Ask nicely

Remember the movie A Few Good Men?
It was one of my favorite ‘90’s movies, namely because it was quite quotable.
“You can’t handle the truth” was uttered just about every time I was asked a question that didn’t warrant a response.
But now, over 20 years later, there’s another Jack Nicholson line starting to reverberate in my mind: You’re going to have to ask me nicely.
You may not even remember it. Tom Cruise’s character was leaving the meeting with Jack Nicholson at Gitmo and said he wanted copies of Santiago’s transfer orders.
Nicholson said sure, but – he was going to have to ask him nicely.
Not come down to Gitmo and flash his badge and act like he was entitled to them; Cruise’s character needed to show some respect and courtesy.
A bit of politeness and manners, even if he was requesting them for a legal matter.
Was that too much to ask?
Tom Cruise may have thought so but guess what? He obliged.
I doubt A Few Good Men was meant to be a lesson in manners, but I wish Jack Nicholson would give his little speech to a few people.
Namely – or rather, unnamely, to protect the offenders – a few people who do not have a shred of manners.
People, it seems, have forgotten how to ask nicely.
It used to be that when people needed a favor, they knew how to make their request with polite verbiage and genteel petitions.
Somehow, that act of decorum has been lost.
Now, people request favors through heated demands or acting as if they are the one bestowing the favor by asking for something.
I don’t get it.
I never liked the ‘get more flies with honey’ saying but I do understand you can get a little more common courtesy by being polite.
Whenever I call any customer service number, I always start out being nice. Especially if I am going to ask them to waive something, like a shipping charge.
If I am nice, they tend to want to help me. In fact, there’s been times the charge was something I had overlooked but was waived, simply because I have been cordial and polite.
After dealing with the public most of my adult life, I am keenly aware not everyone had been raised to be polite, but the problem has gotten even more out of hand.
I hate to say it, not because it is cliché, but because it makes me sound old, but the younger generation has really escaped any lessons on how to be polite.
Instead, there is a demanding attitude wrapped in a sense of entitlement.
“I need you to do this and I need it now,” is often the method of request.
No please. Definitely no thank you.
Just a “you need to do this for me now.”
No question of it was do-able, or an inconvenience.
Usually, people didn’t care if they were interrupting something you were already doing.
They wanted something and they were the only one in the universe that mattered.
Guess what? I am not very inclined to do things that are presented in that manner.
When someone is rude and demanding, I am usually not going to prioritize their request.
If they are nice and polite, I am usually more open to helping.
“I think manners needs to be taught in school again,” I told Mama one day. She was all for it.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing unusual. Just an observation. People are so rude now and think the whole world revolves around them and what they want, when they want it. They have no respect or concern for anyone beyond the tip of their nose.”
She could understand. She has dealt with the public for most of her life as well.
Not long after that conversation, I received an email, this one full of a litany of demands and devoid of any courtesy.
I sighed.
I may do it, when I can get to it.
But, first, they’re going to have to ask me nicely.

A lesson in procrastination

When it comes to lolly-gagging, dilly-dallying, and dawdling, I am pretty hard to beat.

Now, mind you, if I have a set deadline, I will meet it with time to spare.

But, if you give me some loosey goosey time frame, I will put tasks off until the end of time, or at least the very last minute until I have to rush to finish.

I was bad about doing this in school.

Once, I had a project due for a countywide competition for the local schools. In order to do the project, I needed a certain book, which I did not have but another student in my class did. Granny called the student’s mother to see if she was finished using the book and was told no.

“If there is only one book, shouldn’t there be time limits as to how long you get the book?” Granny asked the mother. The child had had it since the first ding dang day we knew about the competition.

“I don’t know that it will do Sudie any good since the entry is due Monday,” the mother replied. “In fact, it may be too late for her to even get started on it.”

For the record, it was Saturday night. In my young mind, I had plenty of time.

Granny frowned as she gave me a hard sideways glare. I had managed to omit that tiny little tidbit of information. “Well, don’t you worry,” Granny began. “She will get it done and turned in on time.”

When she hung up the phone, Granny turned to me. “How long did you know about this here project?”

“A few days.”

“A few days? I see. Was it several days strung together into a number of weeks?”

I didn’t know what to say. It was clear I didn’t have nearly as much time to get something done as I thought.

“You know it is due Monday, right?” Granny asked.

I nodded. I had one whole day, minus church, and the remaining hours of Saturday to research this project and write up my paper.

Granny sighed.

“Why, oh, why did you wait until the last minute, child?”

“But, I didn’t,” I said. “The last minute would be Monday morning when it is supposed to be turned in.”

This made the old woman sigh again.

“Get in the car,” she ordered.

I wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Maybe we were going to the other child’s house and Granny was going to bargain for the book. Were we going to the library? Where ever it was, she meant business.

Neither happened. Instead, Granny and I drove around our county, looking at those historical markers and doing our own research. We went to the courthouse and even counted the windows to provide detail.

I was exhausted when I got home.
“Now, you sit down and write this,” she said.

“I’ve got tomorrow,” I began.

“Littl’ un, you park your tater in that chair. What if something happens tomorrow and you can’t write it? You are getting this done right now.”
The look on her face made me sit down at the table and keep my procrastinating mouth shut.

We stayed up all night, organizing my notes with Granny proofing my rough draft.

“Is it ready?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “Not quite, but you are getting there.”

After church the next day, I worked on it some more, until finally I had it completed.

“I am so glad to be done with this!” I exclaimed.

Granny frowned. “This wouldn’t have been so difficult if you had started working on it sooner. There is no reason whatsoever for you to have waited until it was due to start it. To do it right, you should have started on it several weeks ago.”

“But, Granny, it is not due until tomorrow!” I said. How could I not get her to realize that?

“If it’s due on Monday, it’s as good as being due this weekend. You knew about it long enough to get started on it weeks ago. You should have had a few weeks to properly research it and then at least two to write and change it.  Let that be a lesson to you.”

And in some ways, it was.

Granny’s words taught me to prepare and look ahead at what needed to be done, so I could plan accordingly. I don’t like that feeling of being rushed and worrying about if something happens and I can’t get a task completed.

I don’t like thinking I have something hanging out there that needs to be done.

I don’t like it, mind you; but that doesn’t stop me from procrastinating in the least bit.

Ears Wide Shut

Listening is truly a lost art form it seems.

People just flat out no longer listen.

Instead, it feels more like people are only listening long enough to catch an opportunity to talk about themselves.

I find myself telling people things – important things – only for my words to be completely ignored.

Don’t even try to ask someone if they were listening. Odds are, they won’t hear that question either.

Listening is important.

You can pick up some pretty important information just from listening.

Case in point, a situation my child came to me about recently.

“You may hear from my teacher,” he began.

That’s never good, I thought. My experience had taught me teachers only called when something was wrong and usually, it was when the wrong-doing was on my behalf.

Instead of jumping right in with my questions, I decided this would be a good time to listen.

Mama always knew if she gave me the quiet treatment long enough, I would spill what she needed to know.

I thought I’d give her tactic a whirl instead of jumping in with my accusations and allegations.

“I made a zero on an assignment, but it counts as a test grade,” he continued after my silence.

“But it wasn’t my fault.”

I nodded slowly.

“Do you want to hear why it wasn’t my fault?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Well, my teacher told us we had to grade our own assignments, but we had to do in pen. She told us we could not use pencil.”

“OK.”
“I had picked up a pencil in my left hand and had a pen in the right,” he went on. “It was just out of habit. Really. I always have a pencil that I am bouncing. But she came by and picked up my test and gave me a zero. Just because I had a pencil in my hand – and it is not even the hand I write with!”

Now, I could understand his disappointment and frustration at getting the zero. I would have been devastated.

But that was not where his frustration was coming from.

The first point of contention was the teacher was one of his favorites.

She has known him most of his life and in Cole’s opinion, knew he wouldn’t cheat.

His second issue – and the one he was the most vocal about – was that she did not let him explain.

“I wasn’t using the pencil to grade my assignment. I was just bouncing it. Like I said, it wasn’t even in the hand I write with. It was not fair.”

“It didn’t have to be fair,” I said. “She said not to use a pencil.”

“I wasn’t!” he argued. “You aren’t listening to me. I had the pencil in my left hand – I am right handed! I couldn’t change the answer with my left hand.”
“She didn’t know that,” I said.

“She would have known had she let me explain.”

“She didn’t have to let you explain. She said no pencil. You had a pencil. End of story.”

“Did you hear what I said? I said, I had the pencil in my left hand. Not my right. I was not using it. Only bouncing it.”

“Did you hear what your teacher said? She said no pencil. She is a teacher. Not a cop. Not a judge. She is not there to hear your argument or for you to state your case. She told you if you used a pencil, you got a zero. She walked by and saw a pencil in your hand. So, it made sense to conclude you were going to use it. I don’t blame her and stand by her zero.”

I think at that moment, I lost a lot of mom points with my child.

I had always been the first to rush in with the cavalry to defend and protect him.

I had always stood up for him.

But this time, I didn’t. Instead, I told him the teacher was right.

I wasn’t going to call her, nor was I going to email her, asking her to let him explain.

I was going to let him learn this hard lesson.

He had heard his teacher say one thing – not to grade the paper with a pen – and thought he could go do another, as long as he wasn’t grading it.

Her instruction was implied.

It wasn’t spelled out explicitly, but it was more of a subtle understanding: just don’t pick up a pencil, because it will look like you are changing your answer.

And sometimes, those subtle understandings are the hardest to discern. Especially when we are only listening for what we want to hear.

Come next week

There is something peaceful about reflecting on the year as we ready ourselves for the next one.

It’s a time, at least for me, to look back over what the last 12 months had brought into my life.

The moments of joy and happiness.

The obstacles that had been dealt with, whether I successfully bested them, or they knocked me down.

It helps me to take a personal review and see, most importantly, where I made mistakes and missteps and maybe what I can do better.

And this year, like the last few, has had its share of ups and downs.

I would get excited about one thing, to only find myself crestfallen the next day.
Granny used to not get overly happy when good things happened. “Life will balance it out soon enough,” she would say.

That always bothered me, as if it was some self-fulfilling prophecy on her part to usher in something that would tilt the scales of joy more towards the disappointment side.

“No, I am just not going to get my hopes up,” she would tell me.

But this year has taught me to get my hopes up, because in the middle of those high hopes, we are holding on to a thread of faith that can maybe be our lifeline.

I know this year has had some painful moments.

And I’m not just talking about the tragedies we see on the news.

Those were horrible and hurt us as a collective whole.

But sometimes the moments that hurt us the most are those personal events that cause us pain. Grief, loss, failure – we have all faced them this year.

Friends went through divorces.

Quiet a few lost their spouse; others lost other family members and friends.  

And some battled private battles they didn’t share.

I know I dealt with worries and fears that I didn’t speak about, least they come true.

I have tried, instead, to focus on the things I could control, on the things that I could change.

Sometimes, there were not many, so I let go of the things I couldn’t handle.

But every now and then, something sad or unsettling would creep its way into my life.

In fact, it seems like I have been marking years by the sad events lately more than happy ones.

“It takes rain and the sun to make the flowers grow,” Mama reminds me.

I get it. I do. But I am hoping for a little less rain in the coming year, both figuratively and literally.

In her sweet, gentle way she was letting me know that we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the beauty of the flowers without the rain and the sun, two things that if in excess can be harmful. But in the right amounts, make beautiful flowers.

“I am just ready for things to be stable and not so chaotic,” I stated one day. “I want things to be kind of on an even keel.”

Mama sighed. “Everyone probably wishes for that, Kitten,” she said. “But that is not life.”

No, life is not always stable or even keeled, is it?

It’s full of the ups and downs; the good, the bad. The sad, heartbreaking moments followed by the highest of joys. Sometimes, they come in the same week or at the least, the same year.

I know – I have been through all of those more times than I can count.

It’s just life.

We didn’t notice it when we were younger, mainly because our parents were better deflectors and shielded us from a lot of the stuff that people experience now.

But we will keep striving, fighting, trying to find the happiness and joy that bring us joy, even if it means we will have those disappointments and failures that crush our soul.

This year has knocked so many of us down and we have dusted ourselves and resolutely stuck our chin out as if to say, we are not giving up and out of sheer stubbornness, we won’t either.

It has been 12 months of chaos, hectic schedules, and everyday moments of life, that if we aren’t careful, will slip by, unnoticed and unappreciated.

Days that passed so quickly, one would think they were on a train, moving from one holiday to the next.

A year of memories made, and moments shared.

And come next week, we get to do it all over again.

The words that matter

Country.

That’s the word someone used to describe me lately.

Not because I live in Georgia or because I have a drawl that people outside of our region probably have a difficult time understanding.

But I was called country because I have a love and compassion for animals, even the undomesticated kind.

I laughed it off and even though I am pretty sure the person meant it as an insult, didn’t take it that way.

My child on the other hand was not very happy when he heard the news and expressed his opinion in a way that proved he is indeed a descendant of my family tree.

Mama didn’t like the term either, but she may have been triggered by the memory of me being previously called derogatory terms by the ex-husband.

“I don’t like that you were called that,” Cole said.

I shrugged. “It was nothing.”

I had only mentioned it in conversation because it was part of the story I was relaying.

“But what did they mean by calling you that? It just seems like they were meaning something a lot worse.”

I imagine they were using the term as a softer alternative to redneck or hillbilly, the two phrases my ex-husband used to describe my family because, except for Mama, they all had blue-collar or labor jobs.

Some of my family members worked construction, or were truck drivers, and farmers. To the ex, hard-working people were rednecks.

Being called ‘country’ was meant to insult me, but it didn’t. Like Granny, I have no fancy pretenses about myself and could care less about trying to act like I am something I am not.

I am not that comfortable in a big city. Traffic gives me anxiety attacks and I don’t like being in an environment full of strangers.

So, maybe being called country is an apt description.

“I still don’t like it; it was meant to hurt your feelings,” Cole said.
I appreciated his concern and told him so, but I had to let him know there was an important lesson here.

“It didn’t hurt my feelings and I wasn’t insulted,” I began. “See, for it to hurt me, I would have to care about the opinion of the person who said it. And I didn’t. Words can only hurt us when we believe them.”

“You always tell me words matter,” Cole reminded me.

True. They do.

And in this case, the word was being used in an attempt to make someone feel bad or inferior.

We have gotten to where we use words like “country” to label people, to point out a difference and maybe separate us in the process.

Our words and language are supposed to bring us together and build us up, not try to tear us down and apart.

But it sure doesn’t feel that way lately.

It seemed like everyone was trying to get a little dig in, any way they could. We have focused on the things that keep us divided and make us scatter instead of what can unite us.

People have forgotten that no matter where we are from, and no matter the differences, we still belong to one another.

“So, you don’t care at all that person thinks you are country?”

I really don’t.

“But why doesn’t it bother you?” my child asked.

“What someone thinks about me is none of my business,” I said. “That’s their opinion of me and their opinion is not fact or my character.”

“But what if their opinion of you is wrong?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

That person didn’t really know me, only what they thought they knew.

“Did what they say about you make you think differently about them?” Cole asked.

“No,” I said. “I already had my opinion about them. Their comment just reinforced it.”

“What did you think of them?” he asked.

It didn’t matter. Just like they were way off base with me, my opinion was just that and I may be wrong.

“I can think of a few names I would like to call that person,” Cole admitted.
I could understand that and told him so but reminded him that just served to drag us down to their level.

Even though it may feel good, it still only served to put a bigger wedge between us.

“There’s enough name calling already,” I said. “Instead of thinking of how to hurt someone, we need to just say things that can help us find a common ground, and not declare a word war.”

So, I was called country. It was not a total lie. It wasn’t a total truth, either.

The word didn’t matter; neither did the opinion by the person who said it.

What was important, was that I was reminded of how our words can either unite us or divide, and it matters how we decide to use them.

Tough Mama love

For the majority of my childhood and some parts of my adult life, I can’t think of a time that Mama couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t fix things for me.

If someone crossed her Kitten, Mama was ready to go to battle and could go from a kind-hearted woman to full blown crazy redhead with lightening speed.

Until, that is, Mama decided to teach me a lesson.

I cannot even remember what it was, or what happened, but one day in my mid-20’s, I ran to Mama, hoping she’d fix it, but I did not get her usual reaction.

“I am so sorry that happened,” she said.

I waited.

Usually, she would ask for the offender’s name and contact information, so she could unleash her hellfire and brimstone.

This time, she simply said, “I am so sorry.”

“Aren’t you going to do something?” I asked.

“Not this time,” she replied. “I think this is a lesson you need to learn.”

I was shocked – don’t mothers live for this kind of stuff? Especially mine, who always wanted to rush in and make it all better.

But, no, she was going to let me deal with this on my own.

It was hard to swallow.

I kind of felt abandoned.

Didn’t she care? Didn’t she want to help? Did she want to see me upset and maybe the victim?

I asked her all of these things.

“You are only a victim if you think yourself one,” she said gently. “And I have raised to be nobody’s fool nor a victim. You know what needs to be done in this situation and I am not going to always be there to fight your battles. You decided to do this on your own, too. Sometimes, Kitten, you have to lie in the bed you made.”

Not the answer I was hoping for. And apparently, guilt was not going to work on her — not this time, anyway.

The only way out of the mess was in.

I had to learn to fight my own battles and, realize that sometimes, things couldn’t be fixed.

I did not like it. But I did learn to not make that kind of mistake again.

Still, it hurt, and I didn’t understand why Mama didn’t help me when she could.

She reacted the same a few years later when I was going through a divorce.

A dear friend was visiting me, and as we walked through an antique store, I shared how Mama seemed to be letting me deal with things on my own, rather than rushing to my aid. I admitted I was kind of shocked and thought she didn’t care about me.

My friend turned around and looked me square in the eye and said, “No, she loves you. And I am going to tell you a truth that will hurt: sometimes, at the very moment you need someone the most in your life, that person is not going to be there. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, it doesn’t mean they are abandoning you; it means they have a life, too, and sometimes, you have to take care of things on your own. I love you, and will always try to be there for you, but, there may come a day I can’t be. Learning this lesson now will save you heartache and disappointment in the future.”

As hard as it was to hear, it was the truth and eventually, I was glad I learned it.

I found out later, Mama stepping back and letting me learn that for myself was harder on her than it was me.

She wanted to swoop in like a one-woman cavalry and right the wrongs; she knew, though, I would never learn to do it for myself if she did.

As a mother, there is nothing harder than to watch your child, even if they are grown, go through something and let them do it.

Especially when it is a mess they got themselves in; even more so when the mess was something you had warned them about and they didn’t listen.

It wasn’t a punishment. It was love.

Tough, strong Mama love.

Just like when babies are learning to walk, we have to let them stumble a few times.

Toting them all the time does not strengthen their legs.

Granted, as I grew up and older, I realize just how much Mama has done and how sometimes, she sacrificed a tremendous amount for me. And even more, sometimes, it was harder for her let me fail – even just a little bit – to help me grow.

“Mama, you’re always going to love me, right?” Cole randomly asked one day.

“Absolutely.”

“Nothing can ever make you stop loving me, right?” he asked again.

I immediately wondered what he did that I hadn’t found yet, but assured him, nothing could or would ever make me stop loving him.

“So, you will always love me, and you’ll never stop?” he pondered again. “Even if you get mad at me?”

I assured him again, I would never stop.

“No matter what?”

No matter what.

I may have to let him learn some lessons like Mama had to let me, but that would never, not ever, stop the love.

Even when it’s tough Mama love, it’s still love.

A cautionary tale

The other day, I was reminded of the importance of one little word.

A word with only three letters but a big impact.

The word is ‘but.’

It wasn’t a word I have thought much about in a while but when it was brought to my attention, I realized it is a word I needed to pay attention to.

This one little word may have been the redheaded duo’s favorite word.

“Your biscuits were good,” Granny began, “But, they were too big.”

“How can a biscuit being too big be a bad thing?” I demanded to know.

She looked at me with disgust. How dare I defy anything she declared as fact?
“Because they are. Your sausage patty is only so big. What are you going to do with the leftover biscuit?”

“I make my biscuits for butter and honey,” I said.

She snorted. “Of course you do. But, normal folks like sausage and none of that vegetarian nonsense.”

I wanted to tell her I wasn’t even a vegetarian anymore, but it wouldn’t have mattered.

“You did good on that test, but,” –

“I like your new haircut, but,” –

“Your house looks nice, but,” –

I have learned to not only dread but wait for the but.

The but that comes to let me know that whatever compliment had been previously given was about to be taken away.

Granny was famous for it.

Mama, as kind hearted as she is, is much more subtle with her but.

And even though I am 45, I want Mama’s approval.

Some things, she is easy to please.

Others, she can hold me to task more than Granny and would probably impress the old gal.

Where Granny was critical about cooking, Mama reserves her negating for things I do to my hair.

“Your hair is cute,” she began one day. “But why did you want to color it red.”

“I was paying homage to the crazy redheads in my family,” I replied.
“Hmmm,” she demurred. “But, difference is, we are natural redheads, Kitten. You are a natural brunette. Stick with what God gave you.”

“If that was the case, I would be bald, Mama. And so would you.”

She also doesn’t understand some of my other life choices.

“It’s wonderful you went back to school, but,” – here it comes – “I don’t know why you didn’t go to law school. Probably because I wanted you to.”

I sighed. It was hard to endure the buts. I was given a compliment only to be followed by something that completely wiped out the previous praise.

I cringe when I hear that word, so I cringe a lot; it’s said by everyone.

Including myself.

I didn’t notice how much I said it until I realized how much I hated it – kind of ironic, isn’t it?

I would thank my husband for doing something and throw a ‘but’ in there.
Mama would ask me if I liked whatever she got me, and I had something to undercut it.

‘But’ was everywhere.

I wondered how different our perspective would be if instead of trying to find flaw with something, we just focused on the positives of a situation.

I know when I hear the but, I immediately anticipate some criticism coming. And after the but is uttered, I don’t focus on the things I did right or the praises; instead, I focus on the one thing that I did wrong.

The but is a great big minus sign, taking away any good we may have done and tend to put us on the defensive.

I decided I needed to try to limit my buts unless they were absolutely necessary.

Cole decided to help clean one day.

I hadn’t asked him, he just did it because he knew I had so much to do.

So, he washed the dishes and folded laundry.

“Mama, I wanted to help. Did I do it OK?” he asked when he finished.

The laundry was not folded the way I like. I have always had a thing about how my towels are folded.

I prefer the dishes to be stacked a certain way to air dry.

“Yeah, but,” – I caught myself.

“But what?” he asked. The minute he heard the but, his expression fell a little.
“I don’t have any cash to give you for helping,” I said.

He hugged me. “I didn’t want anything, Mama, I just wanted to help.”

“You did great,” I said.

And I left the but out of it.

The (super)power of common sense

Granny always considered common sense a rare, priceless thing.

“You got book learning,” she told me one day. “I ain’t so sure about the common sense yet.”

“Isn’t book learning good?” I asked.

“It depends on what you are doing in life,” she said. “Look at this one,” she gestured towards my Mama as she stood at the stove.

“This one is real smart when it comes to the books. Likes to act all fancy-pants smart-alecky about things. And look at her. She can’t boil a hot dog to save her life.”

Sure enough, Mama had boiled the water out of the pot and was trying to unstick the burned carcass of whatever parts the animal could live without from the bottom.

“She ain’t got no common sense,” Granny muttered.

I thought she was being horribly unfair towards my Mama.

Granted, the younger redhead was and still is slightly naïve about some things, but I didn’t think it was necessarily a matter of not having common sense.

It was more like she was easily distracted and, maybe she didn’t pay attention like she should sometimes.

I told Granny I thought she was being awfully mean towards Mama, to which I was promptly met with a grunt.

“Well, we’ll see. If you was in an emergency situation, who would you want? Me, or Miss Marketing Degree over there?”

Considering Granny made Clint Eastwood look weak, that was a pretty easy answer. But still – it felt unfair. Mama had many traits that were just as useful, just as important.

“She’s real smart,” Granny commented one day about someone.

I could tell by her pause, she was wanting me to take the bait and ask her to elaborate.  I never liked to give in to her when she did that, so I didn’t ask.

“Don’t you wanna know how she’s smart?” she asked.
“Not really,” I answered.

Granny snorted. “Probably because it don’t involve stuff you think is smart.”
She had made her stance real clear.

Granny put a high prize on common sense, lavishly praising those who had it.

Book smarts, she figured, wasn’t really something that had a purpose at times.

Yet, this is the same woman that had a full-grown, adult size hissy fit when I made my first B — in Geometry.

“How in the sam hill did you make a B in Geometry?” she yelled.

“I just did,” I said. Actually, I was proud of that B. I earned that B.

“Jean, what do you think of this?” she asked.
“I think if she did the best she could, I am fine with it.”

“Well of course you are,” Granny said sarcastically. “If you had a lick of sense you’d know she needs to get a good education, so she can get a job. You don’t get good educations making B’s.”

“I think I failed Geometry and I have a good job,” Mama said quietly.

I was confused.

Granny thought you had to get a good education to get a good job? What about all of that common-sense stuff she preached and praised all the time?

“Your grandmother wanted to go to college,” Mama said gently when I asked.

“But back then, girls didn’t. They quit school early to work the farm and take care of their younger siblings. That’s what happened to Granny. She wanted to be a nurse and couldn’t. So instead of learning about medicine and how to take care of people, she did the best she could with what she had. And that was understanding how the world works a bit better than most.”

“She seems to think we aren’t too bright in the common sense department,” I said.

“It’s her way of trying to toughen us up,” Mama said. “I think you have plenty of common sense; Granny thinks you do, too, she just doesn’t brag on you to you. She brags to everyone else though.”

She didn’t think Mama had common sense and that still bothered me.

“It’s OK,” Mama assured me. “I am smart in other ways, and it may not be something Granny appreciates but that’s fine.”

Mama could do just about anything with a computer when I was younger; she worked on one all day, after all. But, she also had a car engine explode because she didn’t know you were supposed to change the oil every now and then.

One afternoon, Cole sighed and stated he wanted to be smarter. This came after reading about Tesla.

“Cole, you are extremely smart.”

“You keep saying that,” he said. “I think you are blinded by the mom-goggles you wear. I just want to be really, really smart – Tesla smart — and am worried I am not as smart as I want to be.”
“Well, the good thing is, you can learn more and expand your knowledge base,” I told him. “There’s always measures you can take to increase your knowledge which translates to feeling smarter. But I think you have something that is far greater than just book smarts.”

“What’s that?” he said, not exactly convinced.
“You have common sense,” I said. “Trust me. It’s not something everyone else has. But you have both.”

He frowned, not liking my answer.

I didn’t think he would.

Common sense seems basic and ordinary, when truth be told, it’s darn near a super power.

But maybe it befalls a lucky few. Even if it sometimes skips a generation.

The piano recital

Once upon a time, I dreamed of being a concert pianist.

Only problem is I am quite horrible at piano.

But I had decided when I was a little girl, I wanted to play.

Mama wasn’t so sure about this.

“Is this going to be like your dream of being a ballerina?” she asked.

She may have forgotten but she was the one who nixed that dream in the bud.

She told her chubby child – me – to walk across the floor on tiptoes without tripping.

Given the impossible task, I grabbed a Twinkie and turned on Scooby Doo.

Piano, I promised, would be different.

Granny called Miss Suzanne, not just any piano teacher but the best piano teacher in our town.

Miss Suzanne had seen me around school and probably wasn’t so sure; Granny had to do some high-pressure selling.

“She is very musically inclined,” she said into the phone. “She has always loved music. Although we don’t know what is wrong with her, she don’t like country music. But everything else she does. She’s been humming since she was in Pampers and I think she has got a natural talent for it.”

Somehow, she convinced Miss Suzanne to give me lessons.

I was excited – not only was I on my way to being a concert pianist, but, Miss Suzanne would get me out of class twice a week for my lessons!

I remember walking down that long hallway with the piano room.

Now that I think about it, they probably hid the piano room in the bowels of the school, so no one could hear some of the blood curdling sounds that came out of that room.

My first few weeks, I was actually fairly decent.

I caught on quickly and I loved the idea of learning music, begging for a piano so I could play all day and all night.

One afternoon, I came home to find an upright piano delivered.

“I wanted a baby grand piano,” I said.

“Where are we going to put a baby grand piano?” Mama asked. “This is fine.”

I was so excited. At least until I found out that meant I could now do theory.

Theory, I soon learned, was just a fancy word for music homework.

“I can’t do this!” I wailed. “It’s too much work! I am just a child!”

Mama had no sympathy.

“You are not quitting, so you just need to learn to get beyond that thinking.”

“I am giving up my childhood for this!”

In reality, it had been like three weeks. But in child years, that was an eternity.

Mama didn’t let me quit.

No matter how much I whined or carried on, Mama made me stick with it.

“It’s building character,” she would tell me when I protested.

“You could save this money you are spending on piano lessons for something else,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Mama assured me. “I don’t mind spending money on something that is enriching your life.”

Mama insisted I was going to do what I needed to; if I was supposed to do theory, then I was going to do it. Even if it meant doing it before school.

In fact, Mama was very pro-piano until she went to my first recital.

I remember thinking this was a big deal.

Sure, I had sang in group performances for school and church, but this, this was different.

I was going to have my own little solo piece.

Miss Suzanne took us all to the Methodist church downtown to practice and for a trial run.

I can still remember the way the church smelled and the way the wooden pews creaked with all of us sitting on them. Even the way the light through the stained-glass windows danced on the floor.

This felt like it may be my big opportunity to be a concert pianist!

Until a friend I had grown up with arrived.

He had left our school a few years before but was still taking piano with Miss Suzanne.

Miss Suzanne had him practice first.

It was like watching a young Mozart or Beethoven play.

He made it look so effortless, so easy.

I guess she wanted to showcase her best student first – hoping the rest of us would be as good as he was.

I was a couple of kids after, and I was triumphant mess.

I had asked Miss Suzanne if I could leave after my song and she told me no; we had to be there to support our fellow pianists.

I wanted to run and hide. I considered crawling under the pews to escape.

When it was over, and I was the biggest failure of the recital, I ran to Mama and Granny.

Granny told Miss Suzanne maybe she should have saved the boy for last. “Putting him first is setting the bar awfully high,” she said. “Are we entirely sure all of these children needed to be in the recital…like Sudie?”

Miss Suzanne had hoped it gave us something to work towards, to have a goal to practice for and to have the glory of a performance.

“How much did you practice?” Mama asked me when I told her how embarrassed I was.

“I didn’t,” I said. I have never been able to tell a lie, and I wasn’t about to start then.

“I see,” she said. “Perhaps if you had practiced, you would have done better.”

“I doubt it,” I began. “I think I need to just quit.”

Mama looked at me and patted my head gently. “No.”

“What?” I was horrible, I had embarrassed myself in front of a church full of people. And she was going to let me keep playing?

“You are not giving up just because you didn’t do well in your first recital,” she said. “You’re sticking with it, Kitten.”

And I did.

For eight years.

“Did you ever learn how to play piano well?” my own child asked.

Nope, I sure didn’t. But I did learn how to never give up.

 

Mama’s Infinite Wisdom

Much like my Granny, at times I have been known to hold a grudge.

Not so much a grudge perhaps; maybe more of a spite.

It is not exactly one of our finer, most upstanding traits.

Mama, being the nice, civilized one, usually has a different take on things.

With the exception of my first-grade teacher and maybe one or two others, Mama is one of those people who truly does try to live and let live.

“It ain’t natural!” Granny would declare when ever Mama would try to correct her wicked ways.

“Mama, you are sitting there delighting in someone’s anguish!” Mama cried.

Granny snorted. “Let me tell you something, Jean; these people would not be in this a-fix if they hadn’t sown some pretty bad seeds. They reaped the harvest they deserved.”

Now, Mama has never been a fan of karma.

She doesn’t like the idea of ‘what goes around comes around’ and has always tried to convince me that grace kind of covers our mistakes.

“There but by the grace of God we go,” Mama has said frequently throughout my life.

A phrase that would make Granny roll her eyes.

“Mama, why do you do that? You know very well that if it wasn’t for grace, we’d be in a heap of a fix most of the time.”

“I know, Jean, I know,” Granny began. “But you wanna know what tans my hide? Those people who are always, always doing something they shouldn’t be and ain’t good people. And every cussed thing goes their way. That ain’t right and it makes me madder than a wet hen.”
I wasn’t sure how mad a wet hen could get but if it as bad as Granny – the scariest person I have ever met – I didn’t want to come across one.

Granny may not have been exactly righteous in her indignation and complaint, but she had a point.

It can be tough to see people that maybe aren’t the best kind of folks in the world getting their way all the time, catching the good breaks, and having everything they want come to pass.

Granny dealt with this with one of her sisters – the one she didn’t really care for and it used to send Granny into a fit of fury.

“You really don’t know anything about the situation and she may not be that bad of a person,” Mama admonished.

Granny snorted her disdain. “I’ve known her all of my life; trust me.”

Mama accused Granny of being judgmental; Granny declared her opinions were factual.

I watched them disagree about this numerous time, neither finding victory in their argument.

It was impossible to pick a side in this debate, namely because I found both had valid arguments.

Mama has always felt like people would be happier if they just focused on their life and didn’t get preoccupied with what other people had going on. “Someone getting pie doesn’t mean you can’t have cake,” she has said.

Food metaphors normally drove her lessons home with me. I was glad to know I could still have cake, even if someone else had pie.

“What if I want pie?” I asked.

More specifically, what if I wanted their pie? And what if my cake hadn’t arrived yet?

“That’s their pie. Don’t worry about their table. Worry about yours. And if you are waiting on your cake to be served, maybe they had to bake it for you. Extra special. When it comes you will be even happier to get it because it was made just for you and worth the wait.”

I had been wrestling with some of those very demons not that long ago and brought them up to Mama.

She was probably wondering why the lesson has not sunk in yet.

“Lord, help. You get more and more like Mama every day,” she said under her breath.

“Kitten, are you really fussing about this?”

I assured her I was. I was beginning to think my cake order had been cancelled.

“You know, Granny always cussed the person she thought was getting what she wanted. It didn’t work either; it somehow seemed to create the opposite effect. It seemed to make things get worse for her and better for them.

“You can’t throw stones and expect good things to be thrown back at you. You need to try throwing some blessings and love into the situation if you want it to change.”

I didn’t want to throw love and blessings on the situation; the crazy redhead had set me up wanting cake years ago and gosh darnit, I wanted a corner piece with the most icing.

“Not gonna happen until you stop throwing those stones,” she said as she hung up.

Perhaps she is right.
Being bitter and angry did not serve Granny well; it did keep her going for over 90 years though.

But maybe, if I wanted the situation to change, the first thing I needed to focus on, was changing my attitude. Beginning with a shift towards putting love and blessings on the situation instead of anger.

All said, I still want my cake.