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Maybe Your Apple Didn't Fall as Far From the Tree as You Were Hoping

Posted Feb 01 2010 1:50pm

When my nephew was three years old I started to understand just how bizarre and hard-wired a familial blueprint can be. We were sitting at the table having breakfast and as I watched him take a sip of milk I thought I spied something that I had seen at many a breakfast years before. With every sip he swished the milk around in his mouth before he swallowed it. His cherubic little cheeks puffed out side to side as he swished the milk to the right a few times, then to the left, maybe once more to the right and then it was down the gullet. Every sip.

This was exactly what his great-grandfather did with his coffee every morning.

Now, I had lived with my grandparents for several months when I returned to Chicago so I knew this but my grandfather had passed away years before my nephew was even born. I watched, fascinated, as my nephew did this with every liquid and near-liquid he consumed. Yogurt? Swished. Soup? Swished. Jello? Yep. Water? Why even ask?

I hear it in the way my aunt has the exact same laugh as my mother. I saw in the shape of my nephew's infant head that he was going to look like my dad, and his uncle. I see it in the way I take endless photographs of flowers much to the chagrin of my grandmother who asked, "Now do you take nice pictures of people or just a bunch of flowers like your father?" I see it in the way my brother can calm the wildest of beasts just like my St. Francis-like father can.

Call it nature, call it nurture, or some complex combination of the two, our family blueprints are mighty strong.

And herein lies yet another reason I feel extraordinarily blessed to be a caregiver and to have had the opportunity the last few years to see my parents' lives from a more intimate angle. It's provided me an excellent, and sometimes sobering, opportunity to examine my own family blueprint.

Now I love my parents very much (which, admittedy, was something I had to grow into) but I have to tell you, they aren't exactly the most balanced people. Charming? Yes. Funny? No doubt about it. Generous? Absolutely. Able to take genuine pleasure in simple things? Delightfully so. And in those ways, I hope my apple has landed right at the foot of their joint trunk in my family tree. But when it comes to things like life balance, they didn't make it too easy on me.

When I was young, my mom had a goal of reading every book in the library. She had magazines when I returned from my first year in college that she had gotten when I was born and had not yet tossed out because she had not made all the recipes in them yet. These tattered magazines were so familiar to us that we knew exactly which torn off corner of a page we were looking for when she was mid-recipe and needed the missing section. (I'm just now realizing a little Scotch tape would have saved us hours of searching over the years.) After my mom had her stroke when I was in my early 40's and I was helping with her transition home I burned those same magazines with the odd saved corners among them (with her permission). It took many hours over several days.  And while the "eternal flame" was burning outside I was inside clearing her kitchen cabinets of boxes of ingredients that were 17 years old in a few cases because she had a recipe she was going to make. These ingredients, just like the magazines, moved with her when she divorced my father, and from that apartment to her current house. They were deliberately transported.

And while she was accumulating tapioca, canned anchovies and polenta, my father was amassing every color of tinted light bulb (including turquiose and aqua) known to man, a dresser full of "The World's Softest Socks" (okay, 3 drawers full), cases and cases of binders, plastic page covers and labels for his movie collection (don't ask), and cleaning Fanny May out of its entire stock of half-priced chocolate covered raisins (it cost him $90). When his freezer went out he lost $150 worth of cheese pierogis (and the cardiologist goes "Whee!"). Do you have any idea how many dozen that is? Thirty.

My parents really don't do too much half way. And while neither of them can fully express these tendencies the same way now, due to limited funds and physical abilities, it isn't that the drive isn't there.  My mom likes to try everything a company makes once she finds one she likes, so her American Spoon phase resulted in a fridge filled with jams and jellies.

(Now, I have to tell you, in all seriousness, she finds some excellent stuff. She has an eye and palate for quality. Her movie recommendations are top notch, too. She's my "Go To Girl" when I'm looking for something special. And do give Dan's Chocolates a try. I've been trying to talk her into blogging her findings, actually.) 

And even with all the cleaning I have been doing at Dad's I have yet to buy an ounce of laundry soap or cleaning solution and won't have to for at least the next year. How a man who hates dusting with such vehemence could have so many dusting apparati has found me chuckling more times that I can count.

So that little part of me that is tempted to buy every scented candle on the clearance rack is something I have to watch. My sister and I have traded so many clothes back and forth over the years with price tags still attached (that we got simply because they were such a good deal) we could have opened our own boutique (I mean that literally). If I didn't pay attention I could absolutely, and with the best of intentions, accumulate a whole lot of stuff that it would simply be impossible to get to, for sheer quantity of it all.

That being said, it still haunts me whether I should have stocked up on more Rooibos Rose Garden tea from Teavana. Why oh why are they discontinuing one of my favorite teas ever? I should just call and say, "send me what you've got" and tell them Frank Young sent me. 

Moderation is a discipline I had to learn on my own and I maintain a conscious awareness of the need for it all the time. I don't want my nieces and nephews, or whoever is tasked with going through my estate to deal with sorting through mountains of stuff that I never used and had forgotten I even had. It's exhausting work and I happen to like cleaning.

Now when I buy one article of clothing, two get passed on. It doesn't matter if I can get tailored high end clothing for $1.81 at the thrift store (or thrift store is AMAZING), I can only wear so many clothes and unless I have two things that I am willing to let go of, I'm telling myself no. I go shopping with lists and clear intentions. I can tell you exactly what is in my closets and nothing falls on my head when I open them.

I do understand that some of my little "rules" may sound like I'm a bit obsessive. I don't have any nervous tics or anything if I break them. It's just that before I realized what my family blueprint was going to build in my life and while I had a sister who was a retail manager in a clothing store, my closets got pretty full. And Stacy and Clinton actually got in my head and I had to admit that not everything that was filling them was right for me no matter how good a deal. So, the one in/two out gave me a nice easy way to whittle down the excess over the last few years and now it keeps me in check when I might be tempted to spend money I'm not making for something that a woman who rarely leaves home really doesn't need anyway, even if it IS super-cute and knocked down to 88 cents. (Did I say my thrift store rocks?) And besides, Erin looks better in all my clothes, anyway.

In fact, this is why I strongly recommend that even if you employ a house keeper you put your hands on, or at least take a good look at, everything you own in your home (attic, garage and storage spaces included) at least once a year. It's part of good stewardship (one of my personal principles) to know and care for what you have. It's also good simply as an energy assessment because letting a bunch of stuff accumulate in your environment that you don't like, aren't using, don't know what to do with or feel obligated to keep because it cost so much or was such a steal simply isn't good for you. Trust me on this. I have emptied closed file cabinets in my office of old documents, especially icky ones like old depostions and other annoyances, to have my husband come home, walk into the room and ask, "What's different in here? It feels different. Fresher."

It's kind of like homeopathy. Like cures like. Coping with my parents' excesses have helped me eradicate (or at least carefully control) my own. (I will not surf to Teavana, I will not surf to Teavana...)

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