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“A relationship should enhance your life,” said my mother to one of my sisters, who was in high school at the time.
According to my sister, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table working on a crossword puzzle when my sister walked in after being out with her boyfriend. From what I remember, my sister and this boyfriend didn’t always see eye to eye.
My mother didn’t look up from her puzzle. She just matter-of-factly offered her perspective.
My sister didn’t respond, but she told me then that my mother’s words echoed in her head. They echoed in my head, too. They still do, 35 years later.
When it comes to parenting, I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words. But sometimes the right words at the right moment make a difference.
I rooted around in my memories and found several examples, like the kitchen pronouncement, where my parents’ words mattered. Here’s an incomplete highlight reel.
I was about 12 years old, competing at an indoor swim meet in suburban Milwaukee. I remember finding my mother in the gym abutting the pool after one of my swims. I don’t remember the event, how fast I swam or what place I got. I only remember that I was disappointed.
“I didn’t swim very well,” I said to her, dejectedly.
“Do you remember what you said to me before you swam?” she asked.
“You told me you didn’t think you were going to do very well,” she said.
She didn’t say I should stop the negative talk; she merely pointed out what I had said to her.
What stayed with me: The self-fulfilling prophecy is real. If you don’t think you’ll do well, you generally don’t, whether in sports or in life.
Another swimming story. I was a junior or senior in high school, pouting in the station wagon on the trip home to central Illinois after a championship meet in Chicago. My dad was driving and my mom sat next to him in the passenger seat. My younger sisters were in the “way back.”
A few hours earlier, my 400-yard-freestyle relay had been disqualified because one of the girls on my relay team jumped in the pool before the other swimmers had finished. We had won and we’d all swum our fastest splits, but the disqualification nullified everything.
I sat with my arms crossed in front of me, staring out the window at the frozen farmland.
I must have snapped at one of my sisters or said something sharply to my parents. I don’t remember the trigger. All I remember is my mother turning from the front seat and saying evenly, “Okay. That’s enough.”
I was taken aback. She rarely got mad at me. With those three words, I knew I needed to stop sulking.
What stayed with me: You are allowed to be mad and sad for a while, then it’s time to move on. My mother’s reprimand also led me to think of my teammate, the one who had accidentally jumped in. I had been so wrapped up in my own disappointment, I hadn’t even thought about how she was feeling.
I was in my mid-30s, in the midst of a divorce and feeling at sea. My 60-something father was in Chicago for a meeting and I was living in Evanston with my two young children.
We made a plan to meet for lunch, just the two of us.
“I don’t know anyone who’s been divorced and gotten over it,” I whined amidst the low-level chatter and clinking dishes of the busy restaurant in Lincoln Park. “Everyone I know ended up bitter and wishing for the past. I don’t have any good role models for divorce!”
“Then you’re just going to have to be your own role model,” he said calmly.
What stayed with me: You don’t have to look to other people for answers. You can trust yourself and chart your own course. Maybe deep down, I also knew my dad had faith in me.
Another divorce story, not long after that lunch: It was a Saturday morning and I was in the throes of single motherhood. Maybe I was tired or lonely. Maybe the kids were being naughty. I don’t remember. I just know I was emotionally wrought.
I sat on the floor of my bedroom in my little house in Evanston and dialed my parents’ landline in central Illinois. (These were the days before cellphones were ubiquitous.) My mom picked up.
“I’m just sad and depressed,” I said, as our conversation unfolded.
“Try to get outside of yourself,” she said. “If you can, try to stop focusing on your own troubles. It might help.”
What stayed with me: Getting outside of yourself really does help. I still think about this when I’m down. I try to shift my gaze outward instead of inward.
Author Tobias Wolff wrote that “memory has its own story to tell.” I know my parents occasionally missed the mark and said the wrong things. But my memory doesn’t tell the story of their mistakes and missteps. It only saved the good parts: the pep talks, admonitions and advice that opened my eyes and pushed me forward in life.
I can only hope, with my own children, that their memories will do the same. I hope they’ll remember the enlightening, helpful things I said, and, with a breath of forgiveness, blow the rest away.