Friday, 11 February 2011

Words You Remember

"Oh honey, you're wishing your life away. I just wish it was Friday."

I heard those words from a fellow employee on an elevator in Miami, a middle-aged divorcee raising three teenagers on a single salary. When we'd gotten on the elevator, she'd sighed and said, "Gee, I wish it was Friday." I was young and callow; right away I went one better, blurting that I wished it was next month. Maybe what she said stayed with me because it was the right time for me to hear it: through her words, I suddenly had a glimpse of how precious time could be.

There are words I've remembered all my life, for a number of different reasons. Sometimes the words are pure poetry, hauntingly beautiful. Sometimes they're memorable because they contain an element of truth I'm ready to hear; sometimes they come at an apt moment or are full of good will, or the speaker's character and personality make them compelling. Some words have stayed with me because they echoed my own sentiments so succinctly. Words have such power.

My cat is graceful, a student of mine once wrote in his journal, when he buds his head against me. My cat moves very silkly.

Those words have stayed in my memory for decades. I doubt they would have if he'd used the right verb; 'bud' might have been technically wrong, but it was strangely, poetically perfect: the idea of a cat's head, hard and round like the bud of a flower, the cat moving with the fluidity of flowing silk.

"You folks take care now. And you have a good trip."

I was twenty years old when I heard those words, in a tiny town in Arizona, on a Greyhound bus. My eyes were half closed when the bus stopped to let out two men who'd been buying sacks of seed. I knew this because they'd been chatting with the driver, a man they obviously knew. For a few hours, I'd heard them making smalltalk: a brother-in-law with a cold, the birthday of a shared acquaintance in Albuquerque. They had shoulder-length black hair and the deeply tanned skin of farmers. When they got off the bus, one of the men addressed those words to us remaining two dozen passengers in a soft, low voice. For the rest of the trip, his words followed me all over America and Canada, like a benediction.

"Every time I see him, I don't know what to do. I don't want to patronize him, but I wish there was a way I could show him how very much I respect him."

My friend and fellow graduate student Cleo said those words. We were standing in the corridor of the English Department at San Francisco State University when another student fell down, a young man suffering from a serious nervous disorder. His legs were in braces; he had trouble controlling his arms and legs and he used crutches on a permanent basis, but whenever he fell down, you knew not to offer help: he always managed to stand up again through his own efforts. I remembered Cleo's words because they were heartfelt and touched me almost as much as this man inspired me. Cleo was a non-native speaker of English, but I can't imagine anyone expressing those sentiments more eloquently.

"Well, it wasn't pleasant!"

My friend Carol told me that when I asked her to describe her experience of childbirth. Carol is so upbeat, so gently understated and calm, that I was taken aback. I can turn a hangnail into a broken leg; Carol can make major surgery sound like a bump on the head. No harrowing tales of agonizing 50-hour labors could have scared me more than her Well it wasn't pleasant.

"There may be people who'll stab you in the back, but it will never stop me having friends. It will never stop me trusting. Because when it comes down to it, I just love people."

I heard those words from a fellow PTA volunteer in Abiko, Japan. We shared afternoon patrol duty and she was telling me about an acquaintance who claimed her dog was her best friend, and that she didn't need people. Those words brought tears to my eyes.

"Yes, we knew what he said was rude, but it was just so classic, so New York! He made our trip there totally special!"

Those words came from my friend Liz, in Wales. She and her husband Brian had gone to New York on their honeymoon. On a trip to see the Statue of Liberty, they had mistakenly pushed ahead in line. A man with a Brooklyn accent had expressed his displeasure: "Oi! Assholes! Wait your turn!" They brought that story home like a precious souvenir: "It was like we were in a movie," Liz sighed, "with Robert deNiro!"

Those are just a few of the words I'll never forget. How about you? What are the words you remember?


ShackelMom said...

"It hurts now, but in a year, you will hardly rememebr it, and it won't matter at all in ten years. The things that will matter in ten years are the important ones." My father said those words to me when I was stood up by a young man, when it became appartent he was not coming at all. Then he said, "Hey, let's go to the grocery store and buy a coconut!" an exotic splurge that was love and comfort in a shell, from my caring dad. The 'Ten Year Rule' has stood me in good stead ever since.

Anonymous said...

One of the cutest things I heard was from a toddler who yawned and said on her way to bed.
"Mommy, it's tired outside."

Robert the Skeptic said...

"I find that the more you think about it, the harder it is to believe." Said to us by a Christian friend as justification for her faith,

Vijaya said...

I love the words and the stories you remember, Mary. The first thing that came to my mind was my mother telling me: "Say you're sorry. Aren't you sorry?"

But I was never sorry for even the wrong things I did -- for exacting a small revenge or disobeying and doing as I pleased -- because in the end, it was all worth it. So I'd stand in a corner and not apologize. I'd be lying if I said I was sorry. I was never sorry.

And now, I am sorry for all the grief I caused my mother.

Now I have a daughter much like me ... and I remember more words from my mother. Words of wisdom.

Mary Witzl said...

ShackelMom -- What a great father you had, and what good words those are. I can imagine you heard them through such a fog of pain and bad feeling that you barely registered them -- but that deep inside, you did. You have to grow up a bit to realize that a father's love and wisdom are worth any number of boys who do or don't show up.

Catherine -- I love that! I can still remember something I heard from a five-year-old whose sister had just hurt him. His mother had told the sister to apologize and she had, but he refused to accept it because "her eyes didn't say sorry."

Robert -- I think our capacity for thought is part of what makes us human, but our capacity for belief, good or bad, is also part of this. So in a way, what your friend says, while it sounds absurd, is beautiful. Unexamined, untested faith is meaningless, but a combination of faith shaped by ongoing thought is all I aim for. At some point, you have to make that leap to believe. I think that's what your friend means.

Vijaya -- I was hardly ever sorry either, but I was always sorry for disappointing my mother. Years later, I found myself facing down my equally willful, stubborn daughter and I thought to myself that I had met my divine karma.

Just remember this, for what it's worth: our daughters had the integrity not to lie just to wriggle out of a punishment and win our approval. That's huge.

I could only write a fraction of the words that have stayed with me over the years. I'd bring down Blogger if I wrote all the wise things my mother said that still resonate.

Bish Denham said...

My father used to say, "If you haven't seen it before, throw a rock at it." I haven't seen anything yet that needs a rock thrown at it, so there's a lesson.

Between St. John and St. Thomas is three mile stretch of ocean. The Atlantic and Caribbean mix there. On day while on the ferry a woman behind me asked her husband, "Are we on a river or a lake?" I was shocked! She had no idea where she was. That question reminds me to learn SOMEthing about the places I visit, to be open and aware.

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, very good post. the first memorable things I can think of are probably "R" rated at the least. I may borrow this idea though. It's a great one for a blog post.

Falak said...

"This too shall pass." My Mom's outlook on all difficulties in life has helped me weather a lot of storms.

Falak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

A little lad who had a fascination with fire engines was asked if he knew what the firemen did and he replied " Yes, they smoothe out the flames with hot water ". I laugh again every time I see a fire engine.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

The power of words! I really like your stories. Here's one of mine:

My three year old little brother had fallen in love with my boyfriend, who had a real way with children. (This is some years back, now.)

Then GD and I broke up and I spent days weeping my heart out. My brother was very worried and asked what was wrong. I didn't know how to explain a complicated situation to such a small child, so I said: "GD doesn't like me anymore," which wasn't exactly the truth.

My little brother expanded his three-year-old little chest, took in a deep, deep breath, looked totally outraged and said: "Then I don't like HIM anymore!"

PS: My brother now likes GD again, because I ended up marrying him after all ;)

Kim Ayres said...

Most of the phrases words I remember are sayings I heard that rang true, but unlike yours, did not originate from the speaker. For example, "Those who believe they can, and those who believe they can't, are both right" is one of my all time favourites. I've lost count of the number of times I said, or thought it in response to something someone else has said or done. But it originates from Henry T Ford.

Another of my favourites is a putting things in perspective quote, like ShackelMom's. Although again, it didn't originate from the person who told me. It's called "Lazlo's Chinese Relativity Axiom" and goes, "No matter how great your triumphs, or tragic your defeats, approximately one billion Chinese couldn't care less."

Carolie said...

"Modulate your voice, Carolie. Modulate your voice" -- spoken by my very patient mother, in a deep, slow alto, tone quivering with the suppressed desire to strangle an extremely shrill three-year-old me.

My truthful (but not very tactful) younger brother: "Momma, this chicken dried up all my spit."

"REPOSE" -- thundered by my father in extreme ire at the dinner table, meaning "you kids sit down, put your hands in your laps, and SHUT UP!"

"OH LORD..." -- thundered by my father as the beginning of the family grace at dinner, the meaning being the same as "repose" (see above), followed by the rest of the prayer quietly and with reverence (and relief?).

"My soul has been crying out for yours since the day I was born. I can't let you go now that I've found you. Will you marry me?" -- my beloved husband (I said yes).

Words are so VERY powerful. What a wonderful and powerful essay, Mary!

veach st. glines said...

Thanks for this, Mary. I used it as a springboard for my own post.

Pat said...

'Mummy your hair is very swift.'
My younger son said this and when I asked what he meant he said it was like a waterfall.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I once knew a Polish man who used to say, "Put spit in your hand and hope in the other, then open up your hands and see which one is real." I wonder if your father meant something like that?

On weekends, when our kids were small they used to get confused about the time. We'd be sitting down to lunch and one of them would say, "Is this the evening meal?" That used to crack us up. But they were little kids...and I'm pretty sure even then they knew the difference between rivers, lakes and oceans.

Charles -- Well, I've got a couple of R-rated ones too, of course, but they're fast fading from memory. ;o)

Please do borrow this! I'll come to check out your memorable words. Especially if they're R-rated.

Falak -- That was one of my mother's favorite sayings too, said while I was waiting to get a report card, vaccination, blood test, or similar. It's definitely a pearl of wisdom and very true, but I've heard it so often I'm sadly immune to its power.

Anonymous -- What a nice idea, smoothing out flames. I'll bet firefighters would rather do that than putting out fires.

Miss Footloose -- What a sweet little brother you have. I'm glad you managed to patch things up and save both your relationship and your brother's friendship with your husband-to-be.

My husband also has the gift of getting kids to like him. When we visited my family in the States, it really drove me crazy that all my cousins, nieces and nephews preferred him to me. He was like the Pied Piper, and it could be VERY irritating. He wouldn't have been such competition if he hadn't been so good at water fights, tag, and dodge ball. (I'm guessing your husband can do those too...)

Kim -- I've heard that phrase before -- I've DEFINITELY had it said to me on several occasions, especially the time I tried rollerskating. Sigh...Maybe if I'd thought I could do it, I'd have managed it? But more likely I'd have really messed up ankles now.

I love Lazlo's Chinese Relativity Axiom. But the guys I tutor now -- at least they'll pretend to care.

Carolie -- Yes! My mother was always telling us to modulate our voices, and I now tell my kids to do this. We didn't get "Repose" so much as we got "Hush up!" but the volume of my father's voice more than compensated for the wimpy turn of phrase. We also got a bit of what we thought was swearing at the time -- the odd fervently uttered "Oh, hell!" That always managed to shut us up, the horror of our parents using Bad Language.

Your brother's chicken comment is hilarious... And what an incredibly lovely, romantic proposal. You could hardly turn that down, could you? -- (everything else being as it should, of course).

Veach -- Thank you, I liked your post too. You made me remember all about cooties and how horrible the threat of catching them was. I'd forgotten all about cooties.

Pat -- Ahh, I wish my hair were that kind of 'swift'. I usually get people saying, "Can you see under all that?" or wondering about when I'm having my next haircut.

Carole said...

Great post.

I love words and how they work together. However my memory is such that I will think of the best comments at about 4 in the morning when I am sleeping and will forget them again when I wake up.

Tabitha said...

What a great post!! There are many words and phrases that have resonated with me over the years. More so than I could possibly remember right now. :) So here's a couple:

"Turn your weaknesses into strengths."
Stubborness runs in my family, and everyone was always telling me to not be so stubborn (like it was just that easy). Then another person told me to take my stubborness and use it in a different way--turn it into determination. Once I had an outlet for my considerable stubborness, it wasn't an issue so much when it didn't really matter.

"Don't knock it til you try it."
It drove my dad crazy when people would make a face at a strange-looking food, or something, and decided they didn't like it before they'd tasted it. He would have none of that in our house, and I had to try it first before I could make any sort of judgement on it. The same thing went for messy activities, vacations, books, everything.

Adrienne said...

My eyes fell on Falek's response at the EXACT moment I thought it - "This too shall pass" was also my mom's favorite phrase.

I love your examples, because it's too easy to recall the words that stung rather than the one's that had a positive influence.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- There's something magical about 4 in the morning. That's when all the interesting sayings that have stuck with me come back and parade themselves around in my brain -- but all too often, I'm NOT asleep.

Tabitha -- I like the idea of turning weakness into a strength.

Stubbornness runs in our family too. When our youngest daughter was two and wearing me thin, a veteran mother assured me that the stubbornness that was driving my husband and me wild would one day be converted into a remarkable firmness of character. "She'll probably turn out like Margaret Thatcher," one of her teachers later quipped, pretty much ruining that dream.

"Don't knock it till you've tried it" was popular in our family too, especially when things like spinach or collard greens appeared on the table. We use it too (although sadly it can backfire when kids become teenagers and discover that substance abuse is the done thing in some circles).

Adrienne -- It's funny just how many cliches become great advice when you get old enough to really understand them. "This too shall pass away" stands the test of time...ironically.

I remember some pretty awful things too, of course, but it's cheerier to talk about the good ones.

Anne Spollen said...

When my son, Christopher, was two he couldn't open his jaw all the way to yawn.

He looked at me, panic stricken, and said, "Mama,my roar is stuck!"

I'm sure much more profound statements have been made to me, but that's the one I remember the best.

Donna Earnhardt said...

"NEVER GO TO BED never might not have a tomorrow to make things better."

I heard that from both my Mom and Grandma. I've never forgotten.

"THis will ALWAYS be your home...not matter what."

My mom and dad reminded my sister and I of this constantly. I knew that no matter what I did, they would never stop loving me.

"Is this chewing-gum?"

I had just given my then 3yo dd a taste of the beef stew in my crockpot. She chewed...and chewed... and chewed... then asked the question. It was priceless. (I decided it needed to be cooked a lot longer!)

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- Awww! That makes me think of a little lion, panicking with his mouth half open.

My oldest daughter once knelt down to kiss a red spot on the floor where somebody had dropped a lipstick. "Itai?" she said, kissing it better -- ("Does it hurt?") That's stayed with me too.

Donna -- We tell our girls that this will always be their home too... trying not to think too hard about the scraped banisters, the spilled blue hair dye in the bathroom or the ruined plaster from Scotch tape applied directly to the walls... The bottom line is that we'd rather have a crummy looking house with our kids than a perfect one without. An almost perfect one WITH kids would be in the I-can-dream-can't-I? league.

Your daughter's chewing gum comment reminds me of the time we were eating my sister-in-law's perfectly tasty ragout and our 6-year-old suddenly piped up with, "Is this cat food?" My sister-in-law took it so well: she earned my undying admiration that day.

Lynne said...

"Momma, how old will I be when I'm 18?" My son said when he was 12 as we were driving home from school. Me; "Ahhh....18" "I mean how old will I been when I'm 18 and get a tattoo?" me giggling "ahhh...18?" "I wanted to know what it smelled like" "So Lorren, what *does* a pussy-willow smell like?" saying to her after she shoved one up her nose. She told me sheepishly "nothing"

And one that I really hated to hear after my son died from whooping cough at 18 days old. "Don't worry you'll can have more." Like he didn't matter or it was a game I lost at. I hear that too many time to count along with "don't worry you're still young."

Mary Witzl said...

Lynne -- I can't begin to imagine how hard it must be to hear that. Every child is unique, and to tell someone who has lost one that they can have another is like treating a child like a bicycle or a watch -- expendable, replaceable. While being young is an advantage, it hardly makes up for the tragedy of losing a child. Of course, people who say those things don't mean any harm, they just don't know what else to say -- and so blurt out the first thing that springs to mind.

My youngest daughter used to suck on sow-bugs; she'd put them in her mouth and roll them around for the longest time. I used to ask her how they tasted, but she had no answer for me.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Lynne that hurts just to see on the screen, I can only imagine how it felt to you.

Here's something I heard from writer Katherine Paterson: "There is no credit to be gained from good behavior in the face of kindness--only from good behavior in the face of illwill and rudeness." She said she got that from her mother, and I have tried to live by those words ever since I heard them. Thank you, Katherine.

Mary Witzl said...

Uma -- Those words you got from Katherine Paterson are now among the words I'll remember. They are so true. Almost all of us know to return kindness for kindness. Learning how to deal graciously with unkindness and insensitivity -- that is a true test of character.