Planely offensive.

239 people on board Malayasia Airlines flight 370 are likely at the bottom of the ocean or slammed into a mountain somewhere in Asia. Hilarious, no?

No.

And yet this meme has been circulating, less than two weeks after the tragedy:

ze plane boss

The first time I saw it, in my Facebook feed, I gasped. It was posted by accident by a friend who hit the “share” button on her phone in the middle of the night. We’ve all been there, right? She was horrified and deleted it asap, but people continued to chuckle about it. I don’t think the family members of the people on that airplane were among them.

As the day went on, other people posted the meme, and not by accident. A real laugh riot, this post. It was chalked up to “black humor.” If you’re going to go there, it better be funny, and it better not do damage. Some went so far as to say that the investigation has been so bungled that probably even the family members of the clearly departed would think it was funny. I think not, but you judge for yourself: here’s a mom in action. Perhaps if she just stopped to look at Tattoo for a minute, she would see the humor in the situation.

When I pointed out that the meme might be just a smidge tasteless, I was pilloried. That’s me, no sense of humor at all. Ask anybody. One giddy poster gave the back-handed “If you were offended, I apologize.” Which is not quite the same as “I am sorry I offended you.” I’ll leave it to my much-smarter friend, Marjorie Ingall, at SorryWatch.com to explain the nuances of that kind of non-apology.

Let’s bottom-line this: surely the people who created, circulated, and chuckled at this meme can find something else to brighten their days than a bunch of dead people on a missing airplane. If they want to skewer the the ineptitude of the investigators, why not wait until we actually know what happened? After all, they only have 2.97 million square miles to search, much of it ocean. Shouldn’t they be done by now?

On a completely unrelated post, I saw someone say that social media had made people crazy. Social media hasn’t made people crazy, or tasteless, or mean, or paranoid or clueless. It’s just a microphone.

P.S. It’s fairly telling that the website that appears to be circulating this post the most has tagged it “funny, plane, malaysia.” Right.

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Little boxes.

box

The cigar box with childish treasures, under the bed, away from a little brother’s reach, a milk crate upside-down nightstand for a broke college student, one cardboard box to carry my office things out when they didn’t need me any more, dozens of boxes to move a lifetime of accumulated stuff from house to house, more each time, things and more things and ever more things. Boxes and more boxes. They haunt me.

When my mother died, all they gave me of her was a little box, about a foot square. She was living in Mexico and had decided, when they told her about the cancer, that she would be cremated. It’s a really big deal to bring a body back into the country, but if you are cremated, you’re just a carry-on. When we placed the box in the tiny, square grave next to her father and grandmother, I kept thinking: this should be more. Before we put the dirt in, we added another box, this one just about three inches across. It was her beloved cat, Prissy, who had hated everybody but my mother and who had died a while before. Her ashes went in, too, Momma’s only request.

Some months after Momma was gone, I got a box from Mexico. I couldn’t open it for nearly a year. It just sat in a corner of my living room, scaring me. In the box were some family pictures and things she had saved, like every birthday card I had ever given her, my French honor society medal, and a copy of the speech I gave to the congregation when I converted to Judaism. She took almost nothing with her to Mexico, having gotten rid of nearly everything she owned except what would fit in her car. So I was surprised by what came back. Inside that box was a little box, with a few pieces of jewelry, and her watch. I think the watch touched me the most of all. It sat on her wrist every day of her life. It was there all the years she worked as a bank teller, for little pay and less respect from the company, so she could raise her two kids. She was so beloved by her customers that they used to stand in her line while other tellers were open, just so they could give their deposits to her. The little box that holds her watch is one of my treasures.

I am surrounded by boxes… bank statements and personal financial crap that I probably don’t need. Stuff for Goodwill. Paper to recycle. Books to donate. Art junk I keep meaning to do something with. Things still not unpacked from the last move, 16 years ago. Boxes and boxes and boxes of meaningless crap. And only a few tiny boxes with anything important in them. Who will want any of it? Will it mean anything to anyone, after I’m gone?

Years and years before my mother-in-law died, she went on a binge of giving stuff away. Every time we went to visit, we left with a box, pressed upon us as we went out the door. At the time, I didn’t understand it. When we’d get in the car, I’d ask my husband, “Why is she giving everything away?” Now, I know. She wanted it, any of it, to matter. She wanted to matter.

So, if I start handing out weird crap at random, just take it, okay?

When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother  walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds,
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

~ Merrit Malloy

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Am echad, lev echad. One people, one heart.

D’var Torah, Parshat Va’era 5774

One People, One HeartThere’s a saying in Israel, “sim lev.” You see it over open man-hole covers and at construction sites or bad places in the road, where we in America would have a big old “CAUTION” sign. It means, literally, “put your heart into it.” I love that. Not just “Watch out!” or even “take care” but really put your heart into paying attention.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart; in some places, Pharaoh hardens his own heart but either way, his heart is HARD. He is stubborn and ignores the facts (like it’s raining frogs) to the detriment of his own people. No matter what signs and wonders or pestilence and pain come his way, he hangs on to his stubbornness. Why? Looks like when the Nile ran with blood, the first plague, he would have said, “Get those Israelites outta here.” But he didn’t. His pride—which God may have given him, as a lesson to the rest of us—just wouldn’t let him do the right thing. He had to show his personal power. His heart stayed hard for quite a while.

There’s another phrase in Hebrew that I especially love: “am echad, lev echad”… one people, one heart. Would that it were true. People may think that the tension, for Jews, is with the Gentiles or the Palestinians. In fact, our biggest tension is with our fellow yehudim, with Am Yisrael. We can be very hard-hearted with each other.

I’m online a lot. I have lots of Jewish friends and have “liked” lots of Jewish stuff on Facebook. I read Jewish blogs and I am in several Jewish groups on LinkedIn. On a daily basis, I’m just astounded at the things Jews say to each other. Judgement, snarkiness, name-calling, holier-than-thou and “I’m a better Jew than you” stuff. One way to be a Jew, from people who think their way is the only way.

The Orthodox haven’t cornered the market on dissing other Jews, by the way. Reform and secular Jews have been known to ridicule super-observant Jews. Still, I bristle at being called a “not religious” Jew. Really, then why am I here?

It doesn’t matter what the topic is: food, rituals, Israel, Torah…it’s always an argument. Sure, argument is our national sport, but it should be disputation of the Talmudic kind, where everybody gets to talk and all opinions are given consideration. I recently saw a guy call a fellow Jew a jihadist, an Arab propagandist, evil, ignorant of the mitzvot, and mentally deficient because he is a vegetarian. Online, this kind of nastiness is very public, a shanda for the goyim. In private, it is a knife in the heart of the Jewish people, and the Jews put it there. We do it to each other. Somebody’s always ready to tell another Jew that he’s not doing it right.

We’re well into the year 5774, but 2014 is ready to begin. Let’s resolve to approach our fellow Jews “sim lev,” more carefully. Let’s be “am echad,” one people with “lev echad,” one heart. Let’s make our hearts a little softer toward each other.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may it only be…

Shabbat shalom.

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Kim Phillips is a Jewish artist specializing in papercut art.

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The longer I’m Jewish, the more I like Christmas.

jewish christmasI’ve written here before about how Christmas wasn’t always merry for me; Momma did her best, but family dynamics often conspired to make it more Grinch than Charlie Brown. I longed for a low-tech holiday, where the family hikes out into the snowy woods, dad chops down an evergreen, and we all decorate it with hand-strung popcorn and cranberries and Bing Crosby croons in the background while mom makes gingerbread and we sip hot chocolate. It was not to be.

The older I got, the more troublesome the yuletide got. The retail extravaganza was just too much and seemed to be enjoyed most by the malls, Hallmark, and Kroger. The season stretched out longer and longer, starting before Thanksgiving, so that by the time Christmas actually arrived, I was completely over it. The tit-for-tat gift-giving, dull office parties, awkward family gatherings, obscene amounts of food…ugh. But the worst was the enforced jollity: be happy right now.

Evidently I’m not alone in not loving Christmas. The writer Anne Lamott, on her Facebook page, describes “deeply unhinged people beaming at us with a rictus of holiday mirth, wishing they had a grenade.” It’s not popular to admit you don’t love Christmas, but the fact is that, for some people, it’s just too much pressure. Some folks are lonely, missing loved ones now gone, or regretting family estrangements, tired of the stress and expense the holiday creates, tired of the fact that it is mostly not about what it’s supposed to be about. If you don’t enjoy the holiday, clearly there is something wrong with you.

So, when my rabbi asked me, as I was converting to Judaism, would I be okay with bagging Christmas, I told her, “I can’t wait to.” Becoming a Jew would let me off the hook for so many things. The fact that I still got time off from work seemed like a little bonus that didn’t quite make up for having to hear “Are you ready for Christmas?” about 900 times in two weeks. Now that my mom is gone, my brother lives in the Winter Wonderland that is Los Angeles, and there are no kids around, you’d think I’d just pull the covers over my head and enjoy my Grinchiness.

The fact is, I’m starting to like Christmas. Since it was never a religious occasion for me (and mostly isn’t anyway), there’s no conflict in my head about it; I can enjoy the greenery and lights and the occasional rum ball. I can give presents to my close Christian friends, knowing they will respect my wish not to make it an exchange…just pure giving and no receiving. I can play Santa for my husband the atheist, who happily accepts surprises to celebrate the pagan season season of solstice and solace. I can watch It’s a Wonderful Life and cry at the end, when George’s friends dump all their money on the table to pull him out of his savings-and-loan crisis…Christmas spirit at its finest. I can sleep late a couple of extra days and, when someone says “Merry Christmas,” I say, “You, too.”

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One super little boy.

Superman SamAnti-Semitism doesn’t surprise me. It’s been around since, well, there were Jews. Growing up, I was fed a steady diet of it from the preacher and from the family. Jews, being a small minority almost everywhere, make a convenient target when people are looking for someone to hate.

What I didn’t expect, when I converted to Judaism, was the animosity between Jews. Perhaps this is news to nobody who was born Jewish, but we can be really awful to each other. The Orthodox disdain the liberal Jews for not being Jewish enough, and the liberals call the Orthodox crazy. This is especially true in Israel, and it is the most flagrant online. The comments on even the most casual  blog post or online news article nearly always devolve into name-calling and nasty sniping. I always think, when observing this behavior by my fellow yehudim, are we so numerous and powerful that we can afford to judge each other so harshly? What happened to “am echad, lev echad,” one people, one heart? Never mind what the Torah and Talmud say about how we are to treat everybody.

Sometimes it takes something really compelling to get us to come together. Sometimes it takes Superman. Recently, a little boy dubbed “Superman Sam” passed away. Sam’s parents, both rabbis, have chronicled the course of his illness and death in a blog. It is hard to read… sad, funny, hopeful, and heart-breaking. You can’t read the post, “What I am Missing” without crying. Like now. Some people (not many) have wondered how parents can, in their grief, manage to write blog articles and make Facebook posts. Well, thank God they did, and they are.

What Sam’s parents, Phyllis and Michael, have done by sharing their family’s story is to rally the Jewish community. In my 13 years as a Jew, I have never seen such an outpouring of love and support, generated by a brave little boy most of us have never met: Superman Sam. The world, including plenty of non-Jews, circled the wagons around this family’s grief. In the face of such a tragedy, who has time for listening to the all-too-familiar potshots between people who know each other, who should look after each other, who should know better? Our tradition tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves; this is the most often stated commandment in the Torah. We need to love ourselves a lot more.

It often happens, after a big disaster like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, that people are nicer to each other… for a little while. This time, B’nai Yisrael, let’s keep it going. Let’s let the love that Sam generated with his life and his passing not be forgotten. Am echad, lev echad. Wouldn’t that be super?

Tweet: How one little boy got Jews to love each other. http://ctt.ec/Y6BDb+

P.S. Normally, I put a copyright notice at the bottom of my blog posts. Feel free to steal this one. Spread it far and wide. I only ask that you republish it in its entirety, with links.

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Remembering Camelot.

john f kennedyI read a quote recently: “All happiness is in the past.” The writer meant that happiness is always a memory, because the present moment becomes the past in an instant. The further something is in the rear view mirror, the more we tend to glorify it. The image is far away, a bit blurry, harder to see, and our mind fills in the rest.

It is so with John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated fifty years ago today, that young, handsome family man, scion of a political dynasty, husband of the glamorous Jacqueline, father to two adorable children. In our minds, we see his mane of chestnut hair rippling in the wind on his sailboat, his children tumbling around his feet in the oval office, him in tie-and-tails with his wife at a glittering social event. Camelot. All that was ended by a bullet in Dallas.

We don’t like to think about how JFK was virtually installed in office by the political shenanigans of an over-reaching bootlegger of a father, or about his womanizing, or his drug addiction, or the Bay of Pigs. We also don’t like to think that he didn’t exactly embrace the civil rights struggle from the get-go. It benefits us not. We need our icons, we need the glamour, we need to believe in goodness.

And we shall. When JFK was murdered, I was in kindergarten, finger-painting, eating graham crackers. All I knew at the time was that grown-ups were crying and the normal television shows were replaced by very scary images. What I didn’t know was that that moment in Dallas changed everything. It was no longer safe for the President of the United States to be near the people. The people were not to be trusted. Just being the President could get you killed.

When Barack Obama was elected, it happened again: a young, handsome man with a beautiful, accomplished wife and two great kids got elected President. I, being a good liberal, was thrilled. A surge of idealism rushed through me. Maybe now we can stop making bad wars and pissing off the rest of the world and get down to the business of education, social justice, equality. My next thought was: they’ll kill him. Our country had just chosen a black man with a Muslim-sounding name, after 9/11 no less, to our highest office. The internet was crawling with racist screed and a promise that he wouldn’t live three months. 

So far as we know, Obama isn’t a womanizer and doesn’t have a drug problem. He didn’t come from a fabulously wealthy political dynasty. But a lot of people hate him anyway. He’s tried to pull American troops from harm’s way and to give the people of this country access to health insurance. Not completely on board with gay marriage at first, the moral force of younger people, including his own children, propelled him to support it. The times they are a-changin’ and he, like JFK with the civil rights movement, has moved us forward. In some ways, it seems like JFK took the bullet meant for all who serve. Because of what happened to JFK, every American president lives behind a shield of Secret Service protection for the rest of his life.

The destruction of Camelot taught us that we need our Camelots, we need our heroes no matter how flawed. We need the beautiful risk-takers to do the things that the rest of us only talk about. We need to remember.

“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ft. Worth, 1963

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Reinvention.

reinventionCradle to grave. That’s how it was for our parents: get a job, do a good job, get promoted, retire from that job. That’s how it was when I graduated from college in 1980 and started my professional career. That’s not how it is now. They changed the rules in the middle of the game, and many of us Baby Boomers (I’m on the tail-end of that demographic) got blindsided. Two good decades of mergers and downsizing, and it was a whole new ballgame.

Fast forward to now… Three years at a company is an eternity. You better be looking for your next job as soon as you get your new job. No benefits, either, by the way. Health insurance is expensive or non-existent. No pension plan. No job security. No loyalty (either direction). If you’re over 50 and still employed, mazel tov. Your boss is probably half your age and looking to get rid of your tired old ass. Experience? Meh.

Sounds pretty grim, no? 

If you still need, or want, to work, there’s only one solution: reinvention. There’s no cradle to grave, but there is rebirth. Birthing anything is hard work (so I’m told, being child-free), but it’s do-able. Especially when the other options aren’t so hot. Start your own business. Or two businesses. Be flexible. Work two part-time jobs if need be. One job for 25 years used to be an asset on a resume, now it’s a deal-killer. Do the kind of work where age doesn’t matter. Learn a new skill. Forget the past…it won’t help.

Reinvent yourself.

In my working life (not counting the years of slinging pizza and scrubbing swimming pools in college), I’ve been a bank marketer, a print salesman, a consultant, a Hebrew teacher, and an artist. Pretty soon, I’ll be a pet sitter. After all, Snuggles the Poodle doesn’t care that I’m menopausal, only that I take care of her. And, her pet-parents just want to know their sweet-ums is fine while they’re on vacation.

There’s a new game. Don’t sit on the bench and wait to get cut from the team. Go for it.

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Finding a new creative path.

Jewish Papercut ArtI’ve been an artist all my life, going from a refrigerator Picasso to a professional Judaica artist in a mere 50 years or so. For all that time, I worked in black-and-white: pen and ink, charcoal, graphite. In 2001, I went from an avowed atheist to an involved Jew and a world of color opened up to me. The conversion led me to study in Jerusalem, and that’s where I found my new profession as an artist.

Jerusalem is a city of buildings made from sandstone that goes from a soft tan in the morning to blinding white at midday to deep gold at sunset. Most of its color comes from the people that live there, and the ideas they express. Jerusalem is (among other things), a city of artists. Painting, glass, calligraphy, textiles, sculpture…it’s all there. The art expresses every kind of notion, from complete abstraction to a love of the land, from modern art to religious longing.

I stayed in Jerusalem a month on my first trip in 2006, to study at Pardes. I didn’t expect to find so much art and so many generous artists willing to share their ideas, their work, their techniques. A chance meeting with a micrographer/artist in a gallery led to meeting world-class calligrapher Izzy Pludwinsky, and that led to meeting the master of Jewish papercut artists, Archie Granot. I immediately became fascinated with papercutting and awed by Archie’s work. I searched out all the fine paper and X-acto blades I could find in the ancient city. I went to school by day and cut paper by night.

Today, I have developed my own papercutting style and have a Judaic art business, Hebrica. It’s not full-time yet, as I still have a marketing practice, but my goal is to make it my “retirement job” when the time comes. I have returned to Israel and hope to do that again, soon and as often as I can. For me, it’s not only a distant and exotic place to travel, it’s the source.

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The D-Word

Deen. As in Paula. I’m sick to death of hearing about her, but not because she confessed to using the N-word. There were plenty of other reasons to be sick of her, way before her redneckish brother’s workplace antics dragged her into the limelight for her alleged racism. Wha? This paragon of cartoonish Southern womanhood wants black folk to dress up like the help at Tara for a party? Shocking. Being a shill for big pharma, while hiding a medical condition likely brought on by the deep-fried twinkies she’s been pushing to the WalMart crowd; that’s good enough reason to despise this low-country Martha Stewart. The fact that she still thinks, at her age, that she’s still the cutest trick in shoe leather is, well, just sad. (Okay, that last part was uncalled-for, y’all.)

You might think all this vitriol aimed at the Belle of the Food Network Ball is jealousy. After all, she’s a gazillionairess. Not at all. I have nothing but admiration for a work ethic like ole Paula’s got. Divorced, with kids and a younger brother to look after, she built an empire. At least, unlike her much more tasteful doppelganger to the North, Martha, she hasn’t gone to jail for lying. Paula told the truth. She fessed up, and she got nailed in the court of public opinion. Or by part of the public, anyway. A huge swath of supporters, or should I say, a swath of huge supporters, rushed to her defense. Paula, as she herself said, was born in a different place and time, when it was okay to treat people of color as if they belonged to you, as if they were somewhat less than human. That was a long time ago.

I grew up in the same time and in roughly the same place as Paula Deen. As a child, the N-word was commonly used. If one considered oneself a bit better bred, it became “nigra.” The inferiority of “colored” people was so assumed to be a fact that it wasn’t even worthy of discussion. Of course all black folk (I’m substituting for the N-word, here) are lazy, lying, stealing simpletons who would just as soon rape you as look at you. They enjoyed being taken care of by white folk and had no ambitions. Good thing, because that made them available to do the crappy-ass jobs we didn’t want to do, for as little money as they had to take. But that was a long time ago.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, in their infinite wisdom, excised a vital component of the Civil Rights Act. Because my brethren from the South couldn’t be trusted to let black folk vote as expeditiously as their paler neighbors, the federal government decided, way back when, it would be prudent to have certain particularly racist states demonstrate that they weren’t making it tougher on blacks to get access to the ballot box. Those self-same states have now successfully beseeched the highest court of the land with the argument that such oversight is no longer necessary. We don’t discriminate against blacks like we did before the Civil Rights Act, they say. That was a long time ago.

A few nights ago, I watched a PBS documentary called “Hey, Boo,” about Harper Lee and how she came to write To Kill a Mockingbird. To this ole Southern gal, that book was radical, inflammatory, brave, and tragic. I have read it maybe 30 or 40 times and have seen the movie at least that much. On the one hand, it is so real…I can hear the screen door (which was never locked) slam at my great-grandmother’s house, feel the heat and the humidity, remember the collective ignorance. On the other hand, the book is a wild fantasy; no one I knew had the guts to risk reputation, life and limb to stand up for a black person. In fact, there really was no need. Nothing bad would happen to you if you didn’t.

It makes me literally sick to my stomach when our public institutions decide to let a class of people swing, literally or figuratively, because they have been deemed not to deserve the basic freedoms the rest of us enjoy…freedom to vote one’s conscience, freedom to live without fear, freedom to marry the love of one’s life, freedom to practice one’s religion (or not) without being oppressed by that of another. This kind of discrimination is vile and ugly; it is violence done by one group of souls to another. It is theft in exactly the same way as using a gun to take someone’s money. It is the taking of another human’s dignity and worth for no other reason than because the thief wants it. And our government says it’s okay to do that.

No, we haven’t checked “ensure equality” off our list of things we still need to do to uphold our Constitution. Now we’re waiting to hear if the Supreme Court is ever going to get around to deciding that marriage should be a universal right for all citizens. Even if they do, how long will it hold? When the mood of the country turns even more Conservative, will the decision be rescinded? We’re still trying to tell women what they can and cannot do with their own reproductive systems, and now it seems like we’re inviting Jim Crow back. Discrimination with a capital D.

I used to believe in our country’s ability to do the right thing, but that was a long time ago, y’all.

P.S. Save the defenses of Paula Deen, the hateful, uber-conservative rants, and the invitations to go live someplace else. They won’t get approved. This is my country, and it is my honor, my right, and my duty to criticize it. That’s still allowed, at least as of today.

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Things my mother didn’t teach me.

Barbara Wiles smThis will be the third Mother’s Day I’ve been without a mom. You’d think that, at the ripe old age of 55, I wouldn’t need her so much. I was so independent as a child that she used to say that my first word was “down,” followed soon by “let me do it.” I worked from age 15 , partly out of necessity but also so no one could tell me how to spend my money. I took myself to college and paid my own way, for the same two reasons. So why have I felt about eight years old since she died?

All that independence was largely a fiction, that’s why. Miss Smarty Pants (that’s me) got to do as she pleased because a) somewhere in the back of my mind I knew she was there to catch me if I fell and b) she knew I was too big a chicken to get in bad trouble. I acted pretty tough, but inside I was scared shitless most of the time.

From the time I went off to college, I never lived at home a day. I lived in crappy apartments furnished from thrift stores because that’s what I could afford after getting that write-your-own-ticket liberal arts degree from the state university. Momma tried to give me stuff and, stubbornly, I turned it down. How much I regret that now.

There were other things I wouldn’t let Momma give me, like compassion, empathy, and patience. Why she didn’t smother my smart-ass teenage self during the night I’ll never know. My mom was the nicest person you ever met…everybody loved her…and I don’t recall her ever saying a bad word about anybody, including my shithead of a deadbeat dad. Given that he beat her, ran around on her, and saddled her with three kids and a ton of debt, that took some real restraint. Not only did I not listen to her, I didn’t learn from her example. I had no problems compared to her, yet it’s only now that she’s gone and I am married to a prince of a fellow that I get the real lesson she taught me about gratitude.

So, just for the record, my mom didn’t teach me to be impatient, insensitive, bull-headed, thin-skinned, self-pitying, or unkind. If I’m a little short on the social graces, it’s not her fault. I did get the stubbornness from her, but hers looked more like determination, not like “you aren’t the boss of me.” When she told me not to ride my bike without shoes, she simply drove me to the emergency room.

For someone who didn’t listen to her mom, I sure find myself quoting her a lot. What I wouldn’t give to hear her voice, now.

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