Magic Words

Ruth: Being middle-aged, I spend part of my time trying not to be an old fogey — convinced the world is careening, screeching downhill and the young are far worse than the young, say, when I was that age.  Most of the time, it isn’t that hard.  I hear comments such as how the youth of today don’t write at all, aren’t that verbal, just surround themselves with high-tech toys that supersede thoughtfulness and quieter pursuits.

And I say, what a crock.  When I was a kid, you couldn’t get boys near a keyboard.  Nobody but girls would be caught dead taking typing.  These days, kids of both sexes email, text, write on computers.  Isn’t that progress?  Isn’t it some evidence of thoughtfulness and verbal exercise?

But then, there are days I surrender and embrace my old fogey-dom.  Like last night, when some of the little costumed trick-or-treaters dug into our bowl a bit too greedily, rejected what they didn’t want (“I don’t like Milky Ways,” one of them informed me, tossing the offending candy bar back into our dwindling supply) and hightailed it off our porch without a word of thanks.

“You need to say thank you,” I found myself screeching from the front porch.  Hearing nothing, I began to sulk and told my husband we needed to close down the operation so we’d have enough candy for ourselves.  We turned off our lights and I polished off the remainder of our stash.  (Why thank you!  I love Milky Ways!)

But anyway.  I spent years being a parent whom no one but a total parental doormat (or one of my own children) would ever describe as being tough or demanding.  I did demand a few things, though — good manners, in particular.

“Your children have such lovely manners!”  How many times have I been told that by someone shaking his head in wonder, as if good fortune had serendipitously plummeted into my lap to give me a big, wet kiss?

Wait a damned minute.  I don’t take much credit for how great our kids are, since I do think we’ve been blessed by that same plummeting, capricious good fortune.  But I do take full credit for our kids’ having good manners.  They say “please” and “thank you” because I nagged them to do it constantly during their childhoods, because I’d been brought up the exact same way by my own parents, which might account for my own marked tendency to say “excuse me,” even when I bump into a tree.  How do you get your kids to have good manners?  You drill it into them constantly, no matter how big a slob you are about other things (you should have seen their rooms).

So, if you noticed some deranged woman screaming “What’s the magic word?” from her porch last night, you might think of telling one of your costumed darlings not to bother us next year if he can’t thank us properly. 

* * * * *

I’m always amazed that people are surprised that writers who write funny stories or comedians who tell good jokes are often haunted by their darker sides.  Of course, they are.  The humor is a cudgel, a distraction, a displacement.

So, I go on, yammering about Halloween and good manners.  But what is really going on with me is the thought of moving our father to a new facility in Austin.  He’s falling now, again and again.  Forgetting he can’t stand or walk.  So I am taking him from a place where he’s been lovingly taken care of to a home that will be closer to my husband and me.  Another good place, but a different one.  A disruption in his routine, in the life he’s known and continually forgotten over the past seven years.

I’m making what I think is the right decision at one of those points when every decision is painful and costly and imperfect.  Am I making the right decision?  Am I making it for him or for myself (since being closer as he fails more often will be easier for me)?

I avoid it all for as long as I can.  Let me talk to you about children and good manners.  Let me talk about something that’s clearcut and simple.  The rest of life — especially at the end — is too damned hard.

Ellen: Who’s the Halloween equivalent of the Christmas Scrooge?  I am.  For all that I’ve seen paper skeletons and witches, pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns decorating shops and clubs on the main street, no one warned me that Trick or Treating was exported to Poland. I was amazed minutes ago to answer the doorbell and find three little costumed girls toting paper bags.  I don’t stock candy…not even fruit.  Fortunately, I do have a 6-year-old student whom I ply with cookies.  He was here a couple of hours ago and I had enough hazelnut leftovers to pacify those cute little girls.  But further unsolicited rings will have to go unanswered.  And maybe there will be none.  I’m on the top floor and the front door is almost always locked.   

OK, that was yesterday’s abortive start.  I’ll resume now on this national holiday of All Souls’ Day, November 1.  In a few hours, I’m going with friends on an excursion of the most colorful local cemeteries.  On this day, all graves are covered with pots of vivid chrysanthemums and candle holders of every shape, many lantern-sized.   After nightfall – and hey, at 4:11 now, the sun’s already set – illumination will be brighter than noon. 

It’s been clear from the beginning of this blog that I’m never going to be as prolific as Ruth, will always lag behind, but my excuse the past weeks has been not merely being technologically challenged – until yesterday, I had no Internet access to speak of, beyond a few nervous, borrowed minutes.  The friend with whom I stayed in Beer-Sheva remains unconnected.  There isn’t a single Internet café in the city.  And returning here, I found my own service cut.  This was expected; because I decided to dump the land line which comprised the cable package deal I signed for, I was told I’d have to be cut off for a day, sign another deal and then be reconnected.  It didn’t make any sense to me, but for a day, why argue.  Well, a day turned into close to two weeks.  It might have been a lot longer if my closest friend here didn’t eventually terrify the manager.  

Beer-Sheva wasn’t the ordeal I’d glumly expected.  I arrived at 2AM wondering how the hell I’d fill the week, wishing I could hop on TUIFly’s return flight.  In fact, I enjoyed visiting my friends, enjoyed otherwise feeling like an outsider in this ugly, uninteresting city – how can it be that I lived there longer than any other place in my life?  I guess because I did have a life for most of those years, work, husband, friends.  The town itself is a dump, though, with little to commend it other than climate and security.   

I’m relieved to be back in every respect.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker and Ellen Dlott)

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