Some people learned everything they need to know in Kindergarten. It has taken me a lot longer.
When I was eleven, my sister and brother were already grown and out of the house, off on their own. I was the last one at home to join my folks when they took their annual holidays or weekend getaways. With the precision, efficiency, and ranking of a military bivouac my folks had a familiar routine to prepare the camping equipment, chuck box, boat, tent equipment, and the one allotted piece of luggage per person. For an upcoming trip, I knew that Dad would be home early from work, and we'd be leaving promptly at 3 p.m. Somehow, I'd lost track of time, and before I knew it, I heard the garage door open, announcing his arrival. I grabbed my suitcase and hustled it out to the car, and came back into the house where my mother gave me a few last-minute tasks. Right on schedule Dad announced, "Let's GO!" and went out to the idling car with trailer in tow. With my mum sitting shotgun, the dog panting and full of anticipation in the back seat, they began to pull away. Wishing I had just one more minute to put on my sneakers, but without time to even find them, I knew it was now or never, and ran after them down the street. Dad slowed a little for me to jump in the moving car and we were off. My entire vacation, I had just a pair of bedroom slippers to wear on the shores and campgrounds of northern Michigan.
Lesson learned: Promptness.
When I was very young, I was with my mother driving home during a cold steady rain in downtown Detroit at rush hour. At a gridlocked intersection, we sat through several cycles of red/green lights while people stood at a corner bus stop just a few feet from our car. As we waited our turn to get through the traffic light, an older woman rapped on my window, startling me. Not knowing what to do, my mother calmly told me to open my window and see what she wanted. Dripping, the woman stood looking at us, then leaned in slightly and asked for a ride. Wide-eyed, I quickly looked at my mother and again back to the woman, while my mother cheerfully asked where she was going and then told me to unlock the back door so she could get in and sit in the back seat. During the long ride, this elderly, soft-spoken black woman described how she took the bus daily, for two hours, to an affluent Detroit suburb to do housecleaning. That day, with the traffic issues, she'd missed one of her bus connections. My mother listened, drove her to the neighborhood, which was well out of our way, and then we went home, arriving too late for supper and long after my bedtime. I sat silently during the long detour, while my mother and the gray-haired woman chatted. After we'd left the woman off, I asked my mother why she'd done that. She simply remarked, "To be nice."
Lesson learned: Kindness
In high school in central rural Massachusetts, I worked two jobs. One was as a respite provider for a large family who had a teen daughter with autistic-like developmental disabilities. My job was to provide companionship to Michelle so other members of the family could be relieved from those demands, which often required constant attention. Michelle and I usually found ourselves in the bustling kitchen, coloring, piecing jigsaw puzzles, painting fingernails, working clay, or helping with simple tasks for the family's meal preparation (It was at that table that I learned how to peel and chop an onion, and to this day EVERY time I cut into an onion, my memory takes me back to the Leroux family kitchen. Lesson learned: onion chopping). For two or three hours, several days each week, she and I would keep company and I'd guide her through the job of setting the supper table for this large family -- routine was an important aspect for her in our afternoon activities. For dinner, the family would gather, sometimes as many as ten of them. I would often join them as they shared the events of their day, ate the meal, and worked as a family for clean-up, while including both Michelle and me in conversation, laughter, and routine. The contrast to my quiet home (just my Mum, Dad and me those years) was glaring as this busy household of ten interacted with each other every single night.
Lesson learned: Family loyalty and devotion.
When Stephen and I lived in Omaha Nebraska in our early years together, he was soon to be transferred to Illinois to attend meteorology school for his job as a weather forecaster. At the time, we were young, active members of the Unitarian Church, and enjoyed many opportunities for friendship and social outlets. In the congregation we had several friendships, some still lasting to today. At potlucks, meetings, and various church events we had become friendly with a couple who learned about our impending (though temporary) move; we would be gone for six months before returning to Omaha. They took us aside, and sincerely offered their home to us for a few days when we came back and would need to get settled again. It was a huge relief to us, and we kept in touch with the couple while we were away in Illinois. Shortly after our arrival back in Omaha, exactly as anticipated, we sought out this couple and inquired about when we could take them up on their offer. She was a doctor, and he was a lawyer, so we hoped to coordinate with their busy schedules. To our surprise and disappointment, they decisively rescinded their offer, giving thin excuses. We were left standing gap-jawed with few immediate options. It all worked out for us, but it left an indelible impression.
Lesson learned: Integrity
Another member of our church called me shortly after we'd bought our home in Omaha saying we were practically neighbors, and invited me to visit with the kids anytime. I was needy and eager for friendship and a companion, and so Hilma Lathrop immediately became our surrogate grandmother. Welcoming our pop-in visits for tea, spontaneous shopping trips, and captivating us with her life stories and practical home-making skills, she embraced our children, and found humour in all things. With me, she shared her recipes, wisdom, and heart. One important recipe she shared was her long-time family soap recipe. When I was washing my hands at her kitchen sink, I remarked at how wonderful the bar of soap felt, and she dismissively waved her hand and said, "Oh, that's just plain soap I make." Astounded, I asked for the story, and she explained how it was made, and offered me a lesson. For the following month, I collected bacon fat and beef drippings in a five-pound coffee can, and had the basic necessary ingredients to make a batch of soap for our every cleaning need. From that first lesson, I've been making our own soap ever since.
Lesson learned: resourcefulness helps frugality.
My mother was smart funny. Not practical funny. She never played practical jokes, though she was often the victim of them in our household. She never insulted to be amusing, but had a clever, sharp sense of humour.
When my folks moved to Cleveland Place, there were several renovations and improvements to be made, most needing a lot of elbow grease and a fierce work ethic. She thrived on both. At some point in years past, the pantry's wooden counter tops had been covered with Formica and glued down with black mastic. It was a mean chore to remove and strip, but worth it as it revealed a warm chestnut-colored wood surface. They eventually used this area to make bread and pastries for the Bed and Breakfast. Over time, excess flour filled the small cracks between the old boards. When our cousin Max, who had lived in Cleveland Place for several years before my folks, was in the pantry he noticed the improvements and admired their work, appreciating the effort to return the counter and cabinet underneath to the original wood. My mother called him over, opened the wide cabinet door, and showed the interior of the cupboard where large tubs of flour and staples were stored. She then guided him to look closely at the wood surface that had been hidden beneath the Formica for so long. As Max bent over and peered closely at the countertop, my mother quickly and purposefully slammed the cupboard door, sending a cloud of flour dust up into Max's face. My mother took her work and cleaning very seriously, but she also very easily found humour.
Lesson learned: Look for humour and enjoy the laughter.
When Stephen and I were exploring the endless opportunities that New York City offered when we first moved to the area, we were dazzled by the lights, activities, street shows, spontaneity and random encounters each trip unveiled. One crowd that attracted my attention was surrounding a quick-paced three-card monty game set up on a cardboard box. As the dealer flipped and tossed cards, he asked spectators to point out where the hidden Queen had landed. One man bet $10 and found her, and was awarded $10 more. Many placed bets, and they usually won. The lively game and crowd activity was a distraction, but I was amazed that I knew EVERY single time where the Queen was, no matter who in the crowd was betting. I could have been winning money all that time! Before I knew it, the dealer pointed right to me and asked me where I thought that elusive Queen card was. I knew, pointed to the card, and he exclaimed that I was RIGHT! He turned over the card to reveal the Queen, and, chagrined, told me I'd just won TWENTY dollars!! I was immediately overcome with giddy excitement, and extended my hand to accept his $20 bill, but he held it up and cautioned that I had to prove that I had my own twenty to make it a legitimate bet. No problem -- I was a winner! I quickly reached into my pocketbook and pulled out a twenty dollar bill -- the ONLY money we had that day -- and presented it. As the dealer pinched my bill between his finger and thumb, Stephen leaned into my ear, and firmly and seriously said, "Do. not. let. go. of. that. money." so I pulled it back out of his firm pinch and said, "Thank you very much" as Stephen pulled me out of the crowd.
Lesson learned: Don't let excitement surpass common sense.
Last year we were visiting and working with Stephen's siblings in Massachusetts while settling their deceased mother's estate. When we'd done all that we could we left their company and headed back to Canada, but just 10 miles away I realized I'd left behind a black leather glove. Not just any glove, but a buttery Italian leather with a cashmere lining, of special sentimental value; our cousin Peter had given it to me as an elegant accessory. It was a lovely gift, and typical of Peter's generosity toward me and our family. Since Peter had died just earlier that year, the gloves were quite dear to me. We immediately called back to the others to ask about it and explained why they were special. Stephen's older sister, Anne, found it and to my relief said she'd mail it to us in Canada, saving us from turning back.
After several weeks with nothing in the post box from Anne, I asked about it, assuming with many things on her mind during that sad time, she'd simply forgotten about it. But Anne again assured me that she'd send it that month. Yet, now it's spring, and we've heard nothing back from her, no mail, no call back, no explanation, no glove....nothing. Naturally, that leaves me entirely bewildered since it's really a keepsake more than a winter accessory -- one whose special value I had made very clear.
Lesson Learned: Keep your promises.
We like family games. Board games, dice games, trivia, general knowledge, strategy, word games. For Christmas one year, Olivia gave us a fun group party game she simply made out of wide rolls of cash register tape. The premise is that everyone who has a paper roll starts by writing a short descriptive sentence at the top edge of the paper and passes it to the person seated next to them. That person is then given one minute to draw a picture depicting the sentence. When time is up, the initial sentence is folded down to be hidden, and the paper roll revealing only the drawing is passed to the next person, who looks at the drawing and composes a sentence describing what they see. After one minute, the roll is passed on to the next person so at anytime there is only one drawing or one sentence showing.....and so on until all the rolls have been passed all around the entire group of four or more. Then the tape is unrolled and hilarity ensues as all the drawings and sentences are revealed and the unavoidable misinterpretations are shared.
We played this game on Boxing Day with my dad, Wallace, who, once the rules were explained, demanded, "How do you WIN?" Also joining the game was Dad's wife, Anna, Anna's adult son George, and his girlfriend Evita. Anna got an egg timer from the kitchen, and full of anticipation we started. Olivia wrote a sentence, the hourglass was turned -- a minute goes by FAST!-- next in the circle, Anna took the paper and pencil and drew the picture -- this is becoming a fast-paced game -- "TIME!" Next was Dad, who interpreted Anna's sketch and wrote down his sentence and passed the paper roll to George. As the timer began dropping a minute's worth of sand, George carefully read what Dad wrote, and extended his hand to receive the pencil. Time is of the essence, but Dad slowly looked at the pencil, and with raised eyebrows he slipped it into his shirt pocket, and quietly said, with a mischievous smirk "This is my pencil."
Lesson learned: Keep competition fair.
I've learned a lesson about learning lessons: you often learn them when you least expect them.