FriendshipI found an interesting quote from Frederick C. Collins on the daily affirmation wall of inspiration I call my Facebook news feed. Not interesting enough to bother finding out who Frederick C. Collins is, but enough to write it down. It said, “There are two types of people—those who come into a room and say, ‘Well here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” In other words, attention whores and attention givers.

Attention whores are really annoying. You know the type. You can hear them screaming “Look at me!” a mile away. They wear pink wigs to parties so people will notice them. They bribe children with presents to ensure they stay the most popular aunt. And they write blogs so that the whole world can share in their brilliant insights. It’s sad really. Attention givers, on the other hand, are truly interested in other people. They listen while making eye contact and make everyone around them feel important. Everybody wants to be friends with someone like that.

Our families have to love us because we are, well, family. We learn to love and develop bonds in the context of our family, and our social skills take root in (what should be) a safe and loving environment. But the time we spend with our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters is really the training ground for everything else that comes with adulthood. We grow up and go out into the world to make friends. Family relationships prepare us for the other relationships that we will need for the rest of our lives.

What makes somebody a good friend? Besides the obvious characteristics of kindness, concern, loyalty etc., how do you guide a child towards becoming one of those people who walks into a room and is outgoing, genuine, and comfortable mingling with all their friends?

The Beginning:  Attachment (yes, I said attachment)

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who is most famous for his experiments in social isolation the 1950s. He was motivated by John Bowlby’s studies of maternal separation, and his claim that children need much more from their parents than simply food. Bowlby, known as the father of attachment theory, had been criticized for his views because at the time, parents were taught that too much physical contact was bad for an infant’s development. In Harlow’s experiments, monkeys were raised in isolation chambers so he could observe the horrible and cruel things that happened to them when deprived of nurturing love. Harlow deprived babies of their mothers and observed that they chose a soft cloth doll that provided comfort over a doll made of wire that provided food and nourishment but no emotional relief. Depriving monkeys of physical contact amounted to torture and they developed severe cognitive issues. I’ve seen the old black and white footage of the experiments and, as an animal lover and a normal human being, I am still trying to block it out. The experiments are very well known and credited with raising awareness of the importance of social bonding. And with inspiring the movement against animal cruelty in laboratories. One of his own students is even credited with saying that “the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities.” Really?

What is interesting about the experiments is that they confirmed Bowlby’s claims about the importance of care-giving and companionship in not just the social development of a child but cognitive development as well. The failure of a child to bond with a caregiver in the early stages of life can have dire consequences. I should warn you, if you are interested in learning more about how our brains and social skills develop through attachment and bonding, you are likely to find more case studies and photos of abandoned, unloved children than you can emotionally handle. Trust me on that one.

What is positive and fulfilling about the subject is the incredible power of attachment to heal and nurture. In discussing Attachment Theory, the scribes on Wikipedia explain, “Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. . . . When an infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. Caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment; these, in turn, lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.” My sister-in-law has a degree in this stuff and talks about attachment research all the time on Mom Psych. The point is that children learn how to relate to other people through the interaction with their first caregivers. What an awesome and overwhelming responsibility for anyone who is close to a young child.

Emotional Literacy

Friendship can be boiled down to one idea—having someone in your life that fulfills your needs. You have to admit, one of the strongest motivating factors in life is “I am being paid attention to? Am I being heard?” Even those people who seem to be so outgoing and only interested in others need attention. We all need our friendships to make us feel like we have value. As we mature, we learn to recognize that need in other people. We acknowledge what other people want and we have to make decisions about whether to give it to them. We decide whether in that moment we are the giver or the taker. Friendships are hard work, like a marriage. The key to real friendship is what we do when someone else’s needs conflict with our own, and the first step in getting through those situations is having the emotional maturity to recognize the conflict in the first place.

In order to create lasting friendships, we have to develop emotional literacy and learn to read other people’s social cues. We subconsciously learn to read body language through example, and that starts when an infant stares into an adult’s face and learns to copy a smile or a frown. Not only do we recognize other’s needs through non-verbal cues, but we communicate respect and empathy through eye contact and body language as well, and that is not something you can sit down and teach someone. Children learn to read other people and develop social skills through the positive physical interaction in their early relationships.

When psychologists talk about the Caregiver, they are generally referring to a parental figure. However, I like to think of it in a much broader sense. Every time I hug my nieces and nephews, bounce with them on the trampoline, give dolphin rides in the pool, or kiss them goodnight, I am teaching them social skills. I am communicating that I love them, but I am also helping their little developing brains to learn how to engage and communicate effectively. I am teaching them how to be successful friends and partners.

All of my nephews and even my nieces have gone through a stage where they pretend to be grossed out by my kisses, and my hugs are a form of entrapment to be wriggled out of like I have cooties. I don’t know what cooties are but I know they are not good. Kisses are currency to be used when I’m not cooperating. “I’ll give you 50 kisses if you come outside and play.” But I know that it is just another way for them to get my attention and start a wrestle. Strong social connections are very important keys to happiness and physical interaction with children in their early development gets them started on the right path. I take great pride in pinning my nieces and nephews down and smooching them or wrapping my arms around them in my lap when we watch TV, because I know that I am contributing to the caring, friendly people that they are going to become.

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ImageA few weeks ago I volunteered to take my niece and nephew to their school fundraiser. Usually when I am alone with the children, our exposure in public places is limited to restaurants and grocery stores, places where I have learned to contain the chaos through trial and error. For some reason a carnival did not strike me as a challenge at the time. We arrived, and the kids immediately disappeared while I stood in line for the tickets. Thirty seconds in and I had already lost control of the situation. We were off to a good start. I found them at a booth called Franken Stuffers. They rooted through boxes and boxes of stuffed animals while I cut off heads, tails and legs so they could sew together their own Frankenstein version of a stuffed animal. I thought this was a great idea for a kids craft until we sat down with our selection of body parts and two little faces looked at me like, “Well, now what?” Oh, you mean I have to sew this crap together? One of the ladies attending the booth saw the look of horror on my face and gave me the two-minute Build-A-Bear instruction demo. I began to explain that the problem isn’t that I can’t sew, it’s just that I don’t. But she had moved on to the next victim.

The kids were almost immediately bored with watching me stare at a pile of teddy bear parts so I released them to use their tickets on other games while I got to work. The lady next to me asked me whose mother I was, and I explained that I was the babysitting aunt. She looked around for my absent wards so I had to keep looking up from my sewing in the direction of the balloon toss so that she would think I had one eye on them. I knew very well that my threat that they were to stay together or else had been ignored and they were running rampant through the carnival but I was only mildly concerned about it.

I understand why people do crafty things like sewing. Your hands move while your head goes to some other place. My other place was a fascinating conversation with myself about the perks of being childless. I am single and fabulous. How did I get roped into sitting on a dirty park bench next to a judgmental soccer Mom, stitching a duck’s head onto a tiger’s body? After about half an hour I staged a one-person coup and stuffed the legs and tails into my purse. Their mother was going to have to deal with this mess later.

Another of my nieces, Danielle, was having a piano recital that afternoon, so the plan was to take a small break from ring tossing and bouncy castles to spend an hour down the street listening to children play the piano. I told the kids that they had a few minutes before we had to leave and they went to get their faces painted. Rider had a small concern about showing up at the recital with a mask painted on his face but he was more concerned about missing out. He had seen another booth selling masks so he finally decided that on the way out he could buy a mask to cover up the mask painted on his face. I began to poke holes in his thought process but immediately gave up. My willingness to expend energy combating eight-year-old logic is pretty low.

Rider naturally chose the hardest face painting in the book of options provided and was seated in front of a girl that I had been watching while we were in line. All of the kids that walked away from her station looked like kindergarten art projects and I knew immediately this was not going to go well. In less than 10 minutes, Rose’s face was a spectacular glittery butterfly, and Rider’s face had been wiped clean three times so that his “artist” could start over. Now here is the kind of aunt dilemma that just kills me. With Rose strutting around like a walking piece of art, there is no way I can drag Rider away with nothing but some grey paint smeared over one eye; but I also can’t be late for the recital and potentially miss the piano debut of another niece. There was no apparent way to come out of this as the world’s best aunt, which is the whole point of spending a Sunday afternoon in a park full of screaming schoolchildren. As an aunt it is very important, and occasionally impossible, to be loved and adored by everyone at the same time.

I announced to the teenager butchering my nephew’s face that she had three minutes. I must have conveyed my authority effectively because she panicked and the resulting artwork was a mess. I could have achieved the same result after a fifth of scotch. However, Rider’s reaction when they gave him the mirror was, “Cool.” Who was I to argue? Feeling like we had turned the corner on one crisis, I told Rider to get ready to run for the car and turned around to get Rose. She was nowhere to be seen. Rider and I ran around yelling “Rose!” at the top of our lungs. The carnival was small and I wasn’t worried about losing her, but the recital had started and I needed her in the car ASAP. It occurred to me that freaking out about a missing child in the middle of a school festival was probably going to get back to the parents and I should be a little more discreet. So I told Rider to calmly walk around and look for his sister while I waited where she expected I would be. Rider heard my instructions as, “Run up to one of your teachers and tell her to keep an eye out for Rose because your Aunty Jo lost her and you can’t find her anywhere.”  Seriously, just kill me now.

Panic started to spread until Rose reappeared wondering what all the fuss was about. I decided not to address her disappearing act in favor of flying like a bat out of hell to the car, which also gave me the added benefit of avoiding any direct eye contact with her teacher. We hadn’t done enough to create a scene at the school event, so now we were running through the carnival like our lives depended on it. Tearing down the hill in the car, I threw Rose’s skirt back to her and told her to put it on. We were going to a formal recital so we had brought something more appropriate for her to wear instead of shorts and sneakers. “Aunty Jo, how am I going to put this on in the car?” “I don’t know. You’re six, figure it out.” “Can I unstrap?” “Yes! Just get changed.” And that, Children, is another lesson from your aunt on how to exude grace under pressure. You’re welcome.

As we walked into the recital, Rider hid his painted face like he would shrivel up and die if anyone saw him. We quietly slid into our seats and I took a really deep breath as Danielle walked onto the stage. We had made it in the nick of time. As I started to calm down to the dulcet tones of beginner piano exercises, Rider asked if he could go to the bathroom. He was followed by Rose, and both came back a few moments later with clean faces—no longer embarrassed to be seen in public. I sat there with my mouth open. I paid for this face painting that they just desperately had to have; it made us late for the recital and stressed us all out, and ten minutes later it was gone.

As soon as the recital was over, we all went back to the carnival. My brother, sister-in-law and the youngest nephew, Stanley, had arrived for the festivities and Danielle’s mother began her shift at the teddy bear atrocity booth. Rider and Rose went straight back to the face painting for round two. With the parents back in charge, I sat down on the grass, ate Stanley’s popcorn when he wasn’t looking, and took stock of the day’s events. How do all these people do this, every day? I was exhausted after one afternoon. I kissed them all goodbye, texted a friend to meet me at a bar and happily rejoined my regularly scheduled programming.

The next weekend we all went to a friend’s house for dinner and there were no kids for Rider, Rose and Stanley to play with. They amused themselves for a while but I could tell they were starting to get cabin fever. I excused myself from the table and helped them scale the garden wall. I was wearing a new white skirt but they managed to help me up over the wall and we made a run for it. My brother was the only grown-up with a good view of our escape. We found an open grassy area in the housing complex and played freeze tag until I announced that I had reached my running limit for the day. Aunts in pencil skirts can only run so much before they have to sit down. It’s the law. I sat on the grass and they organized a talent show for me. Rider dazzled with his Jedi moves, Rose did a fabulous cartwheel demonstration, and Stanley showed off his best three-year-old somersaults. Then after some whispering and collusion, Rider announced, “Now we are going to sing a song.” On the count of three, they swiveled around and started wiggling their backsides at me while the older two rapped, “I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny . . .”  Tears were streaming down my face, I was laughing so hard. I did get to the bottom of who exposed them to Sir Mix-A-Lot but he won’t appreciate me outing him.

As I sat on the grass watching them shake their butts, I thought to myself, “You are three of the most wonderful, interesting and adorable human beings I have ever known. And I am glad that I am your aunt and not your mother.” I used to suspect that my acceptance of not having children of my own was a defense mechanism. Lately I am wondering if I am starting to believe my own hype. Being an aunt who gets to do the fun stuff and very little of the discipline is amazing. We recently had a sleepover during which they ate nothing but sugar and watched a week’s worth of television, and they repeatedly exclaimed what a wonderful aunt I am. The whole weekend was the perfect aunt extravaganza and I was feeling pretty proud and competent, until the three-year-old threw himself from the top of a jungle gym at the park. While I was rocking him, kissing it better and bribing him with ice cream, a helpful playmate walked up and asked me how old Stanley was. I told the nosey little kid that he was three. He informed me over the din of Stanley’s screams that kids under six were not allowed in the playground. Lucky for him his parents were nearby, judging me for allowing a child to swan dive off a playground apparatus. I have no idea how people do this every day without strangling someone.

I love being an aunt and I am working on being a more patient, unflappable version of the role model that they currently enjoy. I may appear to have a loose interpretation of adult supervision, but I take my role in their lives very seriously. And I am fairly certain that when they are grown they are going to remember the aunt that gave them candy before bed and let them watch Star Wars, instead of the aunt that overreacted and hysterically tore through their school carnival like an escaped mental patient.

Schuylers-Monster2Last summer I was travelling with a good friend who does not like children or animals. Or people. But mostly children. She is quite happy being single and in charge of her own kingdom. That kingdom just happens to be the one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the Child Catcher lures them out with lollipops and throws them into the paddy wagon. Our club-style hotel hosted a mixer for the guests and for a minute I thought a young family was going to join our table. Under my breath I threatened that under no circumstances was she to make a scene and move to another table. She confirmed with equal ferocity that that was exactly what she was going to do if they did not keep moving. We agreed she would be eating dinner alone. Thankfully her withering stare scared them away and I was spared the embarrassment. We were instead joined by three elderly ladies who spoke Italian with my friend and they thought she was a delight.

After I had lectured her on the joy that is strange children in public places, we spent the next morning on a crowded train with no air conditioning in 100-degree heat. A little boy and his mother sat next to me and for an hour the child kicked, screamed, threw food and generally irritated everyone within earshot. My friend watched in smug satisfaction from the seat she had managed to escape to a few rows back. I passed the time in seething judgment of the mother who clearly had no control over her Tasmanian devil of a child. I would like to think that I was able to keep a straight face and therefore my feelings to myself, but I’ll bet the poor woman felt every bit of my disdain as I picked cookie crumbs out of my hair. I’ve thought a lot since then about how we treat people whose children are misbehaving in public. The truth is that we know nothing about the strangers that we encounter in restaurants and airplanes and there is every chance that a situation like my train ride calls for compassion rather than criticism.

Rob Rummel-Hudson is an author and parent to a child with a rare neurological disorder caused by a malformation of the brain. He wrote a memoir about his daughter’s inability to speak and the family’s tireless efforts to find ways for her to communicate. It’s titled Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with his Wordless Daughter. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by this man’s honest and touching story about his struggle with feeling inadequate as a parent and fighting for a place in this world for his child. He tells a story of the first time he was confronted with a lack of compassion and patience while grocery shopping.

As I pondered the choices, Schuyler played a game that might be called “Sugar-crazed Howler Monkey Runs in Circles,” Since we were standing in the freezer section of a mostly unoccupied store, I was inclined to let her be rowdy for a while longer. A short older woman walked down the aisle in front of us, eyeing Schuyler with a pinched expression on her face. As she moved past us, the woman rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Wow, I hope you are not planning to have another one . . . “

”’I beg your pardon?” I said. She gave a short sarcastic chuckle and kept walking. “Wow,” I said, feeling my irritation growing. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen a rambunctious kid before.” The woman snorted and said, “Not like her . . . ” “Not like her.” This time, I’d heard something new from someone confronted with Schuyler’s uniqueness. I’d heard disgust. And rejection. Of Schuyler. I’d wondered for years if I would ever experience it, and suddenly there it was. This woman faced Schuyler’s jabbering and hooting and didn’t hear Schuylerese. She heard a feral child.

After confronting the woman and explaining the situation with his daughter’s brain disorder, he was expecting an apology. But what he got was, “I don’t care what’s wrong with her. If she can’t behave like a normal kid then she shouldn’t be out in public. Maybe you should have her institutionalized if she can’t do any better than that.”

It sounds like an extreme story. Really, who could be that cruel to a perfect stranger? Several of my friends have autistic children and in talking to them about their experiences in public, I have realized that it is a very common occurrence. In a time when our every thought is Twitter-worthy and we are free to spew our opinions, informed or otherwise, all over the Internet, we seem to have become a society of people who are emboldened and entitled to share our disapproval. And certainly anyone who dares to inconvenience us in any way is asking for a piece of our mind.

Just because a child looks like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, I don’t think it gives us the right to jump to conclusions and chastise the parents. The mother struggling to keep her screaming child quiet might be an incompetent mother who has no idea how to train a child. Or she could be a wonderful mother trying to deal with a disability that she is bravely battling every day. She might be doing her best to make a normal life for her family and could use an offer of assistance rather than a look of disapproval. And even if she is just a clueless mother, who are we that we feel compelled to make a stranger feel bad? Do we really need to look down our noses and make it clear we don’t approve of their child’s behavior just because we don’t appreciate being showered with their kid’s soggy cookie? Of course, there are obviously times to speak up when we witness what might be abuse or neglect. But I’m talking about those times when a child is making a mess in a restaurant or disturbing your meal, and you feel compelled to make a snide remark to the parents about keeping their animals in the zoo. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We’ve all been tempted.

Even the best-behaved children in the world have their moments and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Embarrassing situations are inevitable. I know some children who will remain nameless who saw a horse urinating and running across a field at the same time and thought that would be an interesting experiment. Talk about a case for institutionalization. Maybe next time I find myself irritated when my comfort is being interrupted by a loud and seemingly out-of-control child, I should be a little less quick to judge and a little more compassionate.

ImageI had a couple of friends coming over for dinner and I needed something interesting to do with Tilapia. I don’t really cook so much as heat things up, so it had to be simple and foolproof. I pulled some lemon-pepper marinade out of the fridge, put it down on the counter and went away to answer the phone. When I came back I picked up the bottle and shook it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. The only little thing I forgot was that I had loosened the cap when I got it out. A second later I was standing in the kitchen with marinade dripping down my face, through my hair, all over my clothes and down the cabinets. I took a few moments to let the shock wear off and survey the damage. It really was quite spectacular. It occurred to me, as I was standing there in lemon scented socks, that this is the reason I live alone, so no one is there to witness the train wreck. Just in case you think this was an unfortunate but atypical incident, last week my sister-in-law emailed an asparagus soup recipe to my mother and me. I replied that it tasted like dirt and thanks to my new hand-held blender that I have yet to master, it was now all over my kitchen wall. My mother’s response was, “That’s my girl.”

I have very vivid memories of my mother trying to teach me to cook. She can make anything without a recipe but I was the queen of banana bread. That is the only thing I remember making as a kid. When I get good at something I tend to stick with it. In my teen years I progressed to lemon bars, which was exciting for everybody. My mother was very smart about teaching me to cook, which sounds odd now that I have so graphically described her failure. She figured out that I am a stubborn piece of work and I don’t respond well to the now-I-am-going-to-teach-you-something approach. She didn’t put me in an apron and say, “And now we are going to cook.” When she was making dinner, she would casually mention tidbits like, “To get the core out of an iceberg lettuce, you slam it down on the counter and then the core twists right out.” Her cooking tips have stuck with me through the years because I didn’t realize I was being told what to do. The fact that I can’t keep my dinner off the kitchen walls has more to do with my unwillingness to practice than the quality of my education. My cooking skills did not develop beyond cookie baking and breaking up a lettuce because in my young adulthood I discovered that you can have pad thai and chicken tiki marsala delivered in thirty minutes for a fraction of the effort and cost.

The only place I get any experience is when I am helping out at my brother’s house. My niece Rose likes to get involved. She smashes egg shells into the omelets, loses count when she is measuring flour, and usually spills milk all over the floor. I don’t like cooking to start with, so I certainly don’t love cooking with a six-year-old tornado who insists on doing everything herself. But I am constantly reminded of the times my mother watched me burn this or put the wrong ingredients in that. People who have been afforded that kind of patience have a duty to pass it on, I guess. I don’t announce to Rose that I am cooking, but if she notices and pulls up a chair, I hand her the eggs. Then I get the spoon I will need to fish out all the eggshell.

What I can try to pass on is something that I did manage to learn from my mother: the art of entertaining. It has always amazed me that my mother can whip up a meal for twelve people with an hour’s notice and not freak out about it. In high school, my brother and I could easily sweet-talk her into letting our friends come over at the last minute. Something mysterious would come out of the freezer and turn into a fabulous dinner without any drama. We were so proud of her for that. Other mothers would carry on at the imposition or just let us fend for ourselves. The art of entertaining is a fabulous thing. Most people assume it’s about money and snobbery, but it’s actually about planning and presentation. You can order pizza and still present it to your guests like you care. Entertaining well is not about having a fancy home or owning the Crate and Barrel catalog. Money certainly helps provide the appearance of class, but in reality it is an attitude and a way of behaving. If you have ever turned on a television, you know that money does not produce class. So you don’t need money to learn how to treat guests in your own home.

When Rose grows up, I’m not the one she is going to call to ask how long you cook a turkey or what spices you use on a rack of lamb. But as an adult that she looks up to, I can teach a few things by example. When my nieces and nephews come to my house we are more likely to have a food fight with Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King than to sit at a nicely set table, but there are always opportunities to teach good manners and entertaining etiquette. When we have dinner parties, Rose sees me taking coats, offering our guests something to drink and making sure everyone is included in the conversation. Children absorb so much from the example that we set. Let’s just hope she doesn’t follow my example of the proper way to apply lemon-pepper marinade.

ImageMy grandmother has a large, blue ceramic jug decorated with the face of a pirate coming out of the mouth of a lion, among other various characters you would not expect to find peering out from the side of a jug. In other words, it is very ugly. We don’t know how my great-great-grandparents came into possession of this monstrosity but it has been passed down for generations and now sits proudly in my mother’s living room. My brother and I have a running joke about which one of us has to take it and when we get fresh, my grandmother occasionally threatens to leave it to one of us in her will. I am trying to keep on her good side. What I have claimed as mine is an equally gaudy gold and green jar that has a music box in the lid. My great-grandmother kept dried ginger in it and my brother and I learned how to get the lid off without triggering the music box and we would sneak a piece, lick all the sugar off and then throw the spicy ginger away. It is a worthless jar that she probably won in a raffle at her lawn bowling club, but I love it and have cherished it for as long as I can remember.

My grandmother was recently in the hospital with heart failure so the family gathered together for some quality time. Naturally with a scare like that she was thinking about what she was going to leave to us, and the subject of inheritance and the importance of family heirlooms was on all of our minds. Grandma had just shipped her personal belongings from Australia to California when she moved in with my parents, so the house was overflowing with memories. I wandered from room to room remembering childhood visits with my grandparents: the silver hairbrush that always sat on her dresser, the painting of a tree that I always thought looked like a fat lady posing for a photo, the horse statue that I played with when she wasn’t looking.

Sitting in my grandmother’s hospital room in a moment of quiet, I asked her why it was so important to her to pass these things down. She said that what mattered to her was to be able to pass down an appreciation of the things of beauty and quality that she had valued enough to work for, to care for and to carry across several continents and back. The monetary value of her worldly possessions was meaningless; but they represented her life and her parents before her and their parents before them. Passing down the art and objects of beauty (blue jugs aside) was very important to her. She wanted me to learn that this life is not about acquiring as much stuff as you can. You should have things around you that matter, not just things that you have because that’s what Charlie Farnsbarns has. I didn’t ask but I think Charlie Farnsbarns is her version of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s been a while since I was fully fluent in Aussie slang but I’m pretty sure she made that up.

After contemplating this ritual that my grandmother was going through as she assigned her precious treasures to her descendants, I was lying in bed one morning listening to my mother making pancakes with her own grandchildren. My eight-year-old nephew was looking at a cabinet of knick-knacks and said to his little brother, “See that glass ship in a bottle? I would like to inherit that one day.” I lay in bed smiling. He wasn’t wishing he had a ship like that. He wasn’t asking for it. It was his ginger jar.

As the only member in my generation of the family without children of my own, I won’t be the one who is charged with keeping the treasures—and the memories that go with them—in the family. So I have been thinking about what I can do as an aunt to keep our family history alive for my brother’s and cousin’s kids, and here is what I have come up with. I would like to preface this list by saying that I am not necessarily talking about money and things of value here. Although my grandmother has some pieces of art that are beautiful, my family also has a set of multi-colored tin cups that we treat as family heirlooms because of the memories that they bring up. Family possessions do not have to have monetary value to make them important.

Tell kids the history behind family heirlooms and where they came from.

I would love to know how my great-grandmother came into possession of my ginger jar. I took the opportunity at the hospital to ask my grandmother about some of the decorations I had seen in her house for decades but had never taken the time to ask about. I listed many of the things I remembered as a child and she gave me the story behind how each of them came into her possession. I was shocked to realize that some of her things went back five generations. We don’t like to talk about having stuff because it sounds materialistic and crass. But as my grandparents get older I have noticed more and more that their stuff, the little knick-knacks and furniture that have survived through the years, really matters to them. These possessions represent a lifetime of memories. By learning the stories behind them, we are more likely to care too and treat their things with respect. I have personally observed how hurt an elderly person can be when their family shows no interest in the things they have loved and treasured. I am going to find more opportunities to tell my nieces and nephews about our family gems so that when it is their turn to take care of them, they will appreciate their significance and honor the memory of our ancestors. 

Tell kids stories that connect them to the family history.

When we visited my grandparents as little kids, my brother and I would jump into bed with them in the morning. We thought it was great fun to wake them up but now that I am an aunt who loves my morning snuggles, I realize they were probably lying there waiting for us. We would beg my grandfather to tell us stories about when he was young and it didn’t take much coaxing. We learned the stories by heart and would make requests such as, “Tell us about the time your dog got attacked by a kangaroo while you were mustering cattle and how you saved his life,” or, “Tell us the one about when Mummy got in trouble for riding her big sister’s horse and fell off.” My favorites were actually about World War II because it was a time we could not relate to and even the stories he could share with children were fascinating. He had a great tale about how he and his mates distracted a truck driver and relieved the Americans of their supply of socks and underwear from the back of the truck. He had a good laugh every time he told that one. As kids growing up in the city in America, those stories connected us to farm life, our Australian culture, and the history of the war, all at the same time. My father’s father had a similar morning story-time ritual and I have never forgotten the stories of how he survived the war as an Air Force bomb aimer and how our family came to be who we are now. They are both gone and my paternal grandfather’s military cap sits on my brother’s mantel piece and my maternal grandfather’s hat is on my shelf. Those hats represent every one of those stories for us.

Stories about the family can connect children to family heirlooms and give young ones a tangible connection to the past. Children understand things they can touch and feel. My great-grandfather was a jockey, and tales about my great-grandparents living in Hong Kong to help start the horse racing industry there give meaning to the Asian sculptures and furniture that my grandmother has saved. I don’t consider myself a good storyteller and I have never taken the time to tell the kids about what life was like for their dad and me growing up in Australia, or adjusting to our new life in America. Maybe instead of letting them fight over the games on my iPad when they get into bed with me, I should try starting my own morning story time.

Let kids grow into an appreciation of things

If my parents gave my nephew that ship in a bottle now, it would instantly lose its meaning for him. My ginger jar means so much to me because I have spent thirty-something years looking at it, playing with it and admiring it. My mother has had it for a while and she could have given it to me when I was younger but if she had, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much. Give children something to look forward to inheriting and they will value it more.  

Why should little trinkets like a ginger jar and an Air Force hat matter? Throughout much of human history, families were connected by land. Land gave the family roots and great care was taken to keep it in the family generation after generation. The land was not yours but something you were charged with taking care of until it was time to pass it on. Now that so many of us live in cities, we have lost that connection. When we die, we pass down whatever financial assets we have, but money dissipates. With no emotional association or family ties, it is likely to be spent or devalued by the economy. Families benefit from financial inheritance and that is a good thing. However it cannot replace the role that living on the land played in keeping loved ones together and preserving family history. This makes preserving items of family significance all the more important. It is not about materialism or accumulating wealth. It is about connecting to where we came from and keeping the legacy alive.

One day my brother will display the ugly blue jug and visitors will have to think of kind things to say about it. “Wow, isn’t that . . . interesting?” I will be very proud of him for caring enough about our family heirloom to ensure that it is safe and still around to be inflicted upon the next generation. I too am going to help keep our family history alive for my nieces and nephews so that when it is their turn, they understand and appreciate the things that represent their amazing and colorful family.

happiness and the brainWhen my husband passed away, I went through a pretty steep learning curve while adjusting to taking care of our house and large garden. Manual labor and nature have never been my friends. I very quickly learned a few things, like screwing a sprinkler head onto a garden hose requires that you turn it off first; watering the plants in stilettos may aerate the lawn but will require an outfit change before work; and weed whackers are the devil’s garden tool. After purchasing what I perceived to be a needed part from Home Depot, it took me 30 minutes to put the weed whacker back together. I spent another 20 minutes getting it started but when I did, it took off with great enthusiasm. I wrestled it into submission and stuck it down near some grass that needed to go away. Then it fell apart, bits flying all over the garden. Some sort of manufacturing defect, I assumed. After repeating the whole process, the part I had just bought needed to be replaced. In frustration I launched it across the backyard, uttering unpleasant things about my husband leaving me. At this point a neighbor stuck his head over the fence and offered up his gardener. He was a bit of a recluse and the only time I had managed to speak to him was when my dog ran through his wet cement. So he must have been very inspired by the spectacle to come out and kindly give me his gardener’s number.

When I married my husband I knew that he had cancer. I had five years to imagine how I would manage on my own. I pictured myself as the elegant, tragic widow who exuded strength and composure, gracefully thanking people for their sympathy. Not once did I see myself screaming at airborne gardening tools. Actually, almost nothing about how I thought I would cope with grief turned into reality. Gardening aside, I did quite well with the process and found my way through some pretty dark times, but it wasn’t the journey I had built up in my mind.

Daniel Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote a very interesting book about how our brain perceives happiness, called Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert describes an experiment in which volunteers were shown a series of three letter trigrams, such as DXW USY OSQ etc. They were given one trigram and told that this one was special. The subjects were asked to figure out what made that particular series of letters special. In one test group, it did not take long for the subjects to figure out that the special trigram and only the special trigram contained the letter T. In a second test group, the special trigram was distinguished by the fact that it lacked the letter T. It did not matter how many set of trigrams the second test group analyzed, not one of them figured it out. It was easy to notice the presence of a letter but impossible to recognize the absence of one. Our brains also have this problem when creating images of the future. When we imagine what circumstances in our future will bring us happiness, our brains leave out a lot of important information.

Gilbert describes an example of how our brains work. “Our inattention to absences influences the way that we think about the future. Just as we do not remember every detail of a past event (what color socks did you wear to your high school graduation?) or see every detail of a current event (what color socks is the person behind you wearing at this very moment?), so do we fail to imagine every detail of a future event. . . . To illustrate this point I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of their eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. . . . People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined attending the funeral, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom. But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child. Indeed not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play . . . or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book . . . When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter. . . . it is difficult to consider what we may not be considering­—and this is one of the reasons why we so often misinterpret our emotional responses to future events.”

The idea of how our minds perceive and dwell on potential grief has been on my mind ever since a conversation with my sister-in-law. I am the appointed guardian for her three children should anything happen to her and my brother. I am actually the guardian for more than one family so I have a list of people who are not allowed to fly on the same plane together just in case I instantly turn into the old woman who lived in a shoe. I don’t remember how it came up while we were sitting in a theater waiting for the movie to start, but she expressed how much she has thought about what she would do if she found out she was dying. How would she pass the torch and prepare us all for the tragedy? How would she help me become the surrogate mother that her children would need? I have always imagined that if my brother and sister-in-law died, I would move into their house, send the backyard chickens to a “farm” upstate, hire a nanny, and put a psychiatrist on retainer for my occasional nervous breakdowns. The thought of losing them is so horrific that it’s probably best not to think about it, but that doesn’t stop me. I should have learned through the death of my husband, that no matter how you imagine you will cope, how long you plan or how much information you put into the scenarios of how your new life would be, you are wrong. You think you are preparing yourself for a possible outcome, but you are actually just making yourself unhappy.

It is almost impossible to make yourself stop daydreaming about the future. Who hasn’t imagined what they would do if they were told they had cancer, just found out they were adopted, or Johnny Depp showed up at their door begging to let him whisk them away to his private island? What else is there to do during the daily commute? We get out of bed and go to work, workout at the gym and brush our teeth. Almost everything we do is designed to give ourselves a better future, so how can we not think about it? Our brains are not built to only live in the moment and we are going to spend most of our time imaging and planning the future. But we do have some control over whether we allow our minds to obsess over it. We need to understand that the brain cannot give us a complete, realistic vision of what will make us happy. Just as your brain leaves out the good stuff when you picture a future tragedy, it also leaves out the bad stuff when you imagine your perfect life.

My life as a tragically-young widow has turned out better than I expected. Now I live in a garden-free apartment where I am doing my best to keep a house plant alive. I often dream about being married again and having a family. Somehow that vision never involves children throwing up in the back of the car, pee all over my bathroom floor, or being tricked into eating food that has already been chewed; all things that have happened to me because of my brother’s children. I have the best of both worlds and I am trying very hard to keep my imagination in check and be content. And when Johnny Depp shows up, I will feign surprise and wonder if my life could be any more perfect.

ImageI recently took my niece to her first ballet. We saw the Russian National Ballet perform Cinderella.  At age 6, Rose is a little young for a full-length ballet but the stepmother was a large, comic man in a dress and the stepsisters were funny so it was a good way to introduce the theater and fine arts. She sat still longer than I expected and although she thought the girls were too skinny and couldn’t understand why this theater didn’t have popcorn, she liked the fairy godmother’s costume and the pretty music.

When the performance was over, the dancers were still taking their bows when people in the audience started making a beeline for the door. I thought, “These people just danced for you for two hours and you can’t take a minute to show them your appreciation? They are still on the stage, for crying out loud.”

We live in a country where you can see something as extraordinary as a ballet (and the Russian National Ballet no less) for the cost of a week’s worth of Starbucks. Are we showing our children by example that we don’t take that for granted, or are we teaching them that being first out of the parking lot is more important than other people’s feelings?

The problem I had with the ballet exodus is that I’m sure none of those people walking out in view of the performers thought for a minute that it was rude. It was not an intentional snub, just a thoughtless and self-centered action. It occurred to me as I was standing there clapping that you don’t have to be well-versed in theater etiquette to realize that this scene is awkward and unfortunate. Common courtesy tells you that, if you take a moment to see the world around you and not just focus on your own interests. I hate to think what our Russian guests were thinking.

My sister-in-law has a book on her shelf called Etiquette by Emily Post, published in 1946. I enjoy browsing through its helpful rules to live by such as the appropriate attire for your butler and the protocol of leaving a calling card. One of my favorite passages is about the etiquette of leaving someone’s home. “When a visitor is ready to leave, she (or he) merely stands. To one with whom she has been talking, the visitor says, “Good-by. I hope I shall see you again soon” —or “sometime” —or “I’ve enjoyed our talk so much.” Naturally a woman is less effusive in what she says to a man than in what she says to another woman. And yet she may very well exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” if he has told her anything that can be truthfully described as thrilling, but not otherwise.” The entire book goes on like that and I find it endlessly entertaining.

Obviously social norms have changed since the days of Emily Post. We are no longer bound by rules of how to introduce your guests on arrival or who sits to the right of the host at a dinner party. After wrangling Rose into a dress and tights for the ballet and convincing her that going to the theater was a dressing up occasion, I was a little disappointed to see people arrive in flop flops and jeans. Emily Post would have fainted. However, I have come to accept that any social norms that might suggest control over what you are allowed to do are a thing of the past. I recently had brunch in a fancy restaurant in downtown Los Angeles next to a woman wearing pajamas. Breaking convention doesn’t bother me when it is harmless and you are the only person who looks like a fool eating breakfast in your sleepwear. However, I refuse to give up on the idea that there are standards of politeness and consideration of others. Some rules of etiquette will never die. You may not be required to exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” when saying goodbye anymore, but you do have to wait for the curtains to close instead of walking out while the performers take their bows.

Employing common decency means thinking about other people, paying attention to the situation around you and setting a good example. I think it might possibly all come down to one word: gratitude. A person who is grateful for the people in their lives, the experiences they encounter and the opportunities that come their way, are not the people who cut in line to get ahead, spray you with food because they are talking with their mouth full or slamming the door back in your face because they couldn’t be bothered to hold it for you, to name a few of my pet peeves. We all are prone to unintentional offense because we are human, but my outing with my niece has inspired me to be a better example of how a thoughtful, considerate person behaves. And I might try to throw “completely thrilled” in there next time I am saying farewell, just for fun.