The power of a single phrase



For most of my life, I’ve known my Mom as a parent, not a person (probably pretty typical for people of my generation). But since my Dad died two-and-a-half years ago, she’s opened up about herself in ways that have let me appreciate her for the awesome human being she is. Her intellectual prowess, her remarkable curiosity and her evolving philosophies about life as she contemplates death have conspired for me to see her in an entirely different way. I am so lucky to have this time with her.

I drive up every other week and spend about 6 hours with her. Once I arrive we begin our ritual of preparing breakfast and reviewing the list of topics to be discussed that day (hand written using precise, elegant cursive in a spiral notebook). To give you a sense of the types of things we discuss, here’s some from a recent visit: Ray Kurzweil’s theories on intelligence; the value of millet as a food source; the country’s changing culture from self-dependence to dependence. You know, just a few light topics. And these aren’t just passing comments she wants to make. She wants to DISCUSS and DEBATE them. I’m mentally stimulated but exhausted when I leave.

Something that has occurred from these discussions are some remarkable, small stories she tells that disrupt my way of thinking. Parables that completely consume me and change the way I think. I’m sharing them because I think they have great value for all of us. The first is her story about going to college.

My mom grew up in the depression. Her family was one that was very hard hit, beset by challenge after challenge. Her father kept losing his job, and each successive job was lower paying. Their house burned down at one point. Her mother died when she was young and her family became a blend of relatives, with eventually her aunt becoming her stepmother. In this day and age, when we hear stories of difficult childhoods, they are almost always accompanied by how damaging it was to someone’s psyche, how it created a life of bitterness, anger and lashing out. Not with my mom. There was no bitterness about her past. She simply talked about how families just “made do” and didn’t dwell on the past. You didn’t complain.

There was an assumption in the family, that once high school was completed, the next step was getting a job so as to contribute to the family. There was no discussion of college or talk of a profession or career. “As a teenager, going to college had never even entered my mind.” she reminisced. One Sunday at the main meal, my mom said she could tell that something was bothering her older sister. Toward the end of the meal, her sister finally broke into tears and blurted “I want to go to college!” Mom was mortified, certain her sister was going to get into all kinds of trouble. “But instead” she recalled, “Daddy just looked at her and said ‘OK.’ “  Within a couple weeks, her father had figured out how to get her sister to college, but importantly, my mom now assumed that she was also going to college. And she not only went to undergraduate but also completed her Masters of Education.

As my mom told this story, she had the far-off gaze that besets any of us as we think of the past. As she ended, she looked at me very intently and said “I will always find it remarkable that a single phrase can change the entire course of one’s life.” At first I thought it simply a nice story. But on the drive home, I couldn’t get that story out of my head and had a revelation that changed my perspective about not only my mom, but myself. She has always been adamant about vocabulary, and in particular, one’s choice of words. Growing up, I just thought she was just being a mom and making my life miserable. But I now realize its foundation. I wonder if I would have thought differently and actually paid attention had she told me that story back then? Maybe not - I was a teenager and we all know how much teenagers love to hear stories from their parents. But it has reinforced two things in me:

Always, always be careful of what I say. Be mindful of not only the words I use, but how I use them. Be reverent to their great power. I now understand why I struggle in team cultures that are based on conflict and unfiltered challenge. 

Make an effort to share my life’s learning moments with my adult daughters. Don’t wait until I’m reflecting on the end of my life, but share the context of those lessons now. They may not mean something immediately, but hopefully it will influence them in some small way. Even if it’s only that they see me not just as “Dad,” but also as a mindful, considerate person.