Remembering Advice

As mentioned in an earlier post, I used to read the newspaper advice columns religiously. As regularly as I attended daily mass at my Roman Catholic grade school, and with a great deal more religious fervor, I read Ann Landers in the morning paper and Dear Abbey in the evening news.  And because I have a quirky, persnickety memory, some of those columns have remained in my head forever.

I particularly recall one that related to a young couple who had requested that no very small infants be brought to their wedding. This was a hot topic at the time: Do babies so young that they will likely cry and disrupt the wedding service actually belong at a wedding, or not?  This young woman and her fiancé had chosen “not”, and she and her husband had been paying for it ever since.

The husband’s sister, it seemed, had borne a child  just shortly before the wedding, and was resentful of the young couple’s decision. She’d contrived a very specific revenge.  Since the sister’s home and yard were the largest, all family gatherings and holidays were held there.  Her brother and his wife had been excluded from every get-together since their wedding.  The angry sister refused to have them in her home.  Being continually excluded from his own family gatherings broke the young man’s heart, and his wife was wracked with guilt, blaming herself for their ostracism.

I don’t recall now what the advice columnist’s response was, but I certainly knew what my own reply would have been, and to this day I wish I’d sent in my retort to the newspaper regarding the vengeful sister’s behavior. It might have gone something like this:

Dear A,

In response to the young woman and her husband who were excluded from all family gatherings after requesting that no small babies be brought to their wedding ceremony, my question is: Does no one in this family have a spine?!

Here’s the salient point: Babies are a surefire draw for attention, and Little Sister just couldn’t STAND the thought of not stealing her brother’s thunder on his wedding day. I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that Little Sis has been the spoiled darling of the family her whole life.  She just couldn’t abide not being the center of attention, even at her own brother’s wedding.

But to make him and his new wife pay for her petty narcissism by ostracizing them from every family gathering from thence onward is taking spitefulness to an entirely new level! How long does the average wedding and reception last?  Four or five hours?  And how many times has the young couple been excluded from family events, times the number of hours?  Every July 4th, every Memorial and Labor Day celebration, every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner?  Four or five hours each,  multiplied by the years that this nastiness has gone on, equals what?  The spoiled little princess has gotten her payback with a vengeance, along with thousands in interest.

Someone in this family of spineless wonders needs to stand up to this narcissistic little shrew and say, “Enough already! You’ve gotten your revenge.  Now act like the adult you supposedly are and make up with your brother and his wife.  Otherwise, the next family gathering will be held at MY home, and the only one not invited will be YOU. And don’t give me that ‘you have the biggest home and yard’ crap.  There isn’t any home or yard large enough if love is absent.  Or have you never heard that proverb which begins,  ‘Better a dinner of herbs where love is’?”

All these decades after reading that advice column, I still do wonder if someone in that family group ever got up the gumption to smack the spoiled princess upside her nasty, narcissistic, vengeful little head. Knowing families as I do, though, probably not.  They were probably united in their resentment of the outsider who had upset their precious darling, and never forgave her brother for wanting his wedding day to be focused on him and his bride, rather than his spoiled sister.

But I do wish I’d written that letter.

Agony Aunts

I was intrigued by the Downtown Abbey episode in which the Dowager Duchess’s butler begins anonymously writing a popular “agony aunt” column for Edith’s magazine. That episode delighted me, because I grew up reading both of the daily newspaper columns, Dear Abbey and Ann Landers, and it’s likely that they shaped much about my understanding of the larger world outside my little Midwestern niche.

I was perhaps 11 when I first began reading the advice columns, finding them both instructive and sometimes shocking. I read about teen pregnancies and unfaithful spouses, family spats, cruel in-laws, and the heartbreak of parents who had lost a child.  I read about indecision regarding which of two potential spouses a person could choose, and the difference between infatuation and love.  I read about mistreatment of the elderly and the bitterness of those who had grown up as abused children, and how those two situations were sometimes linked.  I read of alcoholism and drug abuse and sexual perversion and racial prejudice.

The advice columns were, I now think, part of my social education, teaching me a myriad of things that would never have dared been touched upon either at school or by my parents.

For a long while, ten years or more, I took the guidance handed out by the Abbey and Ann duo as gospel. But as I began graduating to other advice columns, the ones I discovered in a dozen or more women’s’ magazines, I also found my own voice.  Shocking as it seemed even to myself, I began arguing with the columnists.  I dared to think that perhaps, given this question or asked to make that judgment, I could have given better counsel.

I would have told the young woman who complained about her husband’s predilection for sex in the shower (in which he got the warm stream of water and she only the cold steam) that the real problem was his lack of interest in her comfort and pleasure.

I’d have advised another young woman whose boyfriend always found fault with the gifts she gave him, and the exasperated family of a grandmother who did the same, that these people were toxic recipients and were never going to be pleased, no matter what accommodation one made to their taste and preferences. I’d have suggested an intervention, facing the fault-finders with every unappreciative remark they’d made for each gift given them for as long as anyone could remember.  I’d have advised the gift givers to state flat out that they were weary of trying to please someone so critical.

I’d have told many, many questioners that they were presenting their story to the wrong person; that what they were saying needed to be said not to a columnist but to their spouse, their friend, or their family member. Face it, I would have responded: stop hoping that “they” will read your complaint in the column recognize themselves.  For heaven’s sake, just get up the gumption to say it, I’d have advised.

And for those who were determined to verbalize a problem, begging for advice on how to soft-pedal an approach, I’d have said outright that there was, sadly, no chance that what they planned to say or do wasn’t going to create a rift between family or friends. But I would have added the solace that,  if they had the courage to stand up for themselves, they also had the courage to survive the upheaval that would follow.

I would have told the young couple who could not afford the big family birthday dinners (at which they ordered the least-expensive entrees, but were forced to ante up for everyone’s meals when the single bill was divided by all those present) that they were absolutely right.  They should explain to the family that their finances forced them to begin paying only their fair share for the dinner of the birthday person and for their own selections, or otherwise, sadly, stop attending these family functions.  They, and they alone, knew what their financial situation permitted.

But the truly important factor in all this, in finding my own responses to the questions asked in advice columns, was not that I was intrinsically right or wrong; it was that I had begun sifting through my own sense of morality and my understanding of human nature to make what I deemed rational and informed choices.

Although I’ve often asked advice from my circle of friends, especially when faced with a difficult choice or a situation that involved the possibility of hurting the feelings of others, I’ve never felt the need to write to a total stranger requesting guidance. And for that fact, I tip my hat to all those authors of all those many advice columns that I read over the years.  I thank them for teaching me how to think though a problem from all angles, consider multiple solutions and probable results, and finally reach my best decision.

It was an significant life lesson, but one I doubt I would ever have learned without them.

The Illuminati

How, exactly, and when, did the Illuminati become the bad guys?

I’ve seen them now portrayed in novels, movies, and television shows, and they are inevitably depicted as malevolent, secretive masterminds, hovering in the shadows and moving heads of state about like chessboard pieces. I’ve read about their plans to overthrow all government and establish a new, presumably evil and dictatorial, world order. I even read – tried to read – a website by a purportedly “released” Illuminati member.  He lost me at the description of how Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated, but lived out his life in one of their secret bunkers; I was sure he didn’t intend to be hilarious.  But, in general, the Illuminati are always portrayed as really nasty guys, something along the lines of the fictional Hydra. They lurk, they conspire and collude, they weave plans of Machiavellian complexity and pull the puppet strings of world leaders, dancing them about at whim.

Huh.

That’s really strange, because the Illuminati, at least at their inception in 18th century Bavaria, were sort of the good guys. The original goals of the society were to oppose and defeat religious influence over public life (sounds a bit similar to a certain country’s First Amendment to the Constitution, doesn’t it?), to defeat superstition, and to end the misuse of State power.

In their original general statutes, they wrote: “The order of the day is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice.” Translation: Stop the people who do wrong.

Not a whole lot wrong with that. Arguably a very solid, laudable goal. Although it may have been what got them blamed for inciting the French Revolution.  (Personally, though, I’ve always thought that the abuses of the ruling class, coupled with the Marquis de Lafayette’s return from fighting the American Revolution and “Declaration of the Rights of Man” actually had much more to do with turning France on its head – yes, dreadful pun intended.)

It is notable that the Roman Catholic church in Bavaria felt threatened enough by the Illuminati to encourage Charles Theodore, the ruler of Bavaria, to have the group banned by edict. I suspect that whole ‘defeat religious influence over public life” didn’t go down at all well with most churches, and the Catholic church hadn’t been happy about that sort of thing since the time of Martin Luther.

However, if the transition from Good Guys Opposing Suppression to Bad Guys and Their Evil Plan was present from the early days of this secret society, it can probably be seen in their recruitment tactics.  Adam Weishaupt, their founder, encouraged the participation of wealthy young Christian men, but specifically excluded Jews, monks, women, non-Christians, those of limited means, and members of other secret societies, such as the Freemasons.  Although the society later reneged on the “no Freemasons” thing, it still remained in conflict with Freemasonry, alternately trying to recruit from their ranks, malign them, and copy their degrees and orders.

Actually, as secret societies go, the not-so-secret Illuminati basically managed to infuriate and annoy almost everyone, from rulers of various countries to church leaders, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and their own members. Splits in their ranks and dissension seemed to follow them around like a bad smell, and, deviating far from Weishaupt’s original concept of defeating superstition, they devolved into various forms of mysticism, ritual and secret rites.

I suppose it’s no wonder then, that the Illuminati of modern understanding have transmuted into little more than a conspiracy theory of evil lurkers in the shadows, manipulating public policy and infiltrating governments to establish a New World Order (which, when described, actually sounds a whole lot like an old world order called Nazi Germany). Groups now going by the name of Illuminati and claiming descent from the original order are almost certainly no such thing, unless by descent they mean from the original group’s fascist notions of appropriate membership.

That would certainly explain how The Good Guys became The Bad Guys.

You Dirty Wop!

Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century.  Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.

He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.

This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman..  “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.”  (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)

Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.

Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem.  It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations.  In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.

As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him.  Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”,  jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works,  he’s got the money.”  Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.

Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.

Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.

What I Really Learned in School

As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most important lessons I learned in school were not in any way part of the curriculum. But when I consider the many subjects I studied throughout my school years,  I have to say that about seventy-five percent or more of them were pretty much useless to the life I would someday lead.

The most basic lessons – those which I completed within approximately the first six years of school – were also the most valuable. Reading was the most significant skill I ever learned, and coupled with it, the standard rules of grammar, composition, and  basic sentence structure and punctuation.  Oddly, though, it was not through the lessons taught in the classroom that I actually absorbed those rules of grammar, or learned to punctuate my sentences or the art of composition. I gained that knowledge through reading – reading voraciously and constantly.

General mathematics,  up to the point of long division, has always been a valuable skill, no matter how much I hated (and still do hate) it.  I was apparently cutting class on the day that math brain cells were handed out.  Despite that fact, when checkbooks were common and a even a very cheap calculator cost more than $100, I could still balance my checkbook using just  a pencil and paper, and did so every month.

And then there was the most useful physical skill I ever learned: typing. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, accurately, quickly, slapping the carriage return lever at the end of each line.  It was hard work.  It took genuine effort to punch those mechanical keys–not the light whisper of a touch for today’s keyboards.  Mistakes had to be erased by hand–even White Out hadn’t been invented–and the only spell check or grammar check was via a paper dictionary or one’s own head.  Compositions were drafted in longhand and then carefully edited with red pencil  before being finally typed out.

But what of all those other subjects – geography and world history, algebra, U.S. government, physical education, U.S. history, humanities, foreign language, shorthand, geometry? Oh, I remember bits and pieces of some those subjects, enough to, say,  place into context  my reading of the daily news. I know, theoretically, how the checks and balances of the three branches of U.S. government are supposed to work (and I know that they don’t really seem to work very well any longer, especially under the current administration).  I can pick out many of the countries on a map of the world, but I’m often confused by my memories of the globes I once studied, which bear so little relation to the demarcations of modern countries, or even their names.  Burma, Siam, Czechosloakia??  I can recall the dates of the great wars, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the reasons they were fought, which I don’t believe weren’t ever fully or accurately explained in the texts I studied.

The great majority of the learning that was shoved down my throat in my school years is mostly gone. I had no real need for it, so I shed it in favor of things more useful to my daily existence: How to read a bus schedule.  How to placate an unreasonable supervisor.  How too to fix a leaky toilet or dripping faucet.  How to soothe a teething toddler. How to survive pain and tragedy.

And, finally, long after I left school, I learned how to learn.

When  the Internet was non-existent and Google not even a faint ray on the horizon, I learned how to research any subject that truly interested me, not just through books and encyclopedias,  but through magazine articles and discussion with knowledgeable individuals.  I learned that history is mostly written by the winners – but that the truth was still out there, if one looked hard enough.  I learned to doubt, and question, and make informed decisions.  I learned that the gods of the old religions often become the devils of the new, and that this cycle has been endless throughout the eons of history.  I learned that cults are only effective if they can make one forget to be a grown-up.  I learned that if it seems too good to be true, it unquestionably is.  I learned that people are onions to be unwrapped, one brittle layer at a time.  I learned that evil is real, and ever present, and requires constant vigilance to be kept at bay – even in one’s own heart.

Education, I finally learned, is not something one gets, nor something one is given, but something acquired for oneself through struggle and effort: a hard-won gift one gives to oneself.  I learned, too, that if an individual is willing to do the endless hard work, education goes on for a lifetime.

And that was my greatest lesson of all.

Teachers, Good and Bad, Part 2

As I mentioned in a previous post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block.  I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like our current Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1

We all have memories, both as students and as parents, of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Inevitably we felt sad when the school year ended and we said farewell to a beloved teacher; we sighed with relief when we finally walked out of the classroom of a teacher we totally loathed.

As a mother, I found that I rarely had strong feelings about my daughter’s teachers. If she liked them, I was pleased for her.  But when she disliked a teacher, I found that, unlike her, I could often see the logic behind what appeared to her to be unreasonable demands or “mean” behavior.

There were exceptions, however.

During her final year of middle school, in the midst of enduring her parents’ divorce and all the attendant anguish, my daughter Amanda encountered her teacher Waterloo in the form of a home economics teacher.

Let it be said right here that the gene for domesticity, if not having done a complete flyby, is not exactly strongly represented in the DNA of my cherished daughter. For instance, while trying to learn to how to operate a sewing machine, she ended up chasing the threaded bobbin straight across the classroom floor; to this day she cannot sew on a button, and iron-on hem tape is her friend.  She rose to the challenge of preparing instant pudding, but that just about concluded her culinary skills until she reached college.  In short, my beloved offspring was never going to be a domestic goddess. To place the cherry on the cake of household incompetence, the school guidance counselor arranged for her to attend an in-school support group for children enduring trauma, so she often missed home ec class to attend counseling sessions.

One afternoon Amanda stormed home and, with a face the picture of wrathful self-righteousness, told me that Waterloo Teacher had pulled her aside and advised her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

That did it. Whatever other genetic material I myself might be missing, the Mother Bear Protecting Her Cub Gene is not among them! Before the clock had fully ticked over to the start of the next school day, I was on the phone to the class guidance counselor, reporting Mrs. Waterloo’s unfeeling pronouncement. “My daughter needs those group counseling sessions,” I raged.  “And frankly, there is absolutely no class that I care less about her passing than home economics!”  The guidance counselor assured me that she completely agreed with my viewpoint.  Amanda could continue her group counseling sessions, and, yes, Home Economics was the least important of all the classes she was taking that semester, which was why the counseling sessions had been scheduled at that time.  Waterloo Teacher’s attitude would, she assured me, be dealt with.

It seemed it was. No more was said on the subject of counseling interfering with classes.  And despite everything, Amanda passed home economics.

Throughout the semester of turmoil, though, I offered the solace, “This won’t last forever. Class will be over and then you’ll never have to see Mrs. Waterloo again.” And the school year having concluded, I consoled her and myself with the reassurance, “Well, you’re sure to have other crappy teachers, but at least you’re finished with middle school.  We’ll never have to put up with Mrs. Waterloo again!”

Amanda charged off into the unknown territory of high school and engaged upon the State-required “track” of a program centered around studies in psychology. Still domestically challenged,  she also expressed to me the fact that  “little kids freak me out”, but accepted that one of her required classes during her sophomore year would be Child Development.

Which, as we learned, was taught by none other than Mrs. Waterloo.

Who had transferred to the high school faculty.

I am happy to report that both Amanda and I survived.

The Retirement Guilt Monster

On behalf of a friend recently retired, I dragged out this discarded post and decided to publish it after all…

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I took early retirement, I was prepared for others’ envy. Envy – but not resentment.  That reaction surprised, even shocked me.

But there was another reaction for which I was unprepared, and it was not directed at me by other people, but all my very own: guilt.

It crept up on me slowly. For the first three weeks or so of my retirement, all I experienced was a lessening of stress – which was, in itself, surprising, since I spent the first week of my new-found freedom sick as the proverbial dog.  I’d actually become sick on the weekend prior to my last day of work, which happened to fall on a Monday.  Had I not been retiring, there was simply no way I’d have dragged myself into the office that final day.  I’d a night of abdominal pain so bad that I’d laid moaning and sleepless, so normally I would have called in sick. But the rules for State employees required that an employee be physically present in the office on one’s last day, so there I sat, finishing the very last of my work while waves of pain rippled through my abdomen.

Not an auspicious start to my retirement, but as I kept telling everyone, after that experience, I had nowhere to go but up. The illness passed and I began the half-dozen projects I’d determined on as soon as I retired, while new projects proliferated like rabbits.  I found myself constantly busy.

But after about three weeks, I began to feel that my “vacation” should be over. It was hard for me to recall that this was not a vacation; it was the second half of my life.  And that’s when the nasty little bugger began to tiptoe into my consciousness: guilt.

Why on earth was I so lucky, so privileged? What had I done to deserve this peaceful existence?  Never mind that I’d worked full-time since I was 18, sometimes (often)  for bosses so awful that they should have had a starring role in their own sitcoms; how was it that I had been fortunate enough to merit this freedom?

As the fall ended and icy, biting winter days began, and I lay in bed, snug and warm, while the people I’d once worked with struggled into the office. Guilt.  I had all the time in the world for errands; I was rarely rushed.  Guilt.  I got terribly sick again, this time with a horrible respiratory illness, and I didn’t need to call in sick or worry about the work piling up on my desk.  Guilt.   A couple of former coworkers called or e-mailed me with office problems that no one else knew how to solve.  Guilt.

The guilt feelings gnawed at me, limiting my enjoyment of my newfound freedom, until I finally grappled with them and wrestled them into submission…usually. I’ve learned that the days when time hangs heavy on my hands—when I’ve run short on projects, when there are few errands to run, when I have no “Master Plan” for the day—then the shadow of the Guilt Monster will sometimes loom over me.  Those are the days I have to recite chapter and verse of my “why it is okay for me to be retired” manual.  And when that fails to do the trick, as it sometimes does, I call upon my Inner Caretaker and find something to do for someone else—something to support a person who is still caught in the endless rush of work/home/school/children, and needs a helping hand as necessary chores pile up.  The sort of helping hand that I would once have been so delighted to be offered.

Reaching out to assist another makes the Guilt Monster slide into submission, at least for a little while. I am retired, not lethargic.  Productive, not idle.  It’s okay, dammit, okay!

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

Taking Down the Christmas

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The bright red placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The cheerful Christmas cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the boxes of ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there.  I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look at the photographs enclosed; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone beloved who is now gone.  Then, and only then, will I discard the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into the garage. Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments.  Most Precious Ornaments.  Angel.  Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by the Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors.  Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.