Friday, November 22, 2013

Thankful things

Two of my thankful things
It’s November, the month of giving thanks, which precedes the month of giving (and getting) gifts. As much as I love the spirit of Christmas, with all its twinkling lights and excited children and peaceful good deeds, I have always cherished Thanksgiving. This is the calm before the frenzied holiday storm, a time of gathering family and eating good food together. Thanksgiving is a holiday that inspires us to look around and see all that we have to be thankful for – rather than brainstorming items to add to our Wish List.

There are myriad studies indicating that expressing gratitude is good for your health. Being thankful, they say, leads to better sleep, better mood, better physical and mental fitness. It seems logical that appreciating what you have will make you happier than lamenting what you don’t.

Still, in the regularity of daily routine, I often find myself taking many things for granted: food on the table at each meal, a warm house, a car that starts when I want it to, a really spectacular view from my window. For my children, who have known all these things for all of their lives, taking for granted is natural. And so, some time ago, in an effort to ease the taking-for-grantedness of our lives, we started a nightly ritual of sharing our “thankful things” around the dinner table.

When I was a kid, my family said grace each evening before picking up our forks. My brothers and I each had our own little prayer, memorized at a young age and repeated each dinnertime by rote, without a whole lot of feeling. (Well, except the night the local priest came to dinner, and my younger brother gleefully recited, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub.” My mother was horrified, until the benevolent guest of honor piped up, “You forgot to say, ‘Yea, God’ at the end.”)

Saying our thankful things seems more introspective, as each person’s “things” change from day to day, depending on what has recently happened, what kind of mood we’re all in, and whether there’s some longed for event coming up. Often the kids give similar answers. “I’m thankful for my whole family,” is a common one. Being thankful for our good food is another regular, especially when a favorite meal is on the table.

The children regularly express thankfulness for some event from the day – playing with a certain friend during school recess, scoring a goal in a soccer game, spotting a particularly interesting animal munching apples in our field. Anticipation is also a common thankful topic, as we look forward to a trip or vacation, a holiday or birthday, a visit from far-away friends or cousins.

Our thankful things turn out to be more experiential than tangible, materialistic items. Events and people (and pets) are mentioned often. Toys, clothes, and other “stuff” rarely make the list.

Sometimes, one of the kids, in a sulky mood, will claim, “I am not thankful for anything.” But the rule is each person has to share two thankful things – has to stop and think about two good things he or she appreciates right then and there. Sometimes the list extends far beyond the required minimum. Often, our thankful things are conversation starters, and it can take half the meal to get through everyone’s turn.

Sharing thankful things with my children has crept into my thinking beyond the dinner table. Sure, I still find myself in the occasional foul mood. I get annoyed at bad drivers and mean people, faulty technology and the perpetual need to do laundry. But when I stop to think about all of the things for which I am thankful, the list is overwhelmingly long.

Many of my thankful things are mundane necessities, which I am beyond grateful to have. Many are there for the taking – and the giving thanks – if only I pause for a moment and look around me.

I am thankful for a home that is not always (ok, hardly ever) clean and has leaky windows and faltering appliances, but is filled with love and the happy chaos of raising children. I am thankful for each of those children – for so many reasons – and for a husband who works ridiculously hard and adores his family. I am thankful for a schedule that, although it sometimes seems unruly, allows me to both be with my children for much of the day and do work that I love.

I am thankful for being born where I was and for living where I do and for all the places in which I have traveled and lived. I am thankful that my children are growing up within shouting distance of all four grandparents. I am thankful for friends near and far.

I am thankful that my children notice the brightness of the stars, the fullness of the moon, and the beauty of a sunrise and the late day glow on the mountains of home. I am thankful that when we sit down together each evening and reflect on the day just passed and the ones to come, there are many thankful things to be shared.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears in the November 21, 2013 edition of the Littleton Record as Meghan's CLOSE TO HOME column.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Telling stories

The other night at dinner we were telling family stories. A newspaper photograph of someone riding a bike through snow had led to an account of my Colorado ski town days of riding a “townie” bike around snowy streets. That tale set all three children to clamoring for my husband and me to, “Tell us a story from when you were little!”

I remember asking my parents to tell us stories when my brothers and I were kids. We heard the sad account of when my father had scarlet fever and his teddy bear had to be burned. We know about the day he was lost in the neighborhood park of the city where he grew up, and that when he finally returned home, his mother didn’t know whether to hug her little boy or spank him, so overwhelming were both her relief at having him home and her angst over his wandering away.

We’ve heard my mother’s memories of being allowed to watch the Mickey Mouse Show if she finished her homework on time. She has told us of endless afternoons wandering the woods around home with her English setter, Lucky, and that she once fell from a tree and landed flat on her back, momentarily knocking the air from her lungs and frightening her own mother into thinking she was dead.

As a kid, I could scarcely picture my parents as children, climbing trees and wandering unfamiliar parks. It wasn’t until I was in college, making the long drive home one Thanksgiving weekend with my dad that I finally had the epiphany – as he was telling me a story from his past – that my parents were people long before I came into the world, with separate lives filled with stories all their own. But I still loved hearing those stories as a little girl, even if the characters within were mostly imagined to me.

It is the same for my children, as they beseech us to tell our childhood tales. Probably there is magic in knowing Mama and Papa used to be kids who fell down and got into trouble, played with and fought with their siblings, built forts in the woods, and were sometimes sent to their rooms.

Sharing stories is also a way for our kids to get to know other members of our family. Our children know that one uncle, sent to his room as a boy, lit a model rocket from an electrical outlet, sending it zooming across the hallway where it landed on a bed and nearly sparked a fire. They’ve heard about a family hiking trip when another uncle, then only 5 years old or so, started the trek with only a teddy bear in his backpack and ended it with a pack heavy with dozens of interesting rocks he’d collected along the way. (The former is just plain funny. The latter has been shared on the many occasions our children fill their pockets with seemingly arbitrary rocks.)

The kids already have their own stories to tell. Usually these begin, “Mama, remember when…?” As in, “Remember when the bears were in our sandbox?” The bears visited our sandbox when the children were too small to actually remember, but it’s one of the stories we tell, and so it has become a part of our family’s collective memory.

We pass many things onto our children, both intentionally and inadvertently – physical traits and bits of our own personalities, our likes and dislikes, our family traditions. They learn from watching us, from living with us for the first however many years of their lives, and from the stories we tell – and the ones we are creating together. For along with telling stories, we are all the while players in our children’s own life narratives, participating in the tales they will someday tell.

Which memories will stand out in their future minds, I don’t know. I hope with the stories they make their own, my children’s chronicles will include some family history – silly stories like their great-grandfather preferring to eat his cake covered in gravy, or hopeful ones like their great-great-grandmother arriving in the U.S. from Sweden as a teenager whose only English words were “please” and “thank you.”

Most of all, I hope my kids will have a wealth of entertaining and enlightening material to share someday, years from now, when their own children beg, “Tell us a story from when you were little.”

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted on her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 8, 2013 edition of the Littleton Record.