My friend Grace is flying to Ethiopia today to meet her adopted son, Yared, for the first time. What a journey to make! My thoughts are with her. Last Sunday I was at her baby shower, a moving ritual arranged by our friend, Kyla. There were lots of flowers and food, but instead of presents, we each brought a story–something we loved about how our parents were with us. We told them to Grace and wrote them down for a book for her to keep. It was lovely. I cried, off and on, hearing all of those beautiful, funny, endearing stories. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Grace. Off the top of my head, I love how my parents sang a lot. My mom sang around the house, washing dishes or whatever, whatever song was in her head. I remember her singing the Oompaloompa song from the other room after we’d recently watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember thinking that she sounded so good–just right. My dad sang to us every night at bedtime. He’d come up  to me and Ely’s room after we were tucked in and sing us a few songs with his guitar. I had no idea how special that was–it was just something that happened, but it’s such a warm memory now. They were usually the same songs but I never got tired of them. One of them was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” That was my favorite. One was “I Been Working on the Railroad.” He also sang an odd little song I’ve never heard anywhere else that went “What do you do in a case like that?/What do you do but stamp on your hat?/And your nail file and your toothbrush/And anything else that’s helpless.” Hilarious!

But writing about my bedtime made me think of a larger story about how I was parented. My days and weeks–my life–as a kid were punctuated with so many fun, comforting rituals. Bedtime was the best. My dad’s singing was the last part of a great time. My mom read to us from a chapter book every night. I could count on it. I could anticipate it with total safety. I loved it. And yes, sometimes I cried when she was ready to stop, because I wasn’t ready for her to stop, but I also looked forward to it the next night. We brushed our teeth together in our tiny bathroom, and my dad would call out the checklist of things we might need to do before bed, “OK, pee, poop, throw up, brush your teeth, go to bed,” and then, while brushing, the dental geography, “Bottoms of the tops, tops of the bottoms….” My mom would tuck us in, and gave us our choice of a back or head scratch.

That was just bedtime. We ate all of our meals together as a family. Each kind of meal had its own ritual. My dad’s dishes all had names that he announced with triumph: “Lentissimo Magnifico!” was one of his lentil dishes. He could be counted on (and still can, now that I think of it) to remind us that broccoli were miniature trees and that beans were miniature potatoes. On Saturday mornings we baked bread and Saturday nights we ate pizza on the homemade pizza crusts. On Sunday mornings we had pancakes. Every two weeks we’d all go out to the local dairy and watch the cows get milked. My parents bought the milk before they pasteurized it. We’d sit around the living room, shaking quart jars of fresh, whole milk until it separated. We made butter from the cream and (usually chocolate, s0metimes tapioca) pudding from the whey. We had regular nights with foot rides or crazy eights or The Muppet Show. There were great wrestling matches, the brothers against my dad. We’d apparently pin him every once in a while and he’d say “Now any normal person wouldn’t be able to move right now…” and that meant we were about to get (gently) tossed around the room.

I think I was an extra-sensitive kid, so maybe I was a special case–I mean, I don’t know that this will apply to Yared–but I’m so grateful to my parents for all of the regular, predictable, fun, comforting moments. They created structure for my days, gave me things to look forward to, cushioned the blows when things didn’t go my way. They also created a culture for the family: This is what life is like for us. This is what it feels like to be a Lester. There were exciting times, too, of course.  Like ice cream once a year or so. Or Disneyland, or relatives visiting. Or the couple times that we moved. That kind of stuff made vivid memories, being so rare, but it is the predictable stuff that I feel so warmly about.

As I’m thinking about all that, too, I’m reminded of the communication theory I’ve been learning in my Couples and Family Therapy program. In it, human communication exists on two levels. One is the obvious, content level–what the words mean. The other is a higher level communication, a non-verbal assertion about the nature of the relationship. The non-verbal sets the context for all of the other communication, colors it. One thing about non-verbal communication is that there’s no negative term. You can’t say, for example, “I will not hurt you” with non-verbal behavior. All you can do is put yourself in a position where you could hurt someone, and then not do it. One book, Pragmatics of Human Communication uses the image of an animal communicating to another that it will not hurt them by taking their throat in its jaws and not biting down. It seems like being a parent (and maybe part of any relationship) is to be constantly in that position. It seems to me that love is like that. The words “I love you” do not convey love by themselves. I appreciate so much how my parents showed me their love–rather than telling me about it–in all of these little, regular, predictable ways, making me feel comfortable and cared for, giving me a safe physical and emotional space to explore myself and the world in.

Love,

Nathen

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