Sibling Conflict-August letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

Hot, humid and draining are the August dog days of summer. Hot days lead to hot tempers, whether from too many hours in the heat or too many days cooped up in air conditioning. Sibling relationships get testy. A squabble over a toy or rules of a game can escalate into name-calling, slammed doors or an exchange of pushes and shoves. Conflict between siblings is part and parcel with having more than one child, but how parents respond impacts not only the clash of the moment, but the long-term relationships within the family.

I was amazed when your Uncle Dan wondered why the kids squabbled over toys. As an only child who wanted a sibling, he couldn’t understand why they would ever fight. He wondered aloud, “why aren’t they just happy to have each other”.  I explained that fighting and disagreements were common occurrences amongst siblings and didn’t mean they weren’t happy with each other. Kids must share the attention of their parents, the space in their homes, and their belongings (occasionally, if not all the time). Teaching sharing, tolerance of each other’s personalities and idiosyncrasies, and resolving conflict was continual work in our family.

While ‘only child’ Dan had to learn about sibling struggles, I had much to learn as well. Growing up the youngest of seven, I fought with my siblings. I was a seasoned combatant and thought this made me an expert on sibling conflict, but I quickly realized that my shift in perspective from child to parent, made it otherwise. As a kid, my priority was to win, to get my way, but as a parent my considerations were how best to achieve the short-term goals of respect and household harmony in combination with an end-goal of healthy sibling relationships.  I set some rules for myself and a few for our home, then did my best to live by them.

Don’t choose favorites. Don’t choose sides. Kids keep score and rarely was one party at fault. Generally, there was more to the situation than met the eye. Before I jumped into the murky waters of who started it, I did a quick analysis of situation. Observed the power dynamitic and body language. The older kids often used their physical strength to get their way and younger kids occasionally used crying and telling to get theirs. Sometimes when voices were raised there was real conflict that needed addressing and direction, but other times it was a matter of learning to get along, taking turns and understanding each other particularities. If tempers were flaring, I tried not to be sucked into their disagreement but rather stayed objective to help them determine cause, effect and potential compromises with questions like: Why are you upset with each other? How are you going to solve it? It was a tricky balance, determining when to intervene and when to walk away.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Aretha sang it and I encouraged it. When there were disagreements I tried to listen to the kids, pushing them to use their words to identify their complaint about their sibling. My approach was to listen, validate their feelings, but not necessarily concur with them. Validating frustration or anger was a great way to diffuse it; we all want to be heard and understood. But I squashed any meanness, physical cruelty and had a ‘no put downs’ rule. Name-calling and belittling were unacceptable. Occasionally I offered an explanation to understand the behavior or asked if they could think of an explanation. Maybe the ‘offending’ sibling doesn’t want you to touch her American Girl dolls because she finally got the hair combed just the way she likes it and you aren’t always gentle when you play with the dolls. Or maybe your brother doesn’t want to play pirates on the swing set because he is tired from a long day at school. Understanding that everyone had moments when they were irritable or impatient, was useful to learn. Respect for each other’s moods, personal space and feelings is important for healthy relationships.

Monitor sibling rivalry. Siblings compete, but I hoped that recognizing the competition would limit it and stop it turning from innocuous rivalry to contention, or worse, to enmity. If I saw a behavior repeatedly, such as asking about someone’s grades or number of goals scored, I gently pointed out he or she was competing with a brother or sister. Your siblings were not your opponent. Then I would remind the competing child that there were and always will be people better and worse than them at some things. Compete with the person in the mirror, be better than you were yesterday.

Don’t expect a conflict-free life. From sit-coms that resolve family conflict in 22 minutes to social media feeds that reflect conflict-free families, there was(and is) great pressure to project our kids as continually happy siblings. I didn’t want conflict to dominate our household but, my dear niece, just like you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t raise a family without some conflict. I avoided dictates like ‘say you’re sorry’, or ‘don’t fight with your sister’ or using guilt to smooth over rough patches. Underlying conflict won’t be resolved by command, manipulation or guilt. Rather the kids learned our family occasionally experienced conflict. There were peaks and valleys in the relationships. When conflict arose, they needed to deal with it, not get bogged down in it, and move on after the disagreement was resolved. Sometimes the results of a quarrel  improved communication or understanding of the other’s perspective; a needed clearing of the air. And learning to agree to disagree; to move on and let go of hard feelings when they can’t readily find a compromise was vital.

Make them a team. I tried to make my kids a team, forging their own relationships without me at the center. Our moves helped because you don’t take your friends with you when you move, only your siblings. Together they faced new schools and neighborhoods. But there were lots of little things that helped the team mentality. We had a family number that each wore when they played soccer. It started one August when MK and Patrick picked up jerseys with the same number, and continued through their playing days. We had kid clean up nights where they had the kitchen to themselves to do the dishes. They put on music, selected their tasks and spent more than enough time romping about while ‘cleaning’. And sometimes I pushed them into an alliance against Dan and me. It was harmless fun, dividing into parents versus children teams, for games and such. I vividly recall the cheer they let out when they realized they had arrived first atop a maze we were navigating. They had beat us. They were champions. They were team Mannix.

Finally, and most importantly, teach them to forgive. We all disappoint each other, no matter how much we wish we didn’t or wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love one another. Fights and arguments gave them an opportunity to learn how to forgive, both the sibling or themselves. When they were small they were quick to forgive because they enjoyed each other’s company and wanted to resume their play. As they grew older, when the squabble was over differing behavior or ideas and forgiveness appeared complicated, the underlying desire and joy of each other’s company continued to help them look for compromise and forgive each other.

Don’t avoid or hide from conflict, rather teach the kids to use their words, to argue their point respectfully and to learn to forgive.

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Discipline-July letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

July kicks off with my favorite holiday-the Fourth of July-a day that celebrates independence. But less we forget, it was also a day of defiance and open rebellion against authority. Independence, defiance, open rebellion. To a parent those words might describe a four-year old girl demanding to buckle her car seat, a thirteen-year old boy challenging curfew or a nineteen-year old home from college questioning house rules. And like the young colonies who fought the larger, stronger and more able British Empire, children sporadically struggle against their faster, taller and more capable parents. Hopefully, unlike the British who got worn down by years of fighting and wanted to rid themselves of the colonies, you will not grow frustrated and angry with your growing children but rather bring patience and reason to dealing with their occasional insubordination.

Turning patience and reason into action and implementing them into every day family life is the tricky bit. Our family was not a democracy, Dan and I were in charge, but we didn’t want a dictatorship. I wanted independent, capable and loving kids with a no-drama, no-trauma daily home life. I am more than put off by yelling, fighting and meanness; I’m disheartened, demoralized, and discouraged. To quell defiance and cheekiness, I concentrated on natural consequences as a way of disciplining rather than punishment. And to gain cooperation, I focused on good communication rather than edicts.

My experience with disciplining by natural consequences began with some wise and timely words from our first pediatrician. When I complained about three-year-old Patrick’s intense stubbornness regarding wearing his winter coat, our doctor told me that true discipline is the natural consequences of our actions. No coat on a cold day-he will get cold. The uncomfortableness of getting cold is the discipline, not my badgering or threatening him with punishment. In addition, our doctor reminded me that (for now) I was stronger, bigger and smarter than my kids and to use those traits to my advantage. To pick my battles and most importantly, Win! I didn’t have to be loud or physical to be firm. I didn’t have to argue with them after I explained the rule or behavioral expectation. And finally, the pediatrician reminded me that you get a cold from germs not by being in the cold.

When four-year-old Mary Kate, who loved the grocery, continued to grab things off the shelves or take things out of the cart based on her likes and dislikes, I warned her to stop or we would leave the store with nothing. A moment later, she was whining and reaching for candy in the check-out line. I told MK we were leaving, pushed the full to the brim cart up to the manager’s kiosk, and explained that my daughter misbehaved and that we had to leave the store. I apologized that all the food would need to be returned to the shelves, then picked her up and walked out. MK’s face showed surprise and regret. She was sad and cried on the drive home.  The message to behave and to listen was sent and received. She never misbehaved in the grocery again.

Exuberant, energetic Meg, in grammar school often got the unwanted consequence of our ‘Do Not Ask in Front of Others’ rule. When inviting kids over or asking to go to a friend’s house, if you asked me in front of the friend the only answer you received was a resounding, “No”.  I understood the excitement of hatching a plan, but I was not going to be caught off guard or forced to decide without thought to our schedule, the activity and the kids involved. This rule eliminated the nagging and badgering that children often do to their parents to get their way. We had only a few of these family rules with direct and easily understood repercussions, they were a good compliment to disciplining with natural consequences.

Kids want rules. They like to know the boundaries and will push until they find them. Punishment, if we gave it, fit the misbehavior. I never thought sending little kids to their room made sense. I didn’t want them to play in their room which seemed like a reward nor did I want them to associate their bedroom and sleeping with getting in trouble. Rather I would sit the offender on the bottom stair for a minute or two with nothing to do but hear the activity in the house which they were missing because of their transgression. When they got older, I might assign a household chore such as straightening up the basement playroom or sweeping the garage. And once they were tall enough to look me in the eye, I believed it best to use my words to express my displeasure with their actions and if punishment was needed limit access to something they valued such as taking away a cell phone every evening for a week.

We focused on good communication and adapted as the kids grew. By the time Mary Kate was in pre-school my catchphrase was, “use your words”. The hope was the kids would articulate their needs, wants, and frustrations with words rather than screams, tantrums or fists. I wanted to give my children, or any child who came to our house, the power of words. I rarely acknowledged or reacted to whining or tantrums. Even with they struggled to express themselves I tried not to be a mind-reader, one who guessed at their thoughts or answered for them in conversation.

Being well-understood is fundamental to success and happiness, whether in a family, a classroom or in society. As they grew older, when I heard mumbling and monosyllabic grunts, I demanded that they ‘articulate and enunciate’. I would not abide the monosyllabic middle schooler morphing into an eye-rolling, moody teenager. Not on my watch. Not in my house. I was careful not to pester or cajole-the nagging or sycophant mother is annoying. Rather I worked to create a convivial home with an open-door policy for their friends and lots of their favorite foods served in a cheerful atmosphere. And we used humor, especially your uncle’s sense of humor to push the grumpy, sullen, or non-communicative out of the kids.

We role-played the communication manners we expected including telephone manners(Hello, state your name), declining an invitation(politely and succinctly) or introducing yourself to adults(a handshake while looking them in the eye and stating your name). These were a few battles we were determined to win.

Finally, I kept the excellent advice I received at when my kids were little from a mom in her late 60s. She said “Don’t let anyone scare you about the teenage years. If you loved them when they were little, you are going to adore them when they are older.” So True!!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Summer-June letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

When I write June, I might as well write summer, they are so interconnected. School finishes and a long stretch of empty days awaits. Expectations abound. And there is no shortage of images: family car trips with everyone playing iSpy, trips to the beach, hikes in the woods, craft projects, swimming and tennis lessons, themed day-camps, long stretches for reading, games of badminton, chasing lightning bugs, lazy afternoons staring at clouds and lazy evenings staring at the stars. It is a time for recreation, respite and renewal.

June’s sunshine, the long days and the warm weather, gave me hopeful optimism. I looked forward to having the kids home, putting away the school uniforms, the soccer cleats, and having a change of pace. Of course, there was that week or so of transition after school finishes; those days held a sibling squabble or two as the kids re-adjusted to being constantly together after an academic year of school rules and friends’ faces. And adjusting to the ever-changing summer schedule that might include early morning swim lessons one week, afternoon drama camp the next, and family vacation the following was no simple task. But it an easy exchange for the myriad of possibilities that lay ahead.

I look back on our years in Ohio as a time of continually learning to balance our family time with our friends and our community involvement. The time and space that summer offered helped me define my parenting principles. I learned I am vigilant when it comes to water, firm about good manners, attentive to routine and wary of neglectful parenting. It was a time to take a break from some friends and build deeper relationships with others. It was an opportunity to steer clear of adults whose parenting style didn’t align with mine and as the kids grew older it was a good break from the drama in some of their peer relationships.

When we moved to North Carolina in July,1996 I realized the opportunity for family building that summer offered. No friends in a new area of the country gave us intense togetherness. There was a sadness for what was left behind, but mostly, it was a time of adventure-new towns to visit, new woods to walk, and new bugs to discover. One of my favorite catch phrases began that summer. The kids would ask as we headed off in the car “where are we goin’?” and I would reply, “Crazy, wanna come?”Together we explored UNC’s Morehead Observatory, the Chapel Hill library, Duke Gardens, Raleigh’s Science Center or other destinations I thought might entertain and educate. While we learned moving survival skills-navigating the area, organizing the house, making introductions to neighbors-we also learned that we enjoyed each other and we liked each other. And I realized that I liked overseeing the summer, playing camp counselor to my kids just like I had in my summer job after high school, but now I got to be the camp director as well.

In Kalamazoo with the kids in grade school, it was a time to be outdoors and stay outdoors. The summer after 1stgrade, Patrick biked the entire 23 mile Kal-Haven trail. His only whining came when he feared that I might make him quit at the half-way point. When we reached the beach, and tossed our bikes on the sand to jump into Lake Michigan, he was stronger and taller than I had ever seen him. Accomplishment helped him grow physically, mentally, and emotionally. That lesson was reinforced regularly our first summer in Kalamazoo. The kids learned several outdoor skills: how to build a fire, bait a hook and shoot an air rifle. That last one was taught by my 65-year-old neighbor, Harriet. There were lots of simple days filled with kick ball games in the cul-de-sac, playing on the swing set and running through the sprinkler. I gave them independence as was appropriate for their age. Mary Kate remembers the day she and a pal rode every street in our neighborhood and ended their adventure at the ice cream shop. Patrick will tell of getting his choice of haircut the first day of summer, generally a buzz. And five-year-old Meg cheers at the memory of being able to walk by herself to her friend’s house down the street.

It was during those Michigan summers when we began family read alouds.  A favorite activity for a rainy day or a very hot day was to gather in the living room, where I sat in a comfy armchair reading aloud while the kids lounged on the couch or played with toys. When I hear the noise of rummaging through a lego box searching for the right size brick, I think of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Bud, Not Buddy, orA Year Down Yonder. And summer often meant a new Harry Potter book. We bought the book immediately and it was a family read aloud, all day and the following days, until it was finished. The challenge was how to read it fast but make it last. Everyone attended a camp or two over the years. I wanted them to try new things, especially in art and drama which didn’t come easily to me and were more effort than I could muster.

Summer, also, gave the opportunity to be single focused on something. It could be anything. I discovered this after the fact, at one of Patrick’s soccer matches in the fall of 2002 when he was chosen to take a penalty kick. A fellow parent standing next to me probed, asking if he had ever practiced PKs. I assured him that Patrick was ready and the moment after Patrick drilled the ball into the upper right corner of the goal, I explained that during the past summer, Patrick had spent hour after hour, day after day, week after week, working on and perfecting his PKs. We spent that summer living outside London and our back garden was perfect for a 12-year-old boy, a ball and homemade goals. He didn’t have the comfort of his belongings at home but he had a soccer ball, so he made do and spent his time when at home, rain and shine, in the back garden working on his soccer skills.

Finally, when they complain about being bored, Cheer. It is only after boredom that creativity happens. That is when the real fun begins!

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

 

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Community-May letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

May is packed! My monthly calendar had several lines for each day, but there were never quite enough lines in May. Writing small, I squeezed the time for the end-of-year concerts between the soccer practices, lax games, the May Day celebration, piano recitals, soccer tournaments, track meets, ballet recitals, end-of-year banquets, teacher appreciation days, First Communions, honor society inductions, Memorial Day parades, graduations, and the picnics, parties and evenings out with friends. May was a ridiculously over-scheduled month, yet it felt right. Many of the events were often the culmination of being a teammate, a classmate, or belonging to the community. May’s happenings celebrated being a part of something bigger than ourselves and participating fully in it. This was a value I embraced whole-heartedly and wanted to pass on to my children.

During our New Jersey years, the month began with Toll Gate Grammar’s May Day celebration. That first year, Patrick and Meg both danced around the Maypole. It was also my first May Day celebration. I had grown up thinking May Day was a Soviet holiday, a pagan holiday co-opted by the communists and focused on demonstrating their military might with parades of soldiers, tanks, and missiles. On that May 1stin 2001, I was enchanted watching my kids and their classmates dressed for springtime weaving colorful ribbons into intricate patterns as music wafted across the school yard. It was joyful. And after a school year of making new friends, joining new teams and adjusting to a new area, the festive environment felt as if we had at last weaved our way into the community.

That feeling of belonging was central to our happiness in each community we lived. We needed participation in community activities to get know others, to learn the values of the new locale, and understand the local issues. We volunteered as coaches and managers of teams, helped at soup kitchens, joined our neighborhood parish, worked at community festivals and voted in local elections. As a result, the month of May was filled with games, gatherings and get-togethers. We had purpose beyond our family.

Birth gave us United States citizenship and buying a house gave us ownership in our new state and town, but mere residency was not enough.  Since our Ohio days when the kids were little I often stated my goal was to rear tax-paying citizens. For me, if they were tax-paying citizens, it meant the kids were responsible, educated, employed and fulfilling their civic duties of voting, jury duty and staying informed on public issues. These were my minimum requirements for good citizenship, especially voting.

Mam, our beloved immigrant grandmother and great-grandmother, taught me the importance of voting.  She came of age in Scotland before women had the right to vote, then immigrated to the US and it was more than a decade before she was a naturalized citizen. Once she took the Oath of Allegiance, she embraced voting and became a poll worker. For her, working the polls was the ultimate reward of being a citizen of the United States. She firmly believed she was helping keep our democratic elections orderly, safe and honest. Her example taught me to cherish the vote and stress its importance to my kids. When they were little, I loved taking them into the voting booth with me to show them the process, but I never let them pull the lever-that was a right and privilege for when they turned eighteen.

Citizenship and patriotism go hand in hand. Growing up in Upper Arlington, love of country was encapsulated in the civic pride of the Fourth of July. We enjoyed the holiday during the almost ten years we lived in Columbus and for the next ten years we returned to celebrate with friends. I have great memories of Mary Kate dressed in red, white and blue vigorously waving a flag while the parade marched along, decorating her bike with the neighborhood kids and watching the fireworks with her pals. It was wholesome; American pride in its goodness, purity and benevolence. She, along with all of us, were a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

In the years we lived in Waterloo, I saw the kids’ patriotism transformed from cheerleading-style flag flying to thoughtful study of American values of democracy and individual liberties. As expats during part of the Bush presidency and the ongoing Iraq War, Patrick and Meg were often besieged at school by classmates for the actions of the president and the US military. They quickly realized their words impacted how their classmates viewed the USA and worked to be articulate statesmen. Without resorting to jingoism, they learned to explain the United States’ position and ideals, whether they agreed with the President or not, all the while trying to respect their classmates’ opinions.

With Meg, these years of learning and defending the US role in world politics would leave a lasting desire for public service. As I write this letter, she is downstairs at the kitchen table studying for the foreign service exam. I am proud of her choice.  Similarly, I am pleased to see Patrick proudly wear his country’s colors as a US federation sport scientist.  He loved his years in Europe and England, but he is an American who wants to work to help American teams win at home and abroad. And it is with delight that I watched Mary Kate and John achieve the American dream of homeownership. I think your grandparents would be thrilled that they were able to take this step while in their twenties and that they are digging roots into the community. I see a May calendar full to the point of bursting in their future.

Ride May’s crescendo with gusto before you slid to the lazy days of summer.

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Traveling with Adult Children

For several years, I tried to plan a vacation for our family, somewhere fun and relaxing for our twenty and thirty-something children and son-in-law. Our schedules were out of sync. I was frustrated and disappointed but not surprised given the kids place in life-my oldest in medical school then residency and married, my son finishing graduate school then taking jobs where the soccer season dictated his time available, and my youngest in college and then with full-time employment that, while offering benefits, had limited vacation. I made suggestions, cooked up plans, and tried to find a window of opportunity in their schedules along with an accessible destination. Nothing worked beyond a couple days at the holidays or on a random summer weekend at one of our homes. It was not unusual for someone to swoop in and out for a twenty-four hour visit, like a guest appearance. We were rarely all together. This was our new normal.

I gave up on a proper family vacation. No more suggestions, no more schemes, no more pleas or complaints. This year Dan and I chose our vacation destinations and made reservations. Then I sent the kids an email sharing our plans and threw in a line that they were welcome to join us. It worked. They are joining us on a trip to Denmark and Germany. The trip is similar to ones we took when they were kids, a self-guided tour with planes, trains, and automobiles visiting old friends, museums, historical sights, and the Mannix family vacation staple-a soccer match.I am pleased. I am excited. I am a little nervous.

Constant in my mind is my husband’s counsel to manage expectations. I think of mine, his, and theirs. It is tricky business finding a balance between taking on the full responsibility of the trip and following their lead, recognizing they want input but not the stress of the details. Dan and I set some financial guidelines. Everyone bought their own flights. We picked reasonably priced hotels where the older ones will pay for their room while our youngest will bunk with us, and thankfully, for a couple of nights our Danish friends will house all the kids.

Emails communicated logistics and our top sights, then solicited their interests and requested research for said interests. My oldest will handle restaurants. She is a foodie with great and expensive taste. I stipulated only one or two extravagant meals if you want us to pick up the tab, which is our plan. My son-in-law found breweries, he and his father-in-law are pleased. I worry about how this will slow our sight-seeing and then remind myself that we need time to relax and just be. Plus, these stops may be the guys happiest memories. My son doesn’t answer the emails, he will only make a portion of the trip, and rarely makes a request. My youngest daughter throws out amusing off-the-beaten track ideas like a puppet museum. I make no assumptions. I recognize that they are grown, want to acknowledge how they have changed, but they seem content in the roles they had on our many family trips: planner, follower, joker.

I am curious to see how the sibling dynamic will play out over the week. They are tight, and while they talk or facetime almost daily, they live from east to west coast, no one in the same time zone. When you hang up the phone or close the app you return to your life. A week’s vacation is a lot of family time.

I plan for success-changing the itinerary to fewer destinations, reserving separate hotel rooms and renting a bigger van. I hope for the best and remind myself even the tough moments on vacations are great memories: at Crystal Palace Football Park when our son-in-law who was the boyfriend enticed our daughter with a pasty to avoid a hangry outburst(we knew he was the one), or the time when we were lost and disagreeing over directions, and I crushed the map of Paris into a ball and heaved it, or the twenty plus block walk on a cold January day in NYC to the Met all the while promising a taxi only to realize we needed to go to MOMA ,a museum we had walked past an hour before, and of course the long walks on any vacation that the older kids referred to as a forced march and my youngest thought was called ‘forest march’. Those difficult moments are now family lore.

As I make my packing list, I am making my travel with adult children vacation list:

  • Remember I am the parent, always act it-no outbursts or sulking and don’t forget to have snacks in my bag
  • Don’t be too structured with time or destinations
  • Insist on my top sight(ARoS Museum), then let the rest of the trip unfold
  • Let them lead, following willingly
  • Allow everyone their personal space or time alone, not everything needs to be en masse
  • Go to bed when tired, don’t overdo
  • Recognize they are grown up-don’t stick them in a stage or age or version of themselves
  • Observe, listen, don’t fill silences unnecessarily
  • Remember my happiness is derived from seeing others happy, engaged, and being themselves
  • Each of us is responsible for their own happiness. After I board the plane, stop managing and enjoy my vacation

Here’s to a happy trip. I’m interested to see what I learn from this adventure and how to implement for the next . . . goodness, I hope there will be a next time.

 

 

 

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Humor-April Letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

April starts with a day I dread-April Fools’ Day. I’ve never liked it. Practical jokes feel mean and embarrassing and I have spent a life time avoiding them. I do not laugh at myself easily, but rather easily feel the sting of a joke. I cannot stomach others being made fun of or laughed at; I will not watch TV shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos. Maybe it was growing up with a sibling who was easily fooled and often made fun of that impelled me to warn my kids of the pitfalls and possibilities of being the butt of an April Fools’ prank, rather than to plan and execute them. I worried about the struggled with nuance, that they might reacted strongly and with anger if they felt humiliated by a joke. In a school or work setting, if the recipient reacts harshly, he can be further mocked and harangued; the targeted person is at fault. Unquestionably, practical jokes are not my sort of humor, but I love a good side splitting laugh.

Your Uncle Dan’s humor is clever, sophisticated and incredibly dry. It is my constant companion. In my late twenties and early thirties while grappling with grief after your grandparents’ and great-grandmother’s deaths, I often took myself very seriously and feared I had lost my sense of humor. Dan helped me retain it. His humor is playful, topical and even a bit bawdy. He grew up with parents who liked insult humor, Don Rickles was their favorite comedian, but Dan followed his Uncle Jack’s approach of not making a joke at someone else’s expense. While Uncle Jack’s style was slap stick, Dan is witty and often catches his listener off guard. His quiet and polite demeanor is a great façade for a well-timed one-liner that makes people chortle.

And then there is the humor of children. Your brother Thomas, at three, repeatedly told the following knock-knock joke:

Knock, knock

Who’s there?

Boo

Boo Who?

Don’t cry, it’s just a joke”

He was ever so pleased with his telling and didn’t tire of laughing at this joke. It was a delight to watch the little tow-head’s burgeoning efforts at humor and how he navigated the nuances of telling the joke. And, Oh, the sound of his little boy voice and his laughter. Even now, decades later, Dan and I still repeat the punch line with his inflection.

When I had Mary Kate I anxiously waited and longingly searched her face for the first smiles. But it was her laughter that caught me by surprise-what a magical moment when six-month old MK went from smiling to laughing.  My children’s laughter, like daffodils in springtime, was hopeful, refreshing, and always welcome. I craved for it to fill our home. Vividly I remember Mary Kate jumping up and down in front of baby Patrick as he squealed at his big sister. And the giggles that baby Meg let out when Patrick made goofy faces or funny voices to entertain her are etched not just in my memory but in my heart.

It was fascinating to see what struck them as funny and then how it changed as they grew older. Young Mary Kate twirled around the kitchen singing Baby Beluga, The Bare Necessitiesand other songs, giggling as she sang along. As a grade schooler she liked silly jokes, funny stories, and always had a friend who was comical and entertaining. By high school intelligent humor became her stock-in-trade; ironic, highbrow and clean. And today she is the giver of the wittiest cards.

From early childhood, sketch humor was Patrick’s favorite form of comedy.  By four years old, he reenacted movies while watching, taking on the persona of the characters. By second-grade he could memorize skits and imitate voices letting him step into a character and entertain, not only us, but his friends and classmates. That year he was Mr. Bean for Halloween. By middle school, no longer was he the dyslexic kid, but he was the soccer player who did the Harry Caray imitation, the Scottish brogue and a slew of hilarious voices. He enjoyed but didn’t linger long in the sophomoric humor that predominated middle and high school. Thank goodness, because there is only so much bathroom humor and immature boy movies a mom can tolerate. Rather he was the family funnyman or part of a duo when Dan got in on it; I relished their regular Sunday morning recap of SNL’s skits. New schools and new countries brought new material, like the Scouse accent he brought home from Liverpool.

Meg was my child who found all manner of things entertaining and in turn entertained us.  Little Meggie rode on her dad’s shoulders singing made-up ditties while patting his head like a drum or holding his hair like the reins of a horse. First grade Meg laughed and danced along at a school performance, enjoying herself with such abandon, that her picture was snapped and put on the front page of the local paper. In fifth grade, she performed the dance from Napoleon Dynamite on stage in front of the entire school. At ease with herself and not easily embarrassed, she played for the laughs. From early childhood, she was the teller of tall tales and in college, she perfected spinning stories that made me want to cringe, cry and correct her, but instead I found I chuckled, chortled and cackled aloud. Her timing is excellent.

As for me, at home when I am not the audience, I am the straight man. I am a good Martin to Meg’s Lewis or Abbot to Dan’s Costello. My peers find me funny with well-timed deadpanned asides, those comments that fly over my kids’ heads or make them roll their eyes. I love a smart quip or retort garnered from the amusing moments that arise in family life.

So, whether it is like the cackle of Aunt B, the belly laugh of your Grandpa or the titter of your Grandma with a hand over her mouth, I wish laughter fills your house. Knock, knock . . .

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

 

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Lenten Reflection-March letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

March is part winter, part spring and this year once complete, it is Easter. Alleluia! This Lent I reflected on my parenting in relation to religion, faith and spirituality. My Catholic faith was paramount during my childhood and I wanted my kids to be a part of the Catholic Church. Over the years, I repeatedly considered how best to help them gain faith and develop their spirituality; to teach the prayers and sacraments, but to steer away from blind obedience and excessive guilt.

I wanted the kids to have a moral compass founded in Judo-Christian values and centered in the Catholic tradition which, for better or worse, is the faith of our family. It has its messy bits and lots of them, but any organized religion is flawed-they are run by humans, after all. The Church’s 2000-year history, its rituals and its catholic with a lowercase c of universality meant that my children would be part of a world-wide church, something much bigger than themselves. A foundation on which to build their individual faith. And although the Church hierarchy is male only, Mary-the blessed mother-is central to our faith and her maternal love is a focus I didn’t want to lose.

When the kids were little, I was active in our parish. I taught CCD, organized the summer bible school and sat on the school board and parish council. Our social life, my volunteering, and the kids’ education centered around our parish. We enjoyed the bonds of the community and built deep friendships, many we have maintained for the twenty years since we moved from Columbus. We were young and had young children; this was where we built their religious foundation, taking the kids to mass, praying before dinner, and choosing catholic schools.

But like most of my parenting, imparting faith and spirituality morphed with the challenges, temperament and age of each child. Smart and quiet with her hands folded nicely on her desk, Mary Kate looked the quintessential Catholic-school girl, yet she practiced her faith in a sociable and pragmatic way. Whether processing down the aisle dressed as St. Lucy on All Saints Day, taking up the gifts or reading at the lectern, Mary Kate liked to participate at mass.  She also had a Pascal’s Wager approach to God, a hedging of her bets. If there was a God and heaven, she had given her best, and if not, she was content with herself. When she was older she figured out how to bypass parts of Catholicism, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation. With her good girl reputation firmly established, she chose the middle of a pew while waiting her turn and shortly before she and her fellow pew-mates stood to go to the confessional, she would calmly get up and go to the bathroom. Then, upon re-entering the church she would take a seat with the kids who had finished. She shared this ploy with me when she was grown, explaining that there was no need for a mediator between herself and God. I was surprised, but impressed with her ingenuity and her introspection.

As a small child, Patrick enjoyed the pageantry of the mass. He mimed the movements of the priest during the Eucharist prayer, he sang the responses and he loved going with us to communion. When it was time for his first communion, he was a soulful seven-year-old who had deep thoughts about the complexities of life and the unknown of death. Questions about the purpose of life, the existence of a God that couldn’t be seen, and worries about dying kept him up at night. I understood his worries and angst well, as I have spent my life pondering and occasionally being obsessed by these questions and fears. I refer to this as our Scottish soul or melancholy because Mam, my beloved granny and your great-grandmother, too, shared this soulfulness. It was a burden for her, a fear that engrossed her thoughts and prayers. I’ve tried to embrace this soulfulness or melancholy in a positive way, for both Patrick and myself, teaching that it is a longing for understanding, a passion for knowledge and a stirring for meaning. Rather than focusing on the dark side, I pushed him to consider the light side-being profound and purposeful. Yes, that last sentence was a Star Wars reference, but easily understood by Patrick as a kid and teenager. I encouraged him to explore his spirituality. Through prayer and the exercise of his mind and body he found ways to harness his soulfulness and understand himself without the worries of the unknown consuming him.

Mass was a happy, social time for Meg. She was the last baby of our friends and literally was passed around during mass. Happy and snuggly, she loved being held, and went to others readily. She would reach out her little arms when she spotted family friends and I would pass her over.  It was not unusual for her to end up several aisles away having gone from family to family, being held by my pals and entertained by their older kids. For little Meggie, Catholicism and faith were synonymous with being loved. Unfortunately, her good start fell flat in New Jersey. She was the first to go to CCD and our parish’s program didn’t offer much intellectual understanding or depth. Meg was flummoxed by the simplistic yet dogmatic approach. When her 2nd grade teacher declared as undeniable fact that God was Jesus’ father and that Jesus rose from the dead, Meg walked into our kitchen indignant that no explanation was given. She was skeptical. As she prepared for Reconciliation and First Communion, the teacher continued dismissing her questions. She soon felt deceived. Meg loved mythology and knew the Greek stories well. She wondered if Catholicism was just another myth. She participated in the sacrament, but doubted the doctrine. These years were tough years to be Catholic-the pedophile scandal, the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope and the Church’s hostility toward gays and lesbians-turned us from active parishioners to C and E Catholics. When we arrived in Belgium we were culturally catholic, like most of our European friends. At St. John’s International School, with its ecumenical curriculum, Meg gained knowledge of world religions and spirituality. She continued to question and chose Notre Dame, in part, to experience a strong intellectual Catholic community.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our aunts and their cohort of friends who helped me sustain my Catholic faith. Their lives of faith, service and love are the images that I hold onto when I grow frustrated with conservative, rule-mongering Catholics. The Sisters of the Holy Cross inspire me to delve deep into my faith and spirituality, not obsess with whether I am contributing to the collection basket or participating in the rites. Their concern and focus is on my spirit and my soul. Lucky me to have been blessed with the friendship and guidance of so many holy women.

And, my faith and the Catholic Church offered me one of my life’s favorite honors . . . being your Godmother!

much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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