Oh, not to worry! I don’t pretend to hold all of life’s greatest truths in a Dixie cup, but a lifetime of teaching adolescents and raising three of my own to adulthood has taught me a thing or two about basic human nature, and the funny thing is that I’d say 80 per cent of them are probably based on little truisms expressed by my parents when I was still wet behind the ears myself.
Sheesh. That’s still painful to admit, not because I bear any latent resentment toward my parents. I don’t. Instead, it’s simply an admission that forces me to acknowledge how much pain and misery I could have saved myself and, arguably, my own youthful charges had I just taken my parents’ homespun wisdom a little more to heart much sooner than I did.
This became most apparent to me when I added motherhood to my resume forty-one years ago. It was a tumultuous time to have a baby to begin with. The war in Viet Nam was just winding down, and, because my husband was an Air Force pilot who flew B-52 bombers, he was sent back to Southeast Asia within weeks of my due date to participate in the first of the now well-known bombing barrages ordered by President Richard Nixon to drive North Viet officials to the bargaining table. My parents were the original “helicopter” parents, I suppose, but I had no complaints at the time. I was heartbroken at the notion of giving birth far from family, knowing that every other day my beloved husband and the father of my unborn child was flying 12-hour missions that put him in deadly peril, meaning I could easily soon be a widow and my baby could be orphaned. Yeah, I wanted my Mama and Daddy. Without my asking, they hopped the first plane to Georgia.
The school year was just winding down, so Mom helped me grade papers, and Dad averaged grades to ensure I got everything in on time despite my obvious distress. Things went as smoothly as could be, and my students and the faculty managed to surprise me with a wonderful shower on the last day of school even. It was a bittersweet day, all things considered.
Then, Mom and Dad would have it no other way but that I close up my house, pack my bags for the next three months, and go home with them to Oklahoma to stay at least until after my baby was born. My doctor agreed that I could handle the car trip, a two-day drive if we stopped every couple of hours to get out and walk, since I was extremely healthy and biked regularly at that time. We had elderly neighbors living next door who had sort of adopted Charlie and me as the family they’d never had, so I left our keys with them and headed out west, driving all the way from Georgia to Oklahoma.
We were still pretty much following my rules though. I was planning to have a Lamaze delivery, just as we’d planned. My younger, single sister had gladly agreed to serve as my coach in Charlie’s absence, and I was going through our course training book with her, teaching her all the exercises. Then I saw the local gynecologist and learned the hospital who served the area where my parents lived would not allow Lamaze deliveries; they considered “natural” childbirth needlessly risky and something to be avoided whenever possible.
No sweat. I’d just delay going in till it was too late for them to give me any sort of anesthesia or “saddle block,” as the procedure was known then. Yeah, sure.
This is where my sweet little Mama sat down, took my hands in hers, and looked me in the eyes and said, “Now, honey, you know that’s like saying you can determine the baby’s gender by wishing it. You don’t know how long your labor will last; you don’t know how consistent your labor will be; you don’t know whether the baby will even present head first or not. What I’m trying to tell you, sister, is that you have to have a plan b, and sometimes you even need a plan c.”
There it was. I’d told my students the same thing, just as she’d told me a thousand times before — at least. Trite. Cliché. All that. Nonetheless, it was true to the core, and, no matter how much I simply did not want to deal with it, I had to accept that I was already dealing with plan b because my soulmate was not going to be present for the birth of our baby, and the hospital had already informed me they wouldn’t allow anyone, including my sweet sister, in the delivery room anyway.
Well, a complicated and protracted labor led to my having to have, not only a saddle block, but a forceps delivery. I was disappointed beyond tears, but, in a strange twist of fate, my husband had become horribly ill with a mysterious strand of bacterial pneumonia that led to his being returned to the States for six months therapy (pilots have to have strong lungs). He was in the waiting room of the little country hospital, pacing the floor in the best old-fashioned tradition, awaiting the birth of our little girl, and was the first allowed to see and photograph her through the mesh windows of the nursery. We fell in love with her at first sight, and that’s when another of my parents’ truisms came true.
I learned on that day that there truly is no other love earth like mother love. The first time they placed that little girl in my arms it was totally unlike when I’d carried her in my belly. I’d loved her from her first fluttery kick, but when she screwed up her little face and turned to nuzzle my breast, her little lips searching for the sustenance she instinctively knew was there, tears began pouring down my face and I sobbed over and over, “Oh, my precious, precious little girl. I didn’t know it was possible to love anyone or anything this much. I give you my life. Right now. I am yours forever. I love you completely.”
My parents weren’t allowed in the room when the baby was there in those days, but I guess the nurse must have tattled on me because, when they came in for their next visit, both their eyes were misty, and Daddy could hardly stop patting my head. Finally, he managed to choke out, “See, I told you, didn’t I, sweetie? I told you. Now you know. You’ll never be the same either.”
Daddy was right, of course, and he inspired me then and there to start keeping a running record of some of the wisest adages passed along in their homespun wisdom. Truth is that I could list at least a couple of hundred of their most common and wisest, but I think I’ll narrow it down to just a few which that most memorable Labor Day weekend, September 3, 1972, called into play. They pretty much sum up what I’ve found I’ve needed for life in general.
1. Good things come to those who wait.
That’s one that makes you want to pull your hair out even when you’re in your golden years. Maybe even especially so. I want to bellow at the universe sometimes, “Hey, Lord, don’t you think I’ve paid my dues? Don’t you think I’ve waited long enough?” Experience always reminds me of the answer though; sometimes it’s the waiting that makes the good things so very good. You don’t know that when things come too easily.
2. Always look for the silver lining; things are seldom all good or all bad.
When Charlie got bacterial pneumonia and had to come home, I was scared silly; he was not expected to survive the trip. I could do nothing about it, so I handed it over to the only One who could; I prayed. He was actually well enough to be released in time for the birth of our daughter. No, no, no. Don’t misinterpret me. I don’t think he was made ill so he could be home for the birth of our daughter. That’s just weird. However, despite that having happened, he was able to be there, so something good came out of something bad. I had every right to be thankful for that.
3. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. (Ben Franklin)
My experience in the delivery room in that little country hospital will always be special, simply because it was my first live birth. Nothing can rob me of that. However, my labor had fully progressed for twenty-six long miserable hours till I was finally fully dilated and fully effaced and was completely ready to push my very large infant into the outside world. Instead, I was rushed into delivery only to be set up and leaned forward in the middle of my Lamaze “he-he-he’s” to feel a cold steely needle sink into my lower spinal column. I had just been robbed of my right of choice; throwing a hissy there on the delivery table would have been nothing short of stupid. So I didn’t. I just swallowed my awful disappointment; after all, I’d been warned. I wasn’t nearly as slick as I’d thought I was. I refused to let it ruin my beautiful day. That, at least, was a choice no one could control but me. Wouldn’t happen again though.
4. When you know better, you must do better.
I went on to have two more children. You can bet I chose my obstetrician and hospital very carefully with them. In both cases, Charlie was by my side every minute of the way, and those equally huge babies (9 pounders all – I’m quite small) were born completely by Lamaze with absolutely perfect Apgar scores. Well, that’s not entirely true. The largest, Becky, had a 9/10 because her head was misshapen from being transverse for two hours while I waited for her to turn in my uterus. No, labor wasn’t pleasant for me, but childbirth was glorious because I knew better, so I did better!
5. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or those for whom you are responsible; if a sore festers, it’ll only burst.
I guess this one may seem a little out of order, but I found out it was coming into play as soon as they laid my newborn in my arms. Wow! I had no idea it could be so hard to get a baby to latch on to nurse. They talked about it in my La Leche class and in the book I’d read, but I just thought all my friends’ babies just caught on at first try. My second shock was how agonizingly painful it was. In those days, no one came in from the hospital staff to help out; in fact, those of us who were determined to nurse were a novelty, more like an anomaly. The nurses quite frankly would have preferred we bottle fed our babies, and, until I put a stop to it as nicely as I could, I discovered that they were, in fact, doing just that with glucose water when they got my daughter back to the nursery. I’d left strict instructions not to give her formula, so apparently this was their idea of honoring my wishes. When my Mama came in, I got some first-hand instruction on nursing and breast care, and she stayed right by my side to make sure my instructions were followed, too.
6. Don’t be fooled by the size of your opponent. Remember, if size meant anything, a cow could catch a rabbit.
The irony here is that my parents had used this to encourage me to “power on” all my life. I was the “runt of the litter” even in a family of small stature. When my home town farm community was choosing a Peanut Princess my senior year, it never even occurred to me to place my name in the hat. I was just too little. Sure, I could sing, etc., but, at that time, I still didn’t even tip five feet tall. When I was placed in the running anonymously and went on to win, I was positively flummoxed. I hadn’t even taken the competition seriously because it never occurred to me I might win. Now, when the tables were turned, I was so sure I could make the people in that little hospital bend to my will by “fooling them” with my big city ways and delaying delivery till my labor had fully progressed. What an innocent I was. Just because they were small didn’t mean they hadn’t been around the bend. I knew better, and I got my come-uppance. That’s how I see it.
7. If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do, but don’t be satisfied with not knowing if there’s any chance you can find the answer.
Yes, that’s another one I told my students all the time. It’s also something I’d had to learn to do as an educator to spare myself the undue embarrassment of looking like a fool. As a new mother, I had to do it to spare the very life of my newborn. Scary! You’d be shocked to know how much more we know now that we didn’t know back forty-one years ago, too. We were told to never lay our babies on their backs to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Yep. Now, new parents are told precisely the opposite. I’ve got to tell you that when my grandchildren came along it took everything in my will power to force myself to lay those little ones on their backs. I tried to sort of sneak them on their sides ever so slightly, till my daughters caught me, and I sheepishly had to move them back. Just sent chills up my spine. You really can teach an old dog new tricks, but it sure isn’t easy!
8. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong; you don’t have to eat crow to own up to being human. You can still be in charge and be equally human. Your kids need to know that YOU know that, too.
This is true in parenting, teaching, management, marriage, you name it. I don’t like it, not a little bit. Being wrong is hard for me, but admitting it is even harder because I’m so slow to commit to an opinion about most major issues that, when I do, I’m fully invested. I’m pretty darn convinced that I’m right. I’ve thought that sucker over. Don’t tell me I’m wrong. Don’t confuse me with a bunch of new facts. You’re threatening my very fragile integrity. I truly am very open-minded about most things. Anyone who knows me will tell you that’s true of me. I suppose that’s why I guard those things about which I do hold truly deeply-felt convictions so closely. It’s silly. If we are to grow, we have to keep our minds open, and, unless our hearts are open, our minds won’t budge. It’s really that simple. Pride has to go.
9. Being righteous is of foremost importance, but never allow yourself to become so heavenly-minded that you are of no earthly good.
Yep. My little fundamentalist Christian Mom and Dad taught me that. They really did. When I was a kid, I didn’t think they really meant it. Actually, I didn’t see how it was possible to live up to what I considered their impossibly high standards and do that. Distance taught me this lesson. They came whenever I needed them, and they possessed a wealth of common sense knowledge. Living through the Great Depression, owning their own small businesses and a working farm, and raising five decent human beings in the process had garnered them a world of wisdom that no formal education could ever hope to exceed, though both would love to have been able to add that to their resumes, as well. They knew how to be practical, to work hard, and to set proper priorities.
In my family, I now belong to the oldest generation. Daddy passed on in 1985 and Mama sort of started leaving the day he said good bye. In 1988, she joined him on the other side. Often, when you attend memorial services, they are sad, solemn affairs. When someone is “up in years” the way Mom and Dad were, you don’t really expect much of a crowd either, but let me tell you about my legacy.
In a little brick church with a tall white steeple topped by a golden cross, the same minister who officiated at my Daddy’s service stood at the podium to help our community say good-bye to Mama. She’d lived there almost all her life, except for the few years she and Daddy had spent in California with thousands of other Okies. They’d operated businesses; she’d served as postmaster; they’d both been extremely active in every facet of their church; and Daddy had driven a bus for years, all while farming and ranching full time. They had remained active until the very end. When Mama’s Parkinson’s made it hard for her to make pie crusts, she had me make and freeze several for her, so she could fill them with her wonderful homemade fillings, bake them, and take them to funerals, sick homes, or church dinners. People just expected it of her, she told me. I understood. She bought stacks of all sorts of greeting cards when she got to where she couldn’t drive after Dad died, and she mailed sympathy, get well, thinking of you, anniversary, birthday, and every other sort of encouragement imaginable to anyone she thought might need it. We even mailed some we found addressed on her desk the day after she died.
At the front of the church, Pastor Wampler just smiled. He said, “What do you say about two lives so well-lived? Can’t you see Everett over there in that pew with his arm behind Irene, patting her shoulder from time to time, still convinced after nearly 60 years of marriage that he’d married the prettiest girl in town?”
The crowd of approximately 350 people who filled every overflow room in that tiny building actually laughed aloud, and you could hear murmurs all around. “Yes, he sure did.” “Well, she felt the same way about him, that’s for sure.”
He spoke a little longer, all of it in that vein. None of it was sad, most of it was anecdotal. He had people fairly giggling on occasion when he mentioned some of the things Mom and Dad did and said. They were characters. Then he mentioned one final truism I’d heard them remind us of so very often. I know it would have made Mama cry, but they would have been sweet tears. It’s all she would have ever desired anyone say of her when she was gone.
10. Some people say it’s important to die well; but the true measure of a person is to live well. Then the dying is a mere formality.
I think I said Mama and Daddy’s truisms were foundational to at least 80 per cent of my values? Well, you can scratch that. Like so many others of their “Greatest Generation,” they knew what mattered, and they shared it with all of us. What a treasure. No, the truth is that I owe them everything.