My younger daughter saw recently that my hands were “papery” and wrinkled and she remarked that they looked like Buboo’s hands, my dear mother who died two years ago. I understood that for the first time, in her eyes, I was growing older. Having your children recognize the signs that you are aging is worse, almost, than confronting that reality for yourself. My daughters are still pretty raw and vulnerable after losing their last two grandparents recently in a single year, and my first instinct is to try to shield them by projecting youth and vitality, as if to say, I will always be here for you. But, they weren’t born yesterday, and know that this can’t possibly be true.
As I approach the age that my parents were when I began to worry about them, it occurs to me that I should begin to think about my future, what I would like the next few decades to look like, and the legacy I hope to leave. I plan to continue living and learning and enjoying new experiences for many years to come. But there is no time like the present to begin my own life review of sorts—because aging successfully requires some planning, because I want my daughters to know what makes me “tick” and where I stand on the important matters, and because I need to reassure them that they are capable of making it in life, even without my presence.
When I was young, like many fresh-faced optimists, I aspired to change the world in some significant way. But from my current perch, I have come to accept the fact that time may be running out for my big splash. I realize as I grow older and wiser, it is sometimes necessary to adjust expectations. So I have chosen to focus on the impact that I’ve had, or will have, on my immediate universe and on the people in my own life. I now believe that if I have been able to enrich the lives of those around me in even a small way, I will have changed the world. It will be less like a splash than a ripple, but hopefully with ever-expanding circles. And, if I can be a catalyst for others to begin to think about their own impact on their families and on the world, that too would be a contribution.
Among the most important life lessons I wish to impart is to appreciate what you have when you have it. Just as I love my own daughters more than life itself, I am acutely aware that no one will ever love me as much as my mother did (Reflections from two years without her). It is the little things as much as the big ones. Where I once reproached my mother for spending too much on the flowers and dish gardens she sent me for every occasion, I now long for the sight of the Steve’s Flowers truck pulling up to my house. And, where I cringed with embarrassment at the way she gushed when introducing me to someone, I realize now how I crave her unflagging support and admiration, and having her as my cheerleader for life.
Her greatest gift to me and to those around her was her devoted attention. My mother had a talent for making others feel that they were the most interesting and important people in the world. She would strike up conversations with strangers wherever she went, and never went into a restaurant without finding people at other tables to whom to show her “brag book” of family photos. We would ask, “where is Buboo?”, and the answer would be, “she’s working the room.” Family was my mother’s entire world, and for her, that was enough.
Like many Jewish mothers, mine derived particular pleasure from feeding others, especially her family. While not a gourmet, she was a master of throwing ingredients together; ‘Shitarayn’ she would say. She was undeniably a great cook, and her brisket still has not met its match in my book. However, my mother was as much about the quantity as the quality. She was driven by a fear of running out of food. As a consequence of once serving steak to guests who finished all of the meat on the platter, she overcompensated for the remainder of her adult life by making three times as much as anyone could eat. If we made a dent in the food, she hadn’t made enough. In recent years, when she could no longer prepare food for us, she shifted her approach exclusively toward feeding us. When at a restaurant, as soon as the waiter placed her food in front of her she was already heaping portions of it onto our plates. If you didn’t pay attention you might end up with a forkful of her food in your eye. Feeding us was loving us. I sorely miss those flying forkfuls.
And then, there was my beloved father, a gentleman and a gentle man. Among his many gifts, my father was a lover of dogs, all dogs. He is the reason that I can’t walk past a dog without stopping to greet it. One of my most vivid memories was of him lying on the floor as one of our dogs slathered his face with kisses. Like him, I have always preferred dogs who lick…you know where you stand with them. In many households, the kids would bring home the stray dogs – In ours it was my father. While she was an animal appreciator, I remember my mother issuing an ultimatum more than once, “Gene, it’s me or the dog!” When I embrace a dog, I embrace it for my father.
There is great value to recognizing those parts of ourselves that come from our loved ones, in order to better understand ourselves. While not all familial traits are worthy of passing along, some of the resulting life lessons may help to guide and inform those who follow us. At the risk of being self-indulgent, I would like to share my own insights gained from life so far, some passed down from family or friends, some from a place that is uniquely my own. Why now? Because if I wait another twenty years, I won’t know where to begin (Plus, my memory might not be as sharp!). These are some of the pearls of wisdom that I have and will continue to dole out to my daughters, and anyone else who will listen:
- No one will ever love you as much as your mother does. No one.
- You learn something from every relationship, and every interview; so it is time well-spent.
- Be the person who changes the toilet paper roll, removes the lint from the dryer, and empties the dishwasher. People will respect you, or at least appreciate you.
- Always make extra. Leftovers mean fewer meals to prepare, and running short might scar you for life.
- Don’t ever shave above the knee; you will be a slave to it.
- Yes, there is a correct way to fold fitted sheets, but life is too short.
- Be spontaneous and take risks. At the very least you’ll have great stories to tell.
- It pays to keep your options open. Warning: this may increase anxiety.
- Always make good choices. (Self-explanatory.)
- If you find something you like, buy it in every color (Wisdom from my mother who did this on a regular basis).
- Get your kids a dog while they are young enough to enjoy it. If you can manage two, then get another one. This is not a dress rehearsal (Wisdom from my father).
- Let your dog lick your face, and share your bed. The healing properties will outweigh the risks.
- There are just some things in life that can’t be fixed. The sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be.
- Holding a grudge should never be an option. Life is too short!
- Always love and protect your siblings. They are the dearest friends you’ll ever have, and you’re lucky to have them.
- When you think you’ve found “the ONE”, borrow his car and gently dent the fender. His reaction will let you know if he’s “a KEEPER” (Substitute “her” as appropriate).
- Be patient, kind and respectful in your all your interactions with others. This needs no explanation.
- Never leave forty years of possessions for your children to deal with after you’re gone. It will prolong the pain.
- Buy real Q-Tips. Generic cotton swabs are not even close to being the same.
- Never let an “imposter complex” hold you back. You really are worthy.
- Sometimes food does equal love.
- Love always wins.
And then there are the lessons that my daughters taught to me:
- It’s okay to be their best friend, they will sort out what they’re comfortable with.
- They will not be damaged and disillusioned when they realize you’re not perfect. They may love you more.
- They really will learn to do the seemingly impossible, including toilet training, learning to drive, and getting “launched”, even if you can’t envision it.
- Even the snarkiest teenager generally comes out the other side as a delightful adult.
- As adults, they will still regress into snarkiness now and then, and you will forgive them for it because you understand that it won’t last forever, and you love them no matter what.
- Whether as babies or adults, if they cry there is not always a reason; sometimes they just need to cry.
- Often just listening is enough. They may just need to vent and don’t want you to try to fix it (“It’s not about the nail…” for YouTube aficionados).
- Being “hangry” is really a “thing”, and food sometimes can make everything better.
- Children value spontaneity, and sometimes even inconsistency. They will see it as a gift.
- Couch time is also a “thing”, and it is important.
- They are never too old to climb into your bed and cuddle.
- Coming home should feel safe and delicious, no matter how old they get.
- If your children love each other and are best friends, your work is done.
- Even if you have no artistic talent, you have created true works of art in your children. They are perfection.
That’s my two cents so far. Nothing extra-ordinary, just good, home-grown advice from a life pretty well-lived. It is my hope that this wisdom will become part of the legacy that I leave to my loved ones, and that their own impressions of me will round out the complete picture. As I stated previously, I don’t plan to depart anytime soon, and this life review is a work in progress. But, this installment takes the pressure off having to keep all of these pearls straight for years to come, and much of this is guidance that my daughters have needed along the way. I promise that my next check-in will include some more formal instructions for my final act; details about my health care proxy, advance directives, preferred means of interment, who gets what, and music to serenade me on my departure. For now, this is enough.
How do any of us want to be remembered? Most of us want to be thought of by those who matter to us as loving, kind, generous, intelligent, socially and environmentally conscious, a lover of animals, maybe even well put together. But when striving for the elevator speech—that one descriptor that says it all about the person you were and the life you lived—it has to be well thought out, concise and immensely personal. My dear friend suggested an epitaph for me after discovering that I played with a Mah Jongg set that has select surplus tiles: “She lived her life with extra flowers and jokers”. I think this is mostly how I want my children, and hopefully their children, to remember me – with lots of love and pizzazz. That will be my legacy, so far…and I will proudly embrace it!