I was just sitting here sharpening my pencils to a fine point and putting an eraser on the tip, even though the attached erasers hadn’t been touched. This is an idiosyncrasy with me, a habit. It was borne in college. Like most writer people, I have been bad at math all my life. Pencils reminded me of math class so I took great pains to use nothing but ink. Unlike most writer type people, I was trying for a degree after having a brain injury and I was sweating. It was my last remedial class before my one-and-only college math class. I had to pass and there was one mathematical concept that I just wasn’t getting. I had extra help, thanks to my college’s handicapped program, and I had worked with the tutors and teachers, and especially the head of the program, Mr. Castro.
How can I tell you about Mr. Castro? To say he saved my academic life is true. To say he saw not one but two of my complete mental breakdowns over math problems is true. Mathematicians will never get this concept. To think that a mature woman could be in tears over a simple mathematical concept is alien to them, but I assure you, I’m not the only one. I was trying to get into the teacher program and this one class was all that was keeping from applying. I distinctly remember talking to him one day in his office about my fears of passing the class. As I spoke, I heard weird sounds and I realized they were coming from me. I was gasping and moaning. I, who had always been calm and serene in the face of danger or despair. After all, wasn’t I the girl who saved all the birds when Woolworth’s caught on fire? I was demoralized, especially when I realized I was probably ten years older than him…maybe more. This man calmly talked to me — not once, but twice — and calmed me down. He was a man who would not pass me because I cried on his desk, but he was a man who would teach me in every way he knew until I learned. I passed that class, and then passed my only college class with an A; my self-confidence and mental health was restored. I have Mr. Castro to thank. He was also the one who sharpened his pencils to a point for his students. Not for him the mechanical pencils so in style; for him, the yellow #2 pencils would do. Now I don’t buy the yellow pencils. I buy highly decorated ones, especially the ones for the holidays, but I always have them sharpened to a pencil point (ha, ha, see what I did there?) and waiting on my desk. Thank you, Mr. Castro, for your time, for your patience, and your ever-flowing tissues. Now, you might say that this is a common habit which many people subscribe to, but I say that I NEVER used pencils before I met Mr. Castro, so I ascribe this habit to him.
Other habits come from various people, my mother, my father, and my nanny (maternal grandmother.) My Nanny was the one who taught me my manners. A Liverpudlian woman who started out life as a hair stylist, she did her best to instill in me the best manners she could. “Stand up straight.” “Don’t kick your legs when you are sitting.” “Let older people out of the elevator before you get in.” “When adults are talking, speak when you are spoken to.” “Only loose women cross their legs.” “Don’t burp, pass gas, or pick your nose in public.” I used to wonder if I could pick my nose and cross my legs when I was in my own room. Some of those things seemed unrealistic to my young mind. What if, say, you are in public and you really, really have to fart. Do you leave the room? Do it and blame someone else? What? What???
From my mother comes various forms of dire predictions. “Do that for long and your face will stay like that.” “Swallow cherry pits and a tree will grow in your stomach.” She told me nice girls didn’t have sex before marriage but by the time I got to my own daughters, they looked at me like I had the cherry tree growing out of my stomach and was it flowering above my head. She told me to always be overdressed rather than under dressed. I don’t know if that came from her joint British and New York upbringing or from her move to California. True, she had a drawer of gloves and a shelf of hats that she never wore — to my knowledge — in California, and a drawer of costume jewelry that I got more use out of than she did. I was forbidden to touch them, you see, and being a latchkey kid and having nothing to do all day except watch the television, her jewelry drawers and I were on a first name basis. So I’m always over dressed rather than under dressed and I have my own pile of costume jewelry (although I prefer the real stuff), hats, and gloves. Unlike my mother, I wear gloves most of the time in the winter because of my bad circulation and my always-freezing digits, and I actually wear my jewelry. These days, though, I seldom tell my adult daughters to do anything. They delight in telling me.
My father was great with his threats, although most of them were never finished. “Wait till I…” “Get the…” “God damn it…” “Are you that stupid…” His use of expletives was astounding and awe-inspiring, just so long as they weren’t focused at me. Sometimes I felt like my actual name was “God damn it.” I, however, could never, never curse. My mother would say, “Nice girls don’t curse.” (a thing I still use and my daughters laugh like hell) My father would say, “Do you want a spanking?” (No, Daddy, I do not want a spanking. Are you insane?) When I was crying after something bothered me (or I got caught), my dad would say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Now, when I was young I understood the verbiage of this saying, but I could not understand the concept of why someone would say something like that. I’m already crying uncontrollably and you want to spank me, which will hurt, to stop me from crying? (What’s wrong with you? Are you insane?)
I try not to make the same mistakes my parents made as I try to use the good things they did. I love my children as my parents loved me. We want the best for our children, don’t we? I tried to think before I yelled at my children, first trying good old fashioned logic, which most parents know will not work on some ages or some kids…ever. I tried not to blurt out things heard in my childhood that are now considered hurtful. (they always were, our parents just weren’t initiated yet) One day, when my daughter was little and crying uncontrollably, and I had had a tiring and brutal day, I heard myself saying, “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.” Oh, my gosh. I sound like my father. I snuggled her up in my arms and soothed her in the rocking chair until she stopped crying and cuddled in my lap. Some things from our past are worth having, but some are not. I hope I have instilled in my children the right things and when I hear them say, “I sound like my mother,” I hope it’s with the good things and not the bad.