Recently when I was sitting with my mom, my stepdad and my girls around a table at McDonald’s — hold your rage for one moment, swallow it, and then use that energy to knit tiny hats for orphan pigeons — I noticed that I had to keep telling both girls to put their feet on the floor. Both of them would pull their knees to their chest as they ate, putting their feet on the bench. Basically taking whatever was on the floor of that public building and creating a stew of it to sit in. Yummy half-digested French fried crispy McNugget double onion bisque with a side of discarded chewing gum McGriddled into someone’s sneeze.
My mother turned to Leta and said, “Sweetie, this is not a conspiracy. I didn’t tell her to tell you that.”
I could have totally seized some instant leverage right then and said, “Actually, Leta, she DID tell me to tell you that and now her bishop is going to be PISSED.”
Apparently this is something my mother is constantly reminding the girls when they are with her: put your feet on the floor, please. That’s when I took stock of the previous fifteen minutes of our meal (yes, OUR meal, McDonald’s was on every corner in the Paleolithic era). I was constantly telling them to put their feet on the floor, chew with their mouths closed, be careful and don’t drop ketchup on their shirts. Etc. Etc. All those lame, awful things that our own mothers repeatedly drilled into our heads when we were kids, and now… we eat with our feet on the floor. We close our mouths when we chew. We’re careful not to get ketchup all over our clothes. We learned. Ew. Disgusting. The sixteen-year-old me who wore black leather chokers and listened to The Cure in the dark is so embarrassed by what we’ve all become. BY WHAT WE LET HAPPEN.
There are times when I’m scared that I do too much of this, this reminding. This, well, nagging. It feels like nagging from my end even though I always try to do it in the gentlest way possible.
“Hey, remember what I said about putting your feet on the floor when you’re at the table?”
“You’re about to drip ketchup onto your lap, can you eat over your plate?”
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT LOOKS LIKE? DO YOU?” while I frantically imitate a wild animal breaking into a garbage can and stuffing its drooling maw with decaying trash.
It’s a matter of balance, I suppose. Gentle repetition interspersed with other dialogue, although sometimes the 30th repetition can be a little less gentle and a little more on the side of NO, REALLY. DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT I SAID. HOW IS YOUR HEARING.
I can see it working in certain manners I want my girls to exhibit. Leta is very good about acknowledging people and saying hello. She’s doesn’t need to be reminded to say thank you or please. She doesn’t gripe when I ask her to wash her hands. And these qualities did not just grow in like her two front teeth. There were reminders and more reminders and 20-ft tall flashing billboards on every street corner saying, “YOU. YES, YOU. REMEMBER TO SAY THANK YOU. LOVE, MOM.”
I think what I’m struggling with is that I don’t want them to remember their time with me only as one long string of instructions: do your homework, practice piano, eat over your plate, wash your hands, brush your teeth, fix me a hot dog. And I know they won’t, but sometimes when I’m right in the moment of instructing them I feel guilty. It’s an involuntary feeling, and the way that I work myself through it is to remind myself how grateful I am that my own parents taught me these values. They loved me enough to show me how to be respectful of other people. They loved me enough to want me to be civilized.
So when I start to feel guilty I take a deep breath and think, “This is because you love them, Heather. This is a form of love. Now the real question is, why are you talking to yourself in the third person? Because your kids will certainly remember this.”