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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The Sweet Spot

I can see us clearly. Five across, loosely spaced, we walked down the middle of our street. My son bouncing or side stepping, that fast shuffle move I struggled through during high school basketball practice decades ago, he does effortlessly. His nine-year-old body unable to keep any pace for more than a step or two. My youngest, five, doing double time every few steps to keep up with her siblings. On the way home, she will be riding high on her daddy’s shoulders, but for now, she is determined to keep up. My oldest, holding the dog’s fully-extended leash, walking along-side me content as she chose today’s destination. My husband at the far edge, maybe even a half step back, enjoying being along for the outing after a week of traveling. We are out for a hike, through the woods and along a lake near our home in Kalamazoo, walking along the street, through the old gate, down the path to the lake, and out across the open fields. Taking turns leading, searching for discoveries, gathering a few rocks and sticks along the way. A couple of hours later we walked five across, loosely spaced down the middle of our street, sweaty, a little tired, and content. This was the sweet spot.

The diapers disappeared, along with temper tantrums, the school calendar gave a rhythm to life but before high school academics and activities absorbed the kids’ attention. It was a time of knobby-knees; the baby fat was gone, replaced with lean, active kids. There was enthusiasm and excitement for any family activity, parenting went from watching them on a playground to full engagement-playing soccer, basketball, or any sport with a ball in the yard. There were nights of board games, cards, and family movies. Anything could be an event, do it twice, and it was a tradition. I put streamers and signs up in the dining room one year for my daughter’s birthday and left them up until her brother’s birthday two weeks later, and it became our family’s birthday tradition, something I did for the following twenty years. Whether it was the streamers, Friday night fun, walks in the woods, or kickball in the cul-de-sac, the kids were all in. Dan and me, too.

It was a time of explanations and responsibility. There were endless discussions about social encounters, everything from introducing yourself on the first day of dance class to a respectful response when a friend said something mean. Gaining responsibility went from kindergarten Meg walking to a friend’s house all by herself to the Saturday night when MK babysat her siblings. I realized our last babysitter was only a year or so older than MK and it was embarrassing to have a babysitter. I employed what I hoped to be a fool-proof plan for successful sibling babysitting. I paid everyone. She got paid to be in charge, but not weld power unnecessarily, and her siblings were paid to be good. It was a win, win, win; MK gained responsibility, the kids had a little pocket money, and we had a short evening out at neighbors.

When growing up, a friend told her daughters, “You are writing the story of your life every day.” Each day’s actions-large and small-mattered. I felt that keenly during the kids’ elementary and middle school years, that every day we were writing the story of our family. Their childhood memories were made, be it digging ‘for China’ on the beach in South Haven, Michigan, playing travel soccer, or riding up and down the neighborhood streets no-handed. And although I wondered if the tennis, dance or drum lessons would go from a fleeting interest to a life-long pursuit, I wasn’t bogged down by it. Instead I focused on the daily habits: getting to practices, lessons, and school on time, ensuring that assignments were completed to the best of their ability, reading to and with them every day, helping them complete household chores, teaching them to be caring and honest. It was an age of accountability, for children and parents. They had razor sharp memories. “Remember at the red light on Stadium Drive Tuesday morning when you promised we would stop at DQ after school on Friday”, a voice said. They held me to my word. Mmmmmm, a blizzard from Dairy Queen, that’s a sweet spot, too.

 

 

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Love-February letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

J and M sitting in a tree,

K-I-S-S-I-N-G,

First comes love,

Then comes marriage,

Then comes C and B

In a baby carriage!

The playground song gets it right . . .first comes love!

For you and J, like Dan and I, next was marriage and children, but the song stops there and as we both know, family life is just beginning with the baby carriage. Creating a healthy family and keeping a strong marriage take motivation, determination, and follow-thru. And lots of LOVE.

Valentine’s Day makes Love the focus of February. Marketing and advertisements have super-sized the holiday and although I pooh-pooh their push of materialism, I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment. A moment, a day or even a month to focus on our loved ones is a good thing, especially in our current society with its polarized politics, 24-hour news cycle, and addictive social media.

It’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t go overboard on Valentine’s Day; this was not going to be a mini-Christmas or birthday. Rather, sitting on the breakfast table for each of the kids was a small red and white tissue-paper bundle. Sticking out the top was a ten-dollar bill and inside was a box of sweetheart candies and a few favorite chocolate goodies. And beside it was their Valentine’s Day card. Using a folded 8-by-10 white piece of paper, a couple of colored pencils and his wit, Dan would take a current interest or event in the kids’ life and make a funny Valentine. Those cards were the main event; a simple yet concrete expression of their dad’s love, jocularity and artist efforts.

Those simple cards represent what I hope is the best of our family-unpretentiousness, affection, and humor. Creating a family, a healthy and happy family, was(still is) my vocation. Although the term homemaker is considered old-fashion, I prefer it to Stay-at-Home-Mom (SAMH) because making a home covers more of what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted Dan, the kids and myself to have a place where we felt physically and emotionally safe, protected and loved, where we could be, for better or worse, our true selves, and where, regardless of location, our attachment was to each other. Our moves helped the kids learn to depend on each other; to have each other’s back. When you move, you don’t take your friends with you, just your siblings. And the little brother, who was a silly kindergartener before the move, is now the only familiar face at your new school and the one who points you in the right direction of the bathroom when you see him in the hallway.

And I insisted that Home was our haven. Of course, there were sibling squabbles and complaining, but I stopped meanness and cutting comments in their tracks. I didn’t allow the kids to put each other down. It is hard to feel a deep affection for someone if you fear they will hurt you with nasty comments. That doesn’t mean that complaints, whining, and gripes weren’t allowed. One of our Mannix mottos was that at home, in the confines of the five of us, the kids could speak freely and it stayed in ‘the vault’, not repeated to others. It allowed the kids to come home and say their piece if they had had a bad day. Most often, after they had finished complaining about a friend’s questionable behavior, a school assignment or a crummy practice, they let it go, not making a mountain out of a molehill. Of course, an unchecked flow of negative commentary wasn’t healthy and needed to be re-directed, but it was daily moaning about the kids in seventh grade that alerted me to dig a little deeper and discover that my child was getting bullied at school. Open communication, even the nasty bits, was essential for a healthy family.

And the most important communication in a healthy family is between the spouses.   That’s critical for a strong marriage. Notice I didn’t write happy marriage, because we both know-and anyone who is married knows-that happiness is not a constant state, even in the best of marriages. There are good times and bad, there are moments when someone is frustrated, saddened or bored by the other. There can be rough patches, but a strong bond will keep you moving forward, ever slowly, together.

To strengthen the bond, we are still utilizing the four rules of marriage that were given to us by a thirty-something couple the summer before we married.  They are:

1. Be By

2. Talk to

3. Take with

4. Feed

These simple statements have been central to our marriage. We eat dinner together nightly without distractions, laugh at Modern Family, and read in the same room so that we can be by each other. Making time to talk often wasn’t easy when the kids were home because the daily calendar was packed. For years, we had a daily phone call before they came home from school, sometimes it seemed like the only time we had each other’s attention. The third rule to ‘take with’ was a challenge. Only-child Dan, who travelled a lot, needed to be reminded to occasionally take me along, whether was on Saturday morning errands or now walking Stella. And he isn’t allowed to get ahead of me at airports because he is walks faster and is familiar with the surroundings. Finally, letting anyone get hangry is foolish. Unfortunately, we have both done it.  Each time, I swear it will be the last!

Marriage is a team sport, but it is based on cooperation not competition. If you keep score, you both lose. It requires continual effort, and it is not so much give and take, as give and give and give. And while the legal and financial benefits are well-understood-think tax deductions, life insurance costs, and less estate issues-in recent years, the social sciences have weighed in on the long term emotional health benefits of marriage including longevity, less depression and safer behavior.

The experts agree that a good marriage is good for you. They also say that kids at home add a lot of stress (and a lot of joy) to a marriage. My response is, “Duh . .  . and thank goodness for Dan’s sense of humor.” His dry wit relieved more than a few squabbles when the kids were teenagers.

We have more inside jokes than I can count, and have gone from being able to give a sideward glance to acknowledge the joke when in a group, to reading each other’s mind and laughing about it later when we are alone. It’s great fun to have him as my buddy, my partner and my co-conspirator. I am in too deep-and happily so. Who else will discusses the minutia of MK , PA and Meg-and do it for hours on end. Dan holds my history. He is my present and I pray, my long future.

Finally, my dear niece, the love you and J have for each other and for your children is obvious-it’s palpable. Revel in it on Valentine’s Day!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie

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Shoot with the Truth

When my kids were younger, especially teen-agers, I allowed and even encouraged them to use me as their go-to excuse. Whether it was turning down an invitation, avoiding dangerous activity, or simply taking a break from a friend, I was there to take the blame. “My mom won’t let me, my mom made plans, my mom will kill me if she finds out”. But by early adulthood, “my-mom” excuses don’t fly and it was time to handle those uncomfortable, undesirable, and anxiety-producing situations by themselves. It was then I gave my kids the advice I try to heed myself: Shoot with the truth. Don’t lie.

I’m a ‘knee-jerk yes’ person, quickly agreeing to ideas, outings and activities of all stripes. I’m also a homebody who prefers quiet evenings and comfy pants. In my younger days, this dichotomy along with limited funds, created awkward situations where I had accepted an invitation but when the time arrived, I didn’t want or couldn’t afford to attend. I found myself making excuses, telling white lies, or fabricating the truth. It made me cranky and disappointed in myself. I put an end to it.

Initially, telling the truth felt complicated because of my uncomfortableness in dealing with problematic situations or the potential negative reaction of the other party. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to let people down. I thought telling a white lie or embellishing the truth would save people’s feelings and ease my conscience. And while I rarely got caught in my fabrications, I felt my credibility slipping away from myself. I had to remember the lies, and that was taxing and might lead to more lies. Too many complications and potential for drama. It was time to break the bad habit.

I worked at being discerning in accepting invitations and I would shoot with the truth if a conflict or needed change arose. I took a deep breath and I kept it simple: I’m strapped for cash and can’t afford an evening out, I’m sorry I agreed earlier to attend but I wouldn’t be good company today, or a similar statement of truth. And I reminded myself I was not on trial or on The Jerry Springer show. I didn’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, nor did I have to over-share embarrassing myself or anyone else. The fewer words the better. If an apology needed to be made, I made it, hoped it would be accepted and moved on. Quickly, I found the truth was an easier and happier habit.

And over time I applied this honest directness to other uncomfortable and difficult situations. Whether it was giving feedback, turning down requests, or helping someone grieve, I wanted to be straightforward and plain-spoken. If I didn’t mean it, I didn’t say it – no glossing, no embellishing, no white lies. I learned to accept silence in conversation and not to fill it with meaningless words. This was especially hard for me. I’m chatty. But with practice, I improved. And I reminded myself that being truthful doesn’t equate to being blunt or harsh. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I want my words to be heard, to be remembered, and hopefully to be wise.

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