A harmless hilarity and a buoyant cheerfulness are not infrequent concomitants of genius; and we are never more deceived than when we mistake gravity for greatness, solemnity for science, and pomposity for erudition."
Charles Caleb Colton
In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.
Shortly after Mom’s death Alan, Rob and I were staying at her house, preparing it for sale, and Mom came to me in a dream. She told me we were doing a good job and then I asked her what it was like being dead.
“It’s OK,” she said, “but it’s a little boring.”
I can believe that. She was never happier than when she had a project. It was not uncommon for us to come home from school and find that she had painted the living room, or wallpapered the kitchen ceiling. One Christmas Eve she said “We should invite Santa!” It was too late for that year but December 26 she asked a friend in the textile business for some red velvet--actually, yards and yards of red velvet-- and white fake fur and by January 26 there was a full Santa suit hanging in the back of a closet. She never mentioned it until the next Christmas Eve and for years after that Santa took time out from his busy schedule to drop in on our Christmas Eve party.
She never made a big deal of things. Once when I was still little enough for her to hold me in her arms we were playing in the surf and a huge wave came out of nowhere and knocked her down. Now, some mothers might have made a drama out of that- “we almost drowned!!!” my mom? Nah. She held me tight and when we came up again she said, “Phew, that was fun.” And I have always loved the surf.
A pretty woman, she didn’t fuss over herself--a flick of the comb and a dash of lipstick and she was good to go. She always looked great and you never caught her looking at herself in the mirror. Her friend, Norma told me that Mom encouraged her to buy an emerald green dress that she still wears and loves and I can totally believe that. Mom loved bright colors; she always dressed me in red and I can still hear when I’m shopping--pick a color that makes you happy to look at it.
A strict disciplinarian , she was furious when Sally Hubbard and I broke Dad’s bed by jumping on it but when I made such a mean crack to Bobby Dannenfelser after her father died that the whole neighborhood wanted to lynch me and everyone’s mother said I should be severely punished, Mom said, “I think you feel really bad about what you said. That’s punishment enough.”
Alan used to get into fights and come home with his clothes wrecked. He wasn’t a particularly belligerent kid, just a boy. Mom said, “If you come home with your clothes wrecked one more time, there will be severe consequences.” Naturally it wasn’t long before he came home with clear signs that he’d been fighting, and he took his punishment without a word. But then Mrs. DeArmond called in tears to thank Alan. Mark DeArmond, Alan’s classmate, had cerebral palsy and was a target for bullies. Alan had come upon some boys beating up Mark and he said, “OK, pick on someone who can fight back."
“Oh, Alan, I’m so proud of you!”
So, fighting is very bad unless it’s for a good cause and you have to decide that for yourself.
LIke many people of strong character Mom held fast to her convictions. It isn’t easy growing up with One Who Knows All There Is To Know. She was fond of saying of certain others “Seldom troubled with the thought that he might be wrong” I never got the chance (or the nerve) to look her in the eye and say,”You know, Mom, there’s a lot of that going around.” But there’s always an upside.
When I had to face a firing squad of sorts my friend Frank said, “Whatever you do, Barbara, don’t let them see you cry. Carry your mother in there with you and let her stiffen your spine and your upper lip.” I can’t count the times she did just that for me.
Our family has had some terrible days. When a young person dies before what we think is his time there is very little comfort but somehow you have to carry on. You have to eat and sleep and keep moving; you have to get through the days until time can begin to heal your wounds. You also have to keep yourself open to the possibility of fun and even joy.
On one of our worst days, Mom called all her grandchildren together and said; “Come on everybody, I’m going to teach you how to do the twist.”
She was an imperfect and wonderful mother and I miss her every day. I’m grateful for everything she gave me, and especially that every gift from her came wrapped in brilliant colors.
It’s the season for gift giving and I’m sorry that it’s often more of a chore than an act of love. Lately it’s become an act of war, with people using pepper spray and trampling their fellow shoppers. What could Wal-Mart have that's that precious?
Here are some of my thoughts on gifts and their complications.
In the Nativity story the Wise Men bring gifts to Baby Jesus and then it says “but Mary took these things and kept them in her heart.” I always thought Mary was stealing Jesus’s birthday presents. It took me a long time to get over my suspicions about her and understand that there are gifts that don’t get wrapped in paper.
You know that book, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree? It’s a classic, supposedly a children’s book which gets held up as an example of true giving. A headmaster I know read it to a group of little girls.
I have a bone to pick with Mr. Silverstein.
Here’s the story. There’s a tree and a boy. They have a great time together. He climbs and swings in her branches, eats her apples and rests in her shade. Sounds like a fairly heathy boy/tree relationship, right?
Did I mention that the tree is a she?
Then the boy gets older and wants to buy things and have fun, so he tells the tree he needs money. She says take my apples and sell them. Does he say thank you or offer something in exchange? Nope. He takes the apples and goes away and the tree is lonesome.
Now we’re getting exploitive.
Then he comes back and tells the tree he wants a house. Does she say so get a job? No, she says take my branches. He cuts off her branches (ouch!) and goes away to build his house. Does he say thank you? Nope.
Now the relationship is abusive.
He comes back and says he doesn’t like his house anymore. She says take my trunk and make a canoe. He cuts down her trunk and leaves just a stump.
How is that not murder?
He’s not satisfied until she give him everything she has, until she’s nothing but a stump. Actually, he’s not satisfied even then, but he knows she has nothing left to give him. And he still doesn’t say thank you.
So what’s the message here? Is this what we’re supposed to give-- Everything we have and are so we’re left with absolutely nothing? Is that supposed to be a happy relationship? See why I have a problem with a male authority figure reading this to a bunch of little girls?
Okay, I know, Jesus sacrificed himself freely and completely, but he did have expectations for us. Is the tree God? Maybe the tree is the Earth, and the boy is humankind. That makes some sense.
I think we should give as much as we can, give until it hurts even and we should take joy in giving but we should treat ourselves as renewable resources.
It’s hard to find the right gift, but it’s worth the effort. I once asked my Grandfather Brown what he wanted for Christmas.
“Now don’t be giving me a lot of stuff,” he said. “You don’t take on baggage at the end of the line.” I thought about him and the fact that he was always chilly, so I got him flannel pajamas. When he opened them on Christmas morning he said, “Oh, you DOLL!” I had hit a home run.
When I was eight I stayed with my other grandparents for a long visit. They gave me some chores to do and I saved up my money. It was the first time I was allowed to walk around town by myself so I went shopping and bought a present for my grandmother-- a teacup with lilies of the valley. That was her favorite flower, because Jesus was called the lily of the valley. She opened it and shed a few happy tears and then my grandfather said “That’s a present for me, too.”
Uh oh. Should I have gotten something for him, too? Does he feel left out? Is he mad? Am I in trouble?
It took me years to understand that seeing me make her happy brought him Joy. When you give a gift you don’t know how many people you’re actually giving it to.
Which leads to my mother’s mink stole. My father brought it home from work one day--he couldn’t wait for Christmas. She was thrilled. She danced around the living room and gave Dad a very nice kiss. She wore it for years and then stoles went out of style. It stayed in the back of the closet until she wore it to a Hallowe’en party where a friend, Mrs. B, looked at the stole with longing and said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a mink stole.” And Mom said, “Here, it’s yours.”
The next day Mom ran into Mr. B. “That mink stole!” he said. “She came into the bedroom in the stole, her high heels and nothing else! Ginny, thank you for a wonderful night!”
Remember what I said in Organized at Last about passing it on? How you never know how a thing you don’t use anymore can be someone else’s treasure?
Then there’s the way we receive our gifts. My mother and my grandmother and grandfather knew how to accept a gift with joy, but I had another lesson in the way to appreciate a gift from a little baby. That's appropriate to the season, don’t you think?
We were visiting my old friend Valerie to meet her son Ted for the first time. Ted was about a year old, so we bought him a little wooden car. We didn’t have time for wrapping so we made a big wad of the paper bag and gave it to Ted. He was delighted with the gift of a big wad of paper and played with it until he discovered the little car and that was even more delightful!
May we always be just as delighted with every gift we receive! As I said in my title, I wish you all the gifts of this happy season, and I wish you joy in both giving and receiving.
Color was meant for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart, said John Ruskin. And Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Color is one of the things that make my life worth living.” I agree. I love color and I love to talk about it. I find it every bit as evocative as Proust’s madeleines.
When my brother Robʼs third daughter was born I thought, “This man needs something pink.” The nice woman on the phone at Land’s End assured me that a womanʼs size large extra long turtle neck would fit a slim six-foot man nicely. It was a beautiful shade of pink but did he appreciate it? “I can’t wear this!” Honestly, youʼd think Iʼd asked him to put on high heels and lipstick! What is it about men and pink? If you ask me, next to a tuxedo, thereʼs nothing as flattering to a man as a crisp pink oxford shirt. I once gave my husband a pink shetland sweater and every time he got a compliment on it, and there were many, many times, heʼd say, “Takes a hell of a man to wear this color!” Wouldnʼt they be surprised to know that pink was once the color for baby boys, because itʼs the pastel of red, that most aggressive and belligerent of colors, and gentle blue was for little girls, as it’s the color of the Virgin Mary!
I hope Rob saw the Las Vegas Bull Riders Championships last weekend; they were all wearing pink shirts in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Try calling one of those guys a sissy!
Pink is also the color of mourning for me. My grandmother was sick for a long time before she died. We all knew what was coming--you can see that from my daughter’s entry in her school journal;
We were staying in her guest house, also called the Lodge. Early in the morning on July 9, Jessie’s 7th birthday, we got a call from Breida, MomMom’s lovely nurse.
“Barbara, I know you have a busy day, but could you come over here?”
“Brieda, is everything ok?”
She replied in a quavery voice; “No,” MomMom was gone. I rushed over to say a last good-by. After several hours of phone calls and business I looked at Jessie , our birthday girl, and said, this little girl needs a celebration.
So I drove to town and bought a cake, then went to the party store for balloons. I bought 7 pink and one lavender to grow on and headed out the door. The spiky chandelier in the entry way caught a balloon and POP! I went back, they replaced it for free and I headed out the door again, this time holding my bouquet very low. On the street I passed a woman with a lit cigarette and POP! I went back to the store and this time I paid for the replacement. I headed out again, holding the balloons in a tight cluster. As they rubbed against each other they heated up, the air and helium inside expanded and POP! Just like we learned in fourth grade science class.. The people in the store were definitely not happy to see me. I asked the helium person not to fill them quite so full and she looked at me like I was speaking some strange language.
I finally got the balloons to the car and put them in the back seat. They rose up and completely filled the back window, blocking my view. I backed out of the angle parking space VERY cautiously and tapped an on-coming car ever so gently. A crabby old man got out to inspect his fender and then drove off ignoring my profuse apologies. I wanted to say to him, “Sir, if you only know the day I’m having you’d be grateful that all you have to worry about is a non-existent dent to your stupid car.” I guess it’s a little too much to expect kindness from someone you’ve just dinged. Let’s not dwell on him.
Louise Russell Swanson loved the Bible and Jesus, and she held an unshakable faith in the resurrection. In her circle Death was referred to as “Going Home.” Sojourner Truth said at the end of her life; “I’m not dying--I’m going home like a shooting star!”
I like to think MomMom went home like a burst of pink balloons.
Revenge? We’ve all got better things to do--like making art
We read in the daily news that revenge leads to an endless spiral of destruction and death. The Bible has plenty to say about vengeance and we’ll get to that later.
I’ve seen it first hand. Well, maybe not total destruction and death but it was bad enough to make me stop and think.
This goes back to dancing school in the seventh grade. I arrived late and two extra boys were sitting it out, waiting for a partner. The teacher made them shoot for who would dance with me; Alan Simenek ended up dancing with me and said to everyone within earshot; “So I lost!” This is while I have to dance with him! He thought it was so funny he said it about twenty times. How could I have responded to that with dignity and also utterly quash him--or at least make him feel bad?
After fifty years do you think I can forgive a man for what he said as an awkward 12 year old? You think? As Barbara Bush would say, why am I messing my beautiful mind with that?
Here are two incidents that convinced me to get out of the revenge business.
When I was young I had a bad boyfriend. He wasn't physically abusive but he thought the way to keep me was to make me think nobody else would want me. He was also unfaithful. My self confidence took quite a battering but I eventually got out of town and found a much nicer boyfriend. I spent many years thinking of what would be a fit punishment for that bad boyfriend. A slow painful death? Living in the street? He went on to marry and have children but his wife left him for a woman. That would have hurt his ego in a big way. In all my vengeful fantasies I hadn’t come up with that one.
When my kids were little my fellow playground parents and I tried to get the city to make some improvements in a local park--nothing fancy, just self closing gates and some clean sand. Other people in the neighborhood felt we were invading their personal space and they fought back with a vengeance. They hung signs on my building accusing me of financing my lavish life style by embezzling park funds and sent me a registered letter demanding to see our books. One gravel voiced dame called us "the mothers--and I use the term in the pejorative." I had plenty of sleepless nights thinking up the perfect response. However, lately, and this is 25 years later, I’ve seen the ring leader around the neighborhood and she has something wrong with her back so that she walks bent over completely at the hip, like--a wicked witch. I swear, I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy, which she sort of was.
Saint Paul talks about this in his letter to the Romans. Now, a lot of people, especially women, have issues with Paul, because he said women should keep silent in the church and should submit to their husbands. I know of one eminent clergyman who grew up knowing nothing of Paul because his church lady mother literally cut all of Paul’s letters out of the family Bible. But, like everything interesting in life, Paul is complicated. Many of his letters open with cheerful and loving greetings to the women who, even in his day, were the backbone of the church. So I’m going to forgive him for what I don’t agree with and not reject him completely.
This is what he says about Vengeance.
“Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Live in Harmony with one another...do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. If it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.”
I have seen with my own eyes that when the Lord says; “Vengeance is mine,” He doesn’t mess around.
But maybe I shouldn’t blame the Lord. Maybe meanness is a scorpion that curls back upon itself and the punishment for meanness is living a life of meanness.
And that’s so not me and you!
Do you have a revenge fantasy taking up space in your mind? Post it here. Get it off your chest, free your beautiful mind and
(Here’s another motto for your bulletin board)