My youngest has quite the personality. He is assertive, persistent, a quick learner, and he lives to do hard work. So I found myself just assuming that he could handle just about any challenge head-on.
This morning we ran errands together. I needed to drop off recycling and get a tool part. He needed to get out of his jammies and wash his dirt-covered hands. But he already had socks and rainboots on to help Dad with trees, so I said, Climb in.
After admiring bright orange city vehicles at the recycling center, we visited the tool shop for some chainsaw stuff. I taught him that the heavenly scent permeating the place was called engine grease and is synonymous with my Grandpa Owen.
Then as we pulled into town, my car’s hot engine alert popped up. No worries. Just some overheating. Turned the heater on full blast and pulled into a bank parking lot. Popped the hood, grabbed the radiator fluid and funnel from my trunk, and emptied what was left in the bottle.
We sat there a minute with the hood open, and I remembered being the damsel in distress 20 years ago, but that time I didn’t know what to do, and my Grandpa Owen showed up ready and helpful. He made sure I would know what to do from then on so I could stay safe and keep my wallet closed.
I decided this was the day to knock my son’s socks off with my mad auto mechanic skills. So I spotted a nearby auto supplies store and told my sidekick we could just walk over for more radiator fluid while the engine cooled.
As we strode across the parking lot to the sidewalk, I felt him dragging. Even though his boots are a size or two ahead of his feet, he’s surprisingly nimble. So I looked to see what was wrong.
His face had an expression I’d only ever seen him wear at the dentist. He was shaking in his rainboots. It took me a moment to register that he had never walked down a noisy street with traffic. He had been told to absolutely never cross a road if cars were coming. So why was his mom dragging him straight toward the cars?
I acknowledged where he was coming from, showed him a sidewalk, gave him things to look for, and let him push the button for the crosswalk. I assured him of our safety, all the while swiveling my head in every direction because I know all too well that a person in a crosswalk can get hit by a car.
I had never seen one of my kids so clearly frightened and yet so willing to follow me. I want to think it’s because I have never put my kids into an unsafe situation (ask my eldest about the hot oil and the glass pitcher), but I think he sees what needs to be done and faces it.
Sometimes I perceive something as dentist-level scary that for other people is quite manageable. I tend to lose my bearings, close my eyes, and hope I can find my way back to a safe place where no one will see me freaking out.
I used to look for someone to blame when I saw this behavior in myself, and honestly, my Grandpa Owen was probably the first person I ever hid from (unless you count the time I picked tiny bits from a freshly baked cheesecake until a small valley marred its top, and I ran to my closet when I heard my mom ask who in the world did this. And you know what? That cheesecake was for our dentist. See? Scary.)
Anyway, I was afraid of my grandpa. He had a frightful temper at times. And he didn’t just sound angry, he sounded like he thought the wrongdoer should walk the plank when he found them.
Of course I learned as I got older that his upbringing and his father’s upbringing (and who knows how far back) had a lot to do with it. Plus we all struggled with our mental health and needed multi-generational family therapy at our reunions I think. We’re all a little nuts.
So I determined to become friends with him as I became a bit more of my own person. My grandparents lived just a few minutes away when I studied at BYU, so once I had my own car, I made a point of visiting them.
I would do my laundry there most Saturdays. I endured a lesson from my grandpa on how to do my laundry (I’d been running laundry since third grade) and put my grandpa to work hanging my non-dryer clothes.
He made slightly racial jokes about the laundromat he now ran, and I redirected to what I’d learned from a real Chinese person in my neighborhood. I didn’t bother correcting outright or preaching because I wanted to learn from him, not fight him. Plus, I preferred he run a laundromat and feel useful than clean out gutters by climbing a ladder to the forbidden top rung in order to feel useful.
One day in the autumn of 2002, I stopped by to check on him because my grandma was away helping her youngest daughter. The comforting smell of smoke from a wood stove greeted me. All was right in the world.
But all was not right with my grandpa. When he came to the door, he sort of peeked out like he was scared we might be seen. I was on my way back from my nursing home rotation, so I thought I might be seeing some sort of dementia.
“Come in quick!” he whispered. “I need your help!”
h-oh, I thought. He needs a nurse’s help. I braced myself. Since becoming a nursing student, I’d had a lot of requests to look at rashes and other unusual goings-on.
But when he led me to the kitchen, my curiosity only grew. All the lights were off and the curtains drawn. Whatever he had going on in there would not see the light of day. He held up a bag and pointed at a large cooking pot on the stove.
“See how small this bag is? It was full of dried peas. I thought it would be good to use them all up, so I dumped them in this pot with some water, and…” his voice trailed off as he lifted the lid to reveal a stockpot filled with plump, round peas.
I peered in at the emergency. Once again, I was staring at someone’s pea in a pot.
I looked back at my grandpa for a clue. I wasn’t seeing the problem.
“You have to help me use these up! If your grandma comes home and sees how I’ve wasted these peas, she’s going to kill me!”
He earnestly believed he had done wrong and needed to hide. Exactly the way I used to feel about him.
So I did what any mature adult would do in that situation. I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Best pea I’ve seen all day. Good job.” And I walked out.
That’s when I was still lightyears away from letting people solve their own problems and loved to rescue instead.
This visit had just turned intoo a covert operation.
“Grandpa, quick, get me a Tupperware Grandma won’t miss. No, wait, she’ll know. Eat the rest of this cheesecake. I’ll take some peas home in the tin. It’s better she didn’t know about that anyway.*”
I filled a container to the brim and held it closed with rubber bands. I had never known my Grandma to get after people for making too much food. In fact, she relished finding just the right container to put leftovers into. She downsized containers each day as the leftover was eaten until a bite wrapped in used aluminum foil was all that remained. She often sent these delicacies home with me as I was a poor college student.**
I took my contraband, hid it under my hooded jacket, and walked onto the front porch as nonchalantly as I could. Grandma might return at any moment.
And honestly, that’s probably what the poor guy needed. I think the only person who would ever be upset by his “mistake” was him. I had probably never seen him so vulnerable, so openly afraid, and I would say, ashamed.
The love I felt for that guy as I bought my first ham hock and crocked a pot of split pea and ham soup that I then ate all by myself, has only increased as I’ve grown older. The shriveled, fearful place where I’d once hidden from him has filled and expanded to nearly overflowing.
Don’t be angry at yourself, Grandpa. You didn’t know. Those were just practice peas. Trying is what mattered. I promise you no one will ever accuse you of not trying. You and many of my loved ones try harder than the world will ever know.
I think my grandpa opened up that day because there was no one left to blame.So the next option he knew was to hide what he’d done. I’m not sure if I should feel flattered or worried that he knew I would help him, especially since I have reacted similarly to my own mistakes far more than I’d like to admit.
I’m learning that blame robs me of self-knowledge and needed growth (not the kind on your skin that you should have a (student) nurse look at).
If experiences that help us grow are like sunlight, then fear, shame, and blame are as useful as mirrors on plant leaves. Taking the experience in and processing through it brings us energy while fighting it depletes us. Like plant leaves turn toward sunlight, we can turn toward our fears rather than trying to avoid them. After all, fear is not only there to warn us of danger; it can also signal to us that we have something we have yet to learn.
So why blame ourselves for getting it wrong when we are here to learn? We’re supposed to encounter the unknown and have our instincts offer fear. Can you imagine blaming a baby for falling when they are learning to walk? No. We cheer them toward success and offer comfort if learning includes getting hurt.
My son took my hand and trusted that even if the experience scared him, things would turn out ok. As I trust the experiences that life has given me and the Father and Mother who take my hands in the perilous crosswalks of life, I feel grateful where I used to feel blame.
Then it doesn’t matter if I’m shaking in my boots. My eyes are wide open and I’m moving toward a better version of myself.
*I made up the cheesecake part.
[I love the sound of this song I used for the post’s title but the irresponsibility in these lyrics is where many of us live from when emotionally immature. Working my way out of that place…]