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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