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Peggy Keener: Wisdom from our elders

From time to time I find myself reviving the things we learned as children. These important lessons came from excellent teachers whose talent in life was being particularly good at pounding their knowledge into our little pointed heads. We all had the same lessons, none of us escaping them … especially that one about spinach.

For starters, our mothers taught us kids the practicality of being practical: “If you’re going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning.” And in the event we didn’t get the message, she’d add: “You’d better pray, by the way, that that will come out of the carpet.”

Some really distraught, overwrought dads came right to the point with no shilly shallying around. “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to knock you into the middle of next week.” When children questioned why, the dads would reply: “Because I said so, that’s why!” I often wondered how old I would have to be when I could also say “because I said so, that’s why”?

Our mothers were more caring, more gentle, more logical: “If you fall out of that swing and break your neck, you’re not going to the store with me.” Moms were, as well, forbearing and never wasteful: “You’ll sit there until all that spinach is gone.” See what I said? None of us children EVER escaped that one.

Our parents joined forces when it came to irony: “Keep crying and I’ll give you something to cry about.” Then a caveat was added: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” Heavy stuff.

But, it was their twisted sense of humor that I dreaded most: “When that lawn mower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me.”

It always amazed me how Mom could see things that were invisible to others: “Just look at that dirt on the back of your neck.” This was often expressed while appraising the state of my bedroom: “This room looks like a tornado went through it.”

But above all were her confusing and contradictory words on hypocrisy: “If I told you once, I’ve told you a million times … don’t exaggerate!”

Then there was the awful anticipation of the dreaded threats that were spoken in public in a stern, strained, hushed voice: “Just you wait until we get home.” Such words could really put a damper on an otherwise perfectly good, perfectly fun outing.

And who can forget the dire warning: “If you don’t stop crossing your eyes, they’ll get stuck that way.” To tell the truth, I’m still hung up on that one.

To be sure, Mom was a near genius in the ESP department. “Put your sweater on. Don’t you think I know when you’re cold?”

This next lesson I never could figure out. Was it a compliment or not? I’m guessing not: “One day you’ll have kids and I hope they turn out just like you.”

Every single adult living then and now has uttered the following words at least once in their children’s lives: “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you’ll never grow up.” Then, just to kvetch a bit longer they’d add: “And shut the door behind you. Were you born in a barn?”

There was a select group of moms who put the fear of God into us kids with: “If you don’t stop that, I’ll shake you till your teeth rattle.” This could pretty much stop me in my wayward tracks because I didn’t know that teeth could rattle. Furthermore I figured I’d better stop whatever sin I was committing because none of us kids knew for sure if teeth fell out after they were rattled.

As if we kids weren’t confused enough, moms often sent conflicting messages to us: “You’re just like your father!” For a brief moment we didn’t know if that was good or bad. Then moms would add: “You are going to get it from your father when he gets home.” The final obscurity came when they ended with: “Stop acting like your father!” It’s no wonder that much of the time we kids stumbled around in a colliding, stupor-filled daze.

The heaviest of guilt burdens was this one: “There are millions of less fortunate children in this world who don’t have wonderful parents like you do.” Really?

But of all the elder’s lessons, the most sage, poignant exclamation was: “When you get to be our age, you’ll understand.” I’m 82. I still don’t get it.

These axioms continue to haunt me. Moreover, did I say the same menacing things to my children? I fear I did for nothing gnaws at me more than the sobering memory of the day I said to my firstborn, “Stop acting like a two-year-old,” only to realize I was talking to my two-year-old.

Without a doubt, it was surely the boys who suffered most. When caught in “the act,” the elders would admonish, “If you don’t stop doing that, you’ll go blind!” To which many a prepubescent lad replied, “But, couldn’t I just keep doing it until I need glasses?”