it away.

She found it recently and handed over the yellowed lined paper to my mother, who shared it with me. The letter fascinates me. For one, it reminds me of the reality that is so hard for a child to wrap her mind around, which is that my mother was once a child. I mean, really a child. This note brings it home, makes it real.

I am also drawn to her lovely handwriting, very clear and pretty and not too different from how it looks now. I chuckle at the misspellings and the “spoiled rotten clear through.” I can hear those words in my grandmother’s mouth and I know they must have been spoken often enough for my mother to decide it adequately accounted for the particular failing she felt compelled to apologize for.

The letter reminded me that I have saved letters of apology from my children. The most recent was from Jane in August of this year. She had not gotten up to feed the dog despite me asking her twice. The dog saw my breakfast waiting for me on the table and helped herself. This was after some other frustrating events. It was not a good morning. When I came home, I found the following note, written in sloppy cursive:

sorry_goodbar_blog

Inside the folded letter,

sorry_goodbar_inside

A king sized Mr. Goodbar was taped to the opposite side.

I hadn’t actually blamed her for my breakfast being consumed by the canine. I was the one that left it within reach of her snout, after all. I didn’t call her lazy either. But it was obvious to her that I was having a bad morning and her actions (or inaction) had contributed.

Late last year, I received the following. The front of the bifold sheet of paper was addressed to me and signed by Daryl and Jane, done in careful green and blue calligraphy. This was the inside:

sorry_calligraphy_blog

Then there’s the note that wasn’t even to me but was about me. It was addressed to The middle child in the Hill family. Inside, it said:

Daryl, it’s not that hard to be nice to mommy so please be nice to mommy.

Sincerely,
Jane

I can’t help but wonder if she felt an apology note was in order and when one wasn’t forthcoming from “the middle child”, she wrote her own, telling him how to behave.

While looking for the above letters, I came across this gem:

sorry_note_blog

I have not been as assiduous as my grandmother at dating the notes I have received. Based on the papers near it and the writing, I’m going to guess this was written during his last year of preschool when he was five years old. The translation, best I can guess, is:

I am sorry for hitting you at church. I love you, Daryl

I have a lot of experience with my children writing me apologies. What my mother’s note illustrates to me is that my children are not unique in this regard. Either that, or it’s a strong family trait. Children misbehave. Parents express their disapproval, perhaps calmly, perhaps not so much. Children (hopefully) express remorse. Parents forgive. Love continues.

And that is why what I cherish most about my mother’s note is the slightly uncomfortable line that says her parents yell at her. It’s not because I’m happy that she was yelled at nor that it caused her to doubt whether they even liked her. It’s because I yell at my kids too. And feel terrible when I do it. And they probably wonder if I like them. Sometimes I get it right and handle the situation as calmly as June Cleaver. Sometimes. Other times… well, other times I don’t.

It is a small comfort to know that my grandmother yelled at her children just like my mother yelled at me and I yell at mine. Sometimes. It is a comfort because it means that my children can still love me just like I still love my mother and she loves hers. Humans raising humans.

{Updated with scans of some of the original letters on 12/09/2012}