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July 15, 2011

How to be your Father

Dadme The other day I was organizing my office closet and stumbled across the following, written in my handwriting:

How to be Dad

-sing bless this house everywhere you go

-pray the rosary with mom

-dress up in crazy costumes as often as possible

-knock yourself out to make xmas special

-say your favorite phrase over and over, ad nauseum. but mean every word.

I stared at this sheet of paper for a long time before I realized what it was. When I moved to North Carolina six years ago, I was between novel contracts and had some rare spare time on my hands, so I decided to work on the memoir I'd long wanted to write. Not knowing where to begin, I bought a book called Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. This is one of my absolute favorite How-To books, not only for a memoir writer but for a novelist as well, because it delves into how to structure a book in a way that captivates and keeps the reader reading. I had a couple of months to play with my memoir, doing many of the exercises in the book designed to help me remember the events and people and emotions of my life. Then I got another contract (thank God) and set the memoir aside.

So here in front of me was one of Tristine's exercises: In order to paint a portrait of a "character" in the memoir, ask yourself 'how to be' that person.  Try this exercise with one of your parents or a sibling or another important person in your life. You'll get something different than if you just try to describe that person. I can almost guarantee that you'll tap into deeper emotions.

My dad died ten years ago at the age of 90. He often walked around our house singing Bless this house, oh lord we pray, in a resonant bass. But he was a school principal, and I heard from a friend who taught at his school that he also walked through the halls of his school singing this song. (I don't think this would fly in public school in 2011!). I could just picture this gentle man, so comfortable in the school he loved, filling the halls with his song.

Rosary At night, I'd hear him and my mother praying the rosary together in their bedroom, but despite his religiosity (he attended mass every morning), he and my mother were playful and actually a little randy, putting on risque skits at social events and taking any opportunity to play dress up.  Dad mom dressup With four kids, we didn't have much money but he always made sure there were tons of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, because he'd shop the sales late at night on Christmas Eve. 

His favorite saying was "true happiness comes from helping others," and he said it so often that our eye-rolling muscles got plenty of exercise. But really, he was right wasn't he? And wasn't he the guy who gave me that book, So You Want to be a Social Worker when I was a kid, guiding me into my pre-novelist, "helping others" profession?

Give it a try. Pick someone important from your life and ask yourself how to be that person. You just might learn something about yourself in the process. And you'll get a teeny little part of your memoir written while you're at it!



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Ahhh, Diane: a good challenge.

How to be my mother:
--have a ready smile 24/7.
--be exceedingly patient with idiots, bigots, self-centered drama queens, and the sick or injured.
--Have no patience with selfish or careless individuals unless they are among the aforementioned.
--know instinctively how to attract and love all children, animals, birds, and shy people.
--be ready to drive anywhere, anytime, on behalf of a family member or friend in need.

How to be a TLC Tart or Backblogger:

Always have a wonderful contribution to write every day.
Always be inspirational, funny and touching.
Always share with each other..the good times, the sad times and the ordinariness of your days.
And finally, know that each and everyone that comes to TLC is loved and appreciated.

Diane, that is so lovely. I'll try that.

How to be Auntie-Mom:

When you are little you must act out - a lot. People will be so happy when you are quiet they will give you treats. You will probably spend a lot of time in Sister Superior's office, but it will pay off. You will quit going to school when you're 14, but people will pretend not to notice. Everything will be easy after that.

When you sign up for nursing school, your family will think it's a miracle and will help you out a lot, because they know how hard school was for you. They will even let you get away with things no one else will be able to, because - poor thing - you were a late bloomer.

You will get lots of understanding along the way and develop tons of patience. You must like to help people and work very hard. You also must play very hard. You have to take care of yourself. But have a few drinkies now and then, dance, laugh, play on the beach. Get a boat and go fishing. Go camping even when you are 75 years old, and drive to Mexico for coffee and dental care, because it's fun and you still like to make your sisters upset. You must set some of your big Catholic guilt aside to enjoy men and be willing to sort through a few, and maybe a few more before one sticks.

You must believe that God will get it. You must trust that doing the right thing pays off for someone, even if it isn't you. But, on the whole, it will be.

You have to love making your house a wonderful place to live. And you must share it. You need to care, but not overdo. You must know that, like you, even children who have been hurt can love and do good. If you want to be Auntie-Mom you must be content and just know that, and be willing to wait and not push. You must not know how brilliant you are, though. Other people will know anyway. But you will just carry on doing good and having fun and thinking that people are kind to say such nice things about you. And you'll tell some bawdy jokes and go on a cruise or camping trip to Vancouver and think you are just a regular person. But we will know there is nothing ordinary about you. ::kiss::

Marie! You follow all those rules! You're exactly the person to write them.

Reine, you definitely need to write a memoir.

Laraine, the "have no patience" thing . . . oh, dear, that's me!

How to be my mom:

Worry about everyone, even the squirrels, all the time.

Look your best every day to the point of putting on make-up to do yard work.

Never talk about other people unless it's to point out their sterling qualities.

Put up with the man you married no matter what stupid decision he has made this time.

I wish I was more like my mom.

How to make people smile:

1. Smile first
2. Keep an 'open face' - make eye contact and welcome contact
3. Greet them by name, if you can (or adopt the Pittsburgh way and call everyone hun or buddy)
4. Be prepared to make funny faces (this works well with both kids and older people)
5. Always have a 'Tight Ten' - funny jokes/stories/limericks that you can use for general audiences.
6. Laugh at everything.

Oh,Diane this is great.

How to be a reporter:
1. Question everything.
2. Listen.
2. Go and find out.
3. Know there's always another side to every story.
4. Love people.
5. Be careful and care.
6. Be honorable.
7. Have some extra pencils.
8. Understand you might be wrong. Try not to be.

Laraine, I love your mom!

Marie, that is sweet. :)
Reine, I hope you'll write a memoir and that Auntie-Mom will have a prominent place in it!

Xena, love your mom too. xoxo

Kathy, I need to develop my "Tight Ten." Only thing is, I don't have the memory for jokes and stories. I can only remember one joke and that's because it was "dirty" and I had to repeat it in confession at the age of 8. Horrified!

Hank, this touched me. I think there's a tendency to distrust reporters and see them as slick and out for themselves. I particularly love "be careful and care." I bet you're the best!

How to listen to young people:

Ask them how they are.
Ask them what they want to be when they grow up.
Find out how they are spending their summer vacations. Discover most are working if they can fine work.
Ask a waiter if he is in school. Find out that he has three college degrees and is waiting for the opportunity to find a job opening.
Discover that young people are respectful if given respect.
Discover that their music, their past times are very similar to ours at that age. The genres change but the human spirit is the same.

How to be my father -- tell stories!
How to be my mother -- listen! She always knew everything I was up to because she'd listen to me ramble on and on, and pick up things.
and watch! She could read our faces so well that even my brothers couldn't get away with anything.

Lessons from my mother:
Different is ok.
Help people when you can.
When you see hypocrisy point it out. You can't be pro family and cheat on your spouse.
Right it right.

Lessons from my father:
Help people.
Enjoy nature.
Snakes are cool.
Work hard and do your best.

My father's Day card this year from my mom said when she sees me out doing things with the princesses, she sees my father. It is the best thing I've ever read.

Lessons from cousin Henry:

The most progressive, educated, technically advanced society on the planet can change in an election.

Everything you have can be taken away with the stroke of a pen.

You can start with the clothes on your back and make a new life.

Hitler couldn't kill me, this won't.

My mother's inspirations:

It is okay to call them as you see them.
It is good to be passionate and not be afraid to tell the truth even if the person can't handle the truth.
Work hard even to the point of self-sacrifice.

My father's inspirations:

It is okay to be a quiet person.
You do not have to be yakety yakking all the time.
It is so fine to have a serene demeanor and draw people to you. They get it.
It is good to be patient with a flibberty gidget and see that she grows up to a responsible person.

Me: It is very fine to be appreciative of all the influences in my life.

How to be my mom:

Don't be afraid to be smart.
Sarcasm always puts jerks in their place.
Bring cookies out to the garbage man, he will put the cans back in the garage for you.
Hire a man to do the yard work, preferably without his shirt on.
Learn that it is okay to say no to visitors, even your children if you need a break.
Eat whatever the heck you want, at 76 Cheese Whiz is a real food.
Have happy hour regularly with your sister, smoke 'em if you got em.
Laugh and enjoy the small things, it is the small things that count.
Just don't call her between 11 & noon on the weekdays, that is when her story is on.

For Mother's Day last year I bought a beautiful cupcake for my mom, then I put it in a ziploc bag, flattened it with a rolling pin and mailed it to her! She thought it was the best present ever and after she had showed it to everyone she knew, she ate it. I love my mom.


Be kind to everyone, especially children and old folks
Do things for others without them asking (and don't tell others about your good deeds)
Be honest
Love your children even if you don't always love the things they do
Set boundaries
Know that giving your time to your family is more important than giving "things" (even if your children don't realize it at the time)
Set the example for your kids by doing the above (much better than a lecture)

Oh, Alan, that is really touching!

Gaylin, I love the cupcake idea! Going to pay it forward.

How to Be My Son

Check in with grandma every week and go out and have lunch with her when Mom's out of town. Water the plants for her while you're there.

Love to read and play Words With Friends

Have so many friends you can't afford all their weddings!

Stand up for underdogs from the time you were little

p.s., Diane, I passed along your book recommendation to the students at the workshop where I'm teaching

pps--I had a lovely time with Karen of Ohio yesterday! I wonder whom I'll get to meet next?

Sounds like you raised a good guy there, Nancy!

Diane, the mental picture of your Dad praying the rosary stirred up memories for me.
During my Dad's last days at home I would peek in on him to see how he was doing. I had brought him to the Doctor and the Doctor told me to take him home and make him comfortable. Of course, my naive ways wanted to discount the fact that he was dying. He would finger his beads and read one of his Three Musketeer stories.
I did right by my Dad but he did righter by me.

Sweet image, Marie. i think the rosary gives meditative type comfort for many. Love the idea of your father with the rosary in one hand and a book in the other.

Diane, Nancy, yes, you would have loved my mom. She may yet inspire a stellar character in one of my stories, if I can wrap words around who she was. Nancy, it's a good thing to not suffer the selfish or careless . . . the world would be a better place if there were a way for the selfish/careless of the world to awaken to wisdom . . . .

How to be My Grandmother.

Accept ALL people as they are and don't judge them
Know that the greatest gifts cannot be bought like teaching your granddaughter how to make a killer chocolate cake with a 'pinch'of this and a 'dash' of that.
Know that the tea leaves Never lie and teach same granddaughter that dying art.
Understand that God doesn't live in a church
Do your best to make everyone feel special. She made me homemade baker's cocoa and served it in 'my mug' gleaned from a box of Quaker Oats resplendant with a picture of a hunting dog on the front.
Rise early, do your work before the heat of the day and then inhale the fruits of your labors.
Never water a garden in the heat of the day.
Tiny fingers make uneven but precious quilting stitches. Never, never to be removed.
It's not what food you serve when company joins you for a meal,. It's the company that counts.
Being a 'Handsome hard working woman' with the map of life earned and etched on a face will never fade like physical beauty.
That there is nothing more beautiful then a depression glass water pitcher beaded with the moisture of a moment.
That love smells like lilac talcum powder.
That a woman can independently run a farm after her husband dies and feel fulfilled
That a dog will never leave home if you cut a small piece of his fur and put it under the front step.
That birthing your babies in the same bed that they were made in means you always sleep with your memories.
That you can travel the world with a book and never leave your rocking chair
Finally to listen to people's stories and honour them as they are sharing their life with you and they too is a gift.

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