80 Years in Eight Days — Day Number Seven: 10 Lessons Learned

For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher.  Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me.  Here’s a list of 10:

1) How to make a friend.  My first friend was the boy who lived next door.  He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd.  I was only 4 when we moved.  Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children.  I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway.  I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard.  She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name.  He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin.  She asked him to repeat it, slower.  With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I.  I had my new friend!

2) How to take a break.  My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation.  I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii.  My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced.  We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps.  By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken.  I have been an avid napper ever since. 

3) How to join a community.  My mom was my first Girl Scout leader.  She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way.  I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence.  It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us. 


4) How to make a pie.  This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions.  Pie crust is tricky.  It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to.  You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively.  At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”.  That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan.  She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it.  Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process.  Making a pie involves a lot of decisions.  Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more.  What and when do you delegate?  When do you give up control?  It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking. 

5) How to iron…or not iron.  My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life.  He did not use Kleenex.  They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them.  He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing.  We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control.  I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school.  When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform.  My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now.  Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it. 

6) How to study.  My mother and I have similar learning styles.  We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song.  The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device.  This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music.  Write it down; make it up.  Works for us!

7) How to interview for a job.  The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place.  I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way.  I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume.  My mother lit a fire under me.  We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director.  The rest is history.  I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding.  It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind.  I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it. 

8) How to be appreciative.  One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation.  It’s a win-win activity.  It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something.  It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate.  The trick is not to be shy.  Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific.  When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin.  I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite.  “Oh!  It’s like Anadama bread!”  She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon.  She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now. 


9) How to be tolerant and open.  It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche.  My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly.  It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval.  I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless.  My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her.  She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out.  I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.

Familiar breakfast room

10) How to keep learning.  Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic.  I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day.  I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies.  She relates bits of fascination every time we talk.  She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together.   I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!


© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Parenting: Then and Now

Preschool crush plants a kiss. “Isn’t that cute?!”  Mom takes a picture. 

Grade school crush writes a note.  Revelation: someone likes you.  Mom smiles. 

Middle school crush messes with your self-esteem.  Why and why not?  Mom worries. 

High school crush introduces adult intimacy.  Are there rules?  Mom intervenes. 

College crush invites self-exploration.  What if?  Mom doesn’t know. 

Post-college crush proposes solid possibilities.  What will I choose for myself?

Mom leaves it up to you and breathes relief. 


The afterglow: 5 couples around the table, relaxed adult conversation. “Isn’t this nice?!”

Mom takes a picture.

Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon

*update from yesterday’s post*  She Speaks commented:

“I found an online petition from the site “Democrats 2012″ titled “Where are the women?”  This petition reads:

‘At a House Oversight Committee hearing, House Republicans convened a panel on denying access to birth control coverage with five men and no women. As Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney asked, “Where are the women?”  Join Leader Pelosi in our call to Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor, Chairman Issa and all House Republicans to demand that women be allowed at the table when discussing women’s health issues. Help us gather 250,000 signatures.’

Here is the link to sign the petition: http://dccc.org/pages/wherearethewomen

I’ve signed. Please help share this information and encourage everyone you know to sign.”

I’ve signed as well.  Please forward to any US citizens you think would like to add their names. *thank you*


Okay, on to All About Me.

So, Steve wakes up this morning singing “Tiny Bubbles” (yes, we do this to each other, sharing whatever our brains mumble out first thing upon waking)  …Don Ho…Hawaii…and I go back to being 10 years old, which was my age when I actually traveled to Hawaii.  My 10-year old self got excited about many things in Hawaii.  I thrilled at the choice of coconut or pineapple syrup on my pancakes because I hate maple syrup.  I spent a good 30 minutes at a picnic stop trying to open a coconut by stomping on it with my sneakers.  I had a camera of my own and could take my own pictures, a Brownie Starmite which yielded snapshots that the drugstore processed with a “bonus snap” of about half the size of the original included on the print and separated by a perforated line.  I eagerly tried to pronounce any Hawaiian word just for the fun of letting the syllables bubble out one after another like waves on the beach.  “King Kamehameha”  “Queen Liliuokalani” “Mele Kalikimaka” “hukilau” “elepani”.  I felt daring and adventurous sliding down a lava tube into a lagoon while my mother hyperventilated on the banks.  And I got to go swimming every day!  One other memory that will always stand out about my trip to Hawaii:  I was often mistaken for a boy.

I had a growing out shag haircut in the spring of 1973.  My mother had made me get my shoulder-length blonde hair cut VERY short for our trip “Out West” the summer before.   She was probably thinking of the convenience and the hot weather.  She also insisted that we wear bathing caps whenever we went swimming.  I got the idea that the prime consideration in hairstyles was not attractiveness, and at the time, I didn’t care.  Much.  I do remember the excruciating moment when I debuted the pixie cut at school for the first time.  I was at before-school choir practice on the verge of tears because I felt so self-conscious.  I was wearing a dress with a Peter Pan collar, my vulnerable neck exposed.  I felt whispers behind me.  Then the girl behind me leaned forward to say something, and I imagined she was about to make a comment on my haircut.  I froze, trembling, with blurry eyes.  Turns out she just wanted to ask what page we were on, but the contact ripped me wide open, and I began to cry.  After that, I got used to it and so did others.  Folks in Colorado couldn’t tell if I were a boy or a girl as I scrambled up rocky mountains with my cousin, Christopher, and it didn’t matter to me.  In Hawaii, my hair was a bit longer, but since it was the 70s, boys were also wearing their hair longer.   My family went to a luau one night.  Each of us was greeted by a hostess with an armful of flowers.  My father got a coconut palm hat placed on his head.  My mother and my three older sisters received a beautiful lei of fragrant orchids.  I couldn’t wait to receive my own exquisite necklace.  But what’s this?  Hey!  Why did you give me just a stupid, green headband!  I’m a GIRL, dammit!  Same thing happened on a boat trip a few days later.  The guide/entertainer picked me out as a model to receive something he was fashioning behind me out of palm leaves.  He probably picked me to keep me from getting bored, to amuse my sisters, or just because I was cute and charismatic…in a unisex kind of way.  He placed a headband with a palm “feather” sticking up in the back on my head.  My sisters howled.

So, before puberty, I didn’t care about being a girl very much.  I played with the boy two doors down every day.  When I was alone, I crossed the street into the forest preserve and played in the bushes.  I enjoyed being physical, roller-skating and jump-roping especially, and I enjoyed “helping” my father at the workbench in the basement.  I was not a complete tom-boy, nor was I a girlie-girl.  I was just me, and I was fine.  Then I hit high school at 14 in a brand new state, California.  My mother decided we all should have a lesson on wearing make-up, so we had a Mary Kay consultant visit the house.  I began putting on make-up and styling my hair every day before school.  I also began flirting and listening to “funky” music.  I began to find my groove.

Jim & Me gettin' our groove on for a 60s themed birthday party

As an adult, I think it would be a revelation to have a conversation with two people from my past especially.  One would be the boy I played with every day in grade school, the other would be my first high school boyfriend of more than 2 months.  Both of these boys are now homosexual adults, I’ve since learned.  I would love to ask them what growing up felt like for them, what our relationship taught them about themselves, but sadly, we lost touch long ago.

Finding my groove in high school led me to two of my greatest expressions of freedom and physicality: dance and jazz.  I love to dance.  I have taken dance lessons, and I find that I am way too much “in my head” when I’m trying to learn steps and choreography.  What I really love is just to free-style to anything with a back beat.  Blues, tango, rumba, pop school dances, jazz.  I auditioned and got into our high school jazz choir and loved the freedom of improvisation and the soulful feel of the slower pieces we did.  From high school, I went on to get a degree in Vocal Performance at a women’s college.  I didn’t do any jazz or dancing in those years.  I was trying to be more *ahem*, serious about music.

Steve has a very serious music collection, but on Friday, he picked up something from Goodwill’s CD collection with me in mind.  It’s “The Fabric of Life” by The Nylons.  They’re usually about 4-part a capella vocal jazz, but this CD has percussion and instrumentals as well.  He put it on at breakfast, and I had to get out of my chair and dance!  It felt great!!  My heart rate climbing, my hips swiveling, my shoulders shimmying, my waist stretching and slimming and twisting…I felt alive, physical, ME!  Maybe I’m getting closer to understanding how to live in my own skin after all.

I think many women have a long journey to being themselves.  It’s easier when you’re 10, I think.  It gets pretty complicated through puberty and socialization.  Maybe now as I get closer to hitting 50, I can grow into my own groove, be funky and fine and all me.   I wish I knew more of my gay friends’ journeys as well.  I want to be compassionate to every human and their story of growth.