When I was little no trip to grandma's was complete without going to see some old person I was related to in some incomprehensibly complex way and usually generalized as a "cousin".
Often there were sweets of some kind involved, so I didn't mind so much. I used my best manners as I had been warned to do, ate as many of the yummy treats as I could discreetly get into my mouth, and listened while the adults talked.
The conversation always began with an explanation of who I was. ("This is Bobbie's Daughter." "Eh?" "BOBBIE'S DAUGHTER". ) The "cousin", wrinkled and stooped with age would "Ooo", and "Ahhh" over me, which made me feel very important.
Then the conversation would sharply turn away from me and on to various ailments, marriages, births and other family news to be shared. Old pictures were inevitably pulled out and poured over, all the time pointing out who had Papa's smile or Aunt Nettie's brow. Sounds like boring stuff for a kid, but still I didn't mind. I liked looking at the pictures and hearing the talk. I liked hearing the stories from long ago childhoods when the ancient person in front of me was like me -- still a child with all the world in front of them.
I'm sorry to say I don't remember those stories or even the names and most certainly not the relationship beyond "Cousin". But somewhere deep in my memory a vague idea was planted that wove itself into the fiber of my being.
I understood that the story of me did not begin with me.
I was a collection of parts tumbling through time, space, and generations, combining and separating again and again until finally coming to a scattering halt in me. Certainly I was unique, but the parts that made me were as ancient as human life itself.
There was something reassuring about it to me. I could almost sense those people from the pictures looking up at me, smiling and proud. It made me lift my chin an little higher.
This last week I took my 9 year old daughter on our annual visit to see Grandma and Grandpa in North Carolina -- a trip we look forward to every year. My Mom mentioned that Mary Laura wanted to see me. Mary Laura is my Mother's Mother's Grandfather's Son's.....she's a cousin.
I distinctly remember Mary Laura from my childhood. She was gracious and poised, warm and always smiling. She was the kind of person that everyone loved, and I was no exception. So it seemed natural to take my daughter and niece to visit their "cousin" Mary Laura.
She greeted us with a smile that has not diminished with age one whit and wasted no time setting out treats for us all. We properly introduced my daughter and niece, swapped our family news, and poured over family pictures.
When my mother saw the picture of a 9 year old Mary Laura she suddenly gasped. "Look at that! Who does that look like?" she pointed out. And there, staring out at me from a photograph over 50 years old was an expression so like my daughter's I had to gasp too. The brow, the smile....parts and pieces donated to my daughter. I never noticed it before.
When I was young I understood the story of me did not begin with me, but now I understand the story of me does not end with me. I will go on tumbling through ages as this tradition, this odd little tradition, works itself into the next generation.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Do you remember when you were a kid and Valentine's day was just fun? First, you got to decorate a box or bag or something with red and pink crepe paper. Then on the big day the whole class would exchange those cheesy little cards, some of them complete with conversation hearts. You gave a card to everyone. And then you'd get a cupcake or something that someone's mom made. It was awesome!
Then we grew up and Valentine's day took on a whole different meaning. It wasn't about giving everyone a card any more. It wasn't even about getting a card from everyone. That wasn't good enough. You only wanted to get a card from that special someone, and not just a card -- no no. You dreamed about bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolate, and maybe even a stuffed animal. (OK, at least that what girls dream about, I won't venture into what boys fantasize about that day.) The day was ruined -- a least for most of us. For those of you who always managed to have a Valentine is was still awesome, I'm guess. I wouldn't know. It seems like I spent the bulk of holiday feeling rather glum, and alone.
At least until one day while in college, inspired by Charlie Brown (as in "Well, Charlie Brown how many Valentine's did you give away?), a chum and I decided to reclaim Valentine's day and go back to the cheesy little cards. We made one for everyone we thought we might see that day, complete with conversation hearts, and spent the day passing them all out.
It changed everything. The day was fun again. Getting those silly little cards seem to make everyone's day a little brighter, but none more than my own. Although I gave out far more cards than I received that day, I felt supremely happy. I learned an important thing, not just about Valentine's that day, but about life. The quickest path to happiness and the best antidote for a glum mood is doing something for others.
I don't know why it is. It doesn't make any logical sense. You'd think if you just focus on yourself all the time you'd be sure to get everything you want and you'd be happy, but it just doesn't work that way. Giving to others brings a joy to our lives that can not be acquired through any other means. Truly happy people know this. Adolescents haven't learned this yet, and really is there a more miserable lot in this world than 13 year olds? Only through serving others can we forget our own insecurities and frustrations. And it is only through this forgetting, or losing of ourselves that we find ourselves again. I think someone else said something like that. (Matthew 16:25).
I eventually did find an "Eternal Valentine" and this morning I dropped our 9 year old daughter off to school, excited for the Valentine's card exchange today. I've tried to teach her that she will find joy through giving, but I realized this morning as I watched her toting two dozen cupcakes (with really yummy chocolate frosting I might add), presents for her teachers, and a card for each and every classmate, she already knows that. I just have to make sure she doesn't forget.