September 17, 2014

Who is This Kid and Why is She in My Photo Album?

I spent yesterday going through box after box of old papers and family photos from my mother's vast collection. There are a lot of wonderful pictures of friends and family here, some dating back to the 1800s. What a find!

Unfortunately, much of the time I have no idea who these people are. In some cases, the subjects' names are written on the back of the photo or on the border. Sometimes there is just a date. Most of the time, nothing.

I'm sure that the people who saved these photos knew exactly who was in the picture, where they were, and when it was taken. It never occurred to them that someday their descendants, unable to figure it out, might simply discard photos that had become meaningless. They might as well be pictures of strangers purchased at a thrift shop for the frames.

Who are these elderly ladies?
Even when someone who once knew something about the picture is available to ask, identification can be extremely difficult. After a while, all babies start to look alike. Kids grow up, adults age, memory gets weaker. After a few generations have passed, there is little hope. Could this possibly be my grandfather before he lost his hair? Or is it his brother? Are these three children from 1934 related to me? Which elderly aunt was this, and who was with her at that tea party? Whose dog? What house? I give up.

Please, label those photos now, so they can be appreciated in the future. Otherwise, your family history may end up in a landfill.
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September 8, 2014

Remembering My Grandmother

My uncle delivered the eulogy at my grandmother's memorial service in 1994. I was very disappointed by his presentation, so I wrote my own and mailed it to everyone who had been present. Twenty years and several computers later, I had lost the original file. Finding a hard copy in my mother's old file cabinet last week was an unexpected gift.

My grandmother and mother
At my grandmother's funeral, I was sorry to learn that her son's view of her was obscured by sadness at the infirmities of her final years, and that he had but few and dim recollections of the many events, emotions and moments that composed her life and defined her character.

I was sorry that her list of "accomplishments" -- children and descendants -- was so limited, and that the description of her character was confined to praise for her religious faith.

It's true that my grandmother didn't travel around the world, write bestselling fiction, appear on television, save starving lepers or design skyscrapers. She didn't influence America's foreign policy, start a new dance craze or discover a cure for cancer. She didn't even drive.

Lida Boose was an ordinary woman, born at a time when being an ordinary woman was a virtue. She grew up in what was then a quiet, mostly rural community, married a farmer, and raised two children. She cooked, sewed, kept house and maintained an active interest in the lives of her family.

My grandparents were simple people, which is a way of saying they were not particularly sophisticated and had little formal education. But they appreciated books and learning. Their house was full of books, especially the westerns and mysteries my grandfather enjoyed. Lida had dropped out of high school, but when her children were nearly grown she decided to take the necessary classes, and earned her diploma at last.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of spending the night with Grandma and Grandpa in their old house by the orange grove. At that time, the entire second story of the house was used only for storage. She believed the floor was unsound, so children were allowed to venture up there only occasionally, under anxious supervision, taking delicate steps lest we crash through to the rooms below. To me it was a fabulous, dusty treasure trove of old books and toys, and dress-up clothes dating back to an ancient time -- Grandma's unimaginable youth.

I loved her scrapbooks. She had saved every Valentine her children received for years, and they were delightful -- elaborate, old fashioned cards with pop-up scenery, moving parts, or layers of ruffles. She had books full of newspaper clippings on subjects that fascinated me: cats that adopted orphaned rabbits, ladies whose hair was six feet long, people who lived to be 105, pets that saved their owners' lives. The time she spent putting her scrapbooks together was well worth the hours of entertainment they provided.

For a while, she and her sister had run a small gift shop, and for years after it closed, interesting items from the final inventory would show up as decorations or gifts at Christmas, birthdays, and other special occasions. My cousin Patti and I spent New Year's Eve with her, and brought down boxes of confetti and streamers to throw at midnight. I have a photo of Grandma in her nightgown, ducking and laughing.

Christmas was her favorite time of year. Every year she laid out her Nativity scene, with cotton depicting snow in Bethlehem! There was always a Christmas tree, although eventually the big, natural trees were replaced by a small, artificial one. She liked to give lots of presents, something important that you'd asked for, and plenty of little things wrapped and hidden in advance, so that inevitably some were overlooked, and in the spring she would find something and I'd get another surprise. Around the end of June, she would announce, with happy anticipation, "It's only six more months until Christmas!"

Her 68th birthday
Grandma was a very emotional person who often overreacted to the normal events of life. Her feelings were easily hurt, sometimes in ways that were difficult to understand. She avoided direct confrontation, and would complain to one person about another, which could be very exasperating for everyone involved. At the same time, I think her own hypersensitivity enhanced her concern about other people's feelings. She didn't want to offend anyone, and she wanted everyone to get along and be happy. At children's birthday parties, she remembered to bring little gifts for the non-birthday siblings, so that no one would feel neglected. She tried very hard to give us what we wanted. If I mentioned once that I liked peanut brittle and rose perfume, then for years peanut brittle and rose perfume would appear at every birthday.

I'll admit that as I got older I often thought of her as an emotionally weak person. She limited herself with phobias and anxieties. She wouldn't drive a car, and had difficulty going places because of claustrophobia and other irrational fears. In her mind, minor risks were magnified into imminent dangers, and she wanted everyone else to share her worries.

But her real inner strength was demonstrated year after year as she assumed more and more of the increasingly difficult task of caring for her invalid mother. She filled in on the live-in caretaker's day off. When a caretaker quit, she stayed in the house until another could be found. When it finally became impossible to find a new caretaker, she moved in full-time. It was a dreary and thankless job that she did out of both love and duty, and continued to do until it was no longer possible to provide care outside of a nursing home. She more than earned the right to be well taken care of when her turn came. I am glad that she was able to stay in her own home, surrounded by her own possessions, until the very end.

As a young wife
I didn't see her very often during the past few years. When I did, she didn't remember me, although she often remembered my husband and was then able to identify me as "Steve's wife". Although I don't know what the details of her daily life were like, I suspect her memory loss bothered other people much more than it did her. She was increasingly fragile, but when I saw her, her overall demeanor and personality were still quite recognizably those of the person she had always been. She liked having visitors, and seemed to enjoy being introduced to semi-new people.

Every person is unique. When Lida Boose died, the world lost someone who had not been here before, and who will not be here again. I miss her, but I know that it was time for her to go. If I could speak to her now, I'd just like to say, I love you, don't be afraid, and sleep well.

     Rosemary West
     January 1994

September 2, 2014

Don't Tell Me To Calm Down!

Calm down!
I was on the phone with a family member (not my husband) who was talking very fast, giving me a list of complaints about things that weren't my doing, and talking over me when I tried to respond. In an effort to get him to listen to me, I said, "Calm down," and he immediately snapped, "I'm not upset, so don't tell me to calm down!"

Yeh, right.

It's actually possible that he wasn't upset to begin with. We had a terrible phone connection, so he may have been interrupting me by mistake simply because he couldn't hear me. Talking fast doesn't mean much by itself, and the list of problems could have been meant to inform me rather than blame me. The trouble we were having hearing each other set the stage for a misunderstanding.

Upset or not, most people don't respond well to being told to calm down. Nine times out of ten, it seems to make an angry person even angrier, and it often triggers anger or defensiveness in someone who wasn't particularly upset at first.

Like me, most people who tell someone to calm down are hoping the person will simply take their advice. But it rarely works that way. The message that is intended is not the message that is received.
  • When you tell someone to calm down, you seem condescending. It is as if you place yourself in a superior position, judging their emotions and telling them what to feel and how to act. Nobody likes that.
  • The person who is told to calm down is likely to feel that you aren't taking their concerns seriously. The message seems to be that whatever this is, it isn't worth getting upset over, and they are just over-reacting.
  • People who are angry usually believe their feelings are justified (and they may be right). Telling them to calm down is like telling them their feelings aren't valid.

Instead of saying "Calm down"...

A better choice for me in the conversation with my relative might have been to say, "I'm having trouble following you. Could you slow down a little?" Slowing the stream of words can have a calming effect. At the very least it will make it easier for you to listen to the other person and give you some time to think about how to respond.

If someone is upset and shouting at you, it is always acceptable to say "Please stop shouting." There is no need to add any speculation about their emotional state or motivation, since that will likely upset them more.

Instead of getting defensive...

When someone tells me to calm down, my preferred response is to smile and say, "I am calm." I say it very calmly.

Another possible response is "That's a great idea!" followed by a request for whatever it is you are trying to get from the other person.

Sometimes it's best just to be straightforward and say, "This is as calm as I can be under the circumstances. So let's just move ahead and try to solve this problem."

August 19, 2014

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