Stephie Smith never dreamed of becoming a writer until a series of her humorous essays about family were published behind her back. Unlike most things done behind her back, this one she actually liked.
And now she writes.
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It seems that no matter how old we get to be, we are never too old to be taught a lesson by our parents. At the top of my mother’s list is the art of thriftiness.
Hardly a visit goes by without a small lesson in this art. I’ve tried to explain to her that with the fast pace nowadays, saving time can be more important than saving money, but she doesn’t buy it. She makes a remark here and there, telling me how much she saved at a sale, or what a bargain she found, and she tells me that when I get to be her age, I’ll see how important it is to be thrifty. But no matter how she starts the lesson out, she usually ends by saying, “Well, it’s none of my business really. After all, it’s your money.”
I recently took Mom shopping at Walmart. Within minutes, she found the best bargain there: clip-on earrings reduced to 50 cents a pair. I watched with amusement as she rummaged excitedly through the large bin. It wasn’t long before she had 12 pairs in her basket and was so elated by the bargain that she wanted to go right home and try them on.
On our way to the check-out line, I stopped for my single item, a bottle of hairspray.
She picked up the cheapest hairspray she could find and held it out to me. “Look,” she said, “this one is on sale. You could get two bottles of this one for the price of yours.”
I told her I realized that, but the one on sale made my hair look like cotton candy.
“Well,” she said, reluctant to put back the bargain, “I guess it’s none of my business really. After all, it’s your money.”
I paid for the hairspray and the earrings and took Mom home.
The next day she called to let me know she needed to return a pair of the earrings. One of them kept slipping off her ear, and she just couldn’t stand paying good money for defective merchandise.
I resisted the temptation to say that I was the one who had paid the good money, and I didn’t care if she threw my 50 cents away. Saying such words would have revealed my lack of thriftiness. So, I drove the 20 miles from my house to hers, and we went back to the store. The clerk gave Mom my 50 cents plus tax, and it quickly disappeared into Mom’s purse. She was set on having a dozen pairs of new earrings, though, so back we went to the display to pick out another pair.
My mother’s worst nightmare had come true. There, atop the earring bin, the sign now read “REDUCED – 25¢ A PAIR.” Struck speechless—though only for a moment—she stared.
“I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! I paid twice as much for those earrings yesterday. Good money down the drain!”
I resisted the temptation to say that it was my good money down the drain, and that, quite frankly, I didn’t care a bit that they were now a quarter a pair. Such a remark would only prove I don’t have a shred of thriftiness in me. Instead, I reminded her that 50¢ had been a real bargain the day before, and if had she waited another day, she probably wouldn’t have found any earrings left that she liked. But it was no use; she couldn’t take it. It was obvious that we would have to return all of the earrings.
On the ride back to her house, I heard her mumbling under her breath, and every now and then I caught a few words: . . . “who they’re dealing with . . . no dummy . . . show them.” She charged back into her house with a vitality she hadn’t known in years. Without a word, she snatched up the other earrings and, doing a perfect about-face, marched back to the car.
The Walmart clerk handed Mom my $5.50 plus tax—and it quickly disappeared into her purse. A few seconds later Mom grabbed my arm and said, “Look! That girl is putting the earrings back. Let’s go!”
The instant the clerk dropped the earrings into the bin, my mother pounced. Grabbing the 11 pairs of returned earrings, along with an extra pair to make an even dozen, she triumphantly waved them at me. “That’ll teach ‘em to try and take me for a ride!”
I resisted the temptation to say I think I am the one being taken for a ride. All I could manage was a feeble, “That’s right, Mom … that’ll teach ‘em.”
On the way to the check-out counter, I stopped to pick up a compact of face powder.
“Oh my goodness,” said Mom, shaking her head. “Would you just look at the price on that. This brand over here is less than half that price. But it’s none of my business really. After all, it’s your money.”
I smiled weakly as we approached the counter. The clerk proceeded to ring up our purchases, remarking what a fantastic bargain my mother was getting on the earrings. If that clerk only knew how right she was, I thought to myself. I had paid more than $9 for those 25¢ earrings, spent a considerable amount on gasoline, not to mention 3 hours of my time—all on Mom’s “bargain.” My mother, on the other hand, had 12 free pairs of earrings and had made over $6 to boot.
She glanced at the new compact as I put it into my purse. “You know, you really should try to be a little more thrifty with your money. Otherwise, you’re going to end up in your old age like me, without any. But, it’s none of my business, really. After all, it’s your money.”
I looked at the innocent expression on her face and thought of my money in her purse. “Mom,” I told her, “if I end up like you, I will be rich indeed.”
How could two people with no common sense be married for 48 years without killing themselves, each other, or any of their six daughters? It must have been divine intervention.
As I was growing up, I didn’t realize my parents had no common sense. They were both intelligent people, so it goes to follow that they would have common sense. Or so I thought. I found out differently one day.
My father owned a car with a leaky trunk, and during a heavy rain the trunk would fill up with water. Annoyed with the situation, he called my brother-in-law, Darryl, to discuss it with him.
“Darryl, do you think I could drill some holes through my trunk with an electric drill so the water could run out?” he asked.
“Not if you want to live,” was Darryl’s reply.
I couldn’t believe my father was going to put an electric drill in water and I told him so. He glumly replied that he knew it was too simple a solution to work. When I related the incredible story to my mother, I expected her to shake her head in disbelief that my father could think such a thing. And she did.
“How was he planning to get rid of all those holes later?” she asked. “You know, roaches will crawl right up in those holes if he doesn’t fill them back in.”
It was my first inkling that my father wasn’t the only one in the family without common sense.
One thing I can say about my father is that he always meant well. When Pam and Darryl went away on vacation, my father took care of their house. Before they left, Pam ordered a new pressure cooker seal. I don’t know anything about pressure cookers, so I wasn’t aware that each pressure cooker has its own specific seal and that the seal is a couple of inches larger in diameter than the lid so that you can work in the excess rubber to ensure an airtight seal.
The seal arrived one day while my father was there and he decided to help Pam out by installing it for her. He hadn’t done it before, but how difficult could it be?
The first thing he noticed was that they had sent the wrong seal. It was obvious because the seal was too big. At this point, if it had been me, I would have put the seal away and let Pam deal with it. Not so for Dad; he liked to be very helpful.
He cut out the two extra inches. When the seal wouldn’t stay in place on the lid, he taped the two ends together with Scotch tape. Worried that steam might loosen the tape (now he was trying to use common sense?), he decided to add a few staples to keep everything in place.
When Pam returned from her vacation, there on the kitchen table lay the pressure cooker lid with her new seal stapled together and taped to it. A post-it note read, “I fixed your lid for you. They sent the wrong size seal but I managed to make it work. Love, Dad.”
When Pam called to tell me about it, she was still laughing.
I called my mother. Surely this time she would be aghast at his lack of common sense. After all, she owns a pressure cooker and knows how important the seal is.
She was aghast. “What on earth was he thinking of?” she said. “All those staples will fall into the soup!”
It’s a wonder we six girls ever made it out alive.
“Fear can’t exist where faith resides.”
I’ve long since forgotten the name of the minister giving the sermon, but the words will probably remain etched in my memory forever. I had recently changed employment from a comfortable job of six years to one with a boss who turned out to be a nightmare, and the frightening prospect of job-hunting loomed before me once again. While I was still trying to get a grip on these changes, my boyfriend of eight years moved out, and he left behind such a path of deceit and betrayal that I thought I would never recover. I had already had one panic attack and that was enough for me to know that I never wanted another.
But another seemed inevitable. For days I had lain in bed, my mental state alternating between bouts of anxiety that clutched at my heart until I couldn’t breathe and periods of depression so severe that I truly wanted to die. I knew there were things I needed to take care of–finding another job, locating an apartment I could afford on my own–but I couldn’t seem to function. Disquieting thoughts ran endlessly through my mind: what will I do if… how am I going to… what if I can’t… My family was three thousand miles away, and my friends–well, it didn’t take me long to realize that they were his friends, not mine. He hadn’t liked my friends, so I had given them up. As I lay trembling in bed, listening to the taped sermon that a chance acquaintance had given me, I felt as though all of my support mechanisms had been stripped away, leaving me naked, freezing, and alone.
The minister on the tape went on to say that fear is simply a lack of faith that you’ll be protected and kept safe. It’s believing that you have to take care of everything yourself, without help or hope.
And I realized that was exactly my problem. I was afraid. There had been too many upsetting changes in my life, and I was afraid I couldn’t cope. There was no one I could talk to, no one I could draw comfort or strength from. I felt completely alone with my fears, and now, as I listened to the sermon, the reason was so very clear.
I had let God slip out of my life. I had let God slip out of my life and it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed.
I had been raised in the church, but as a child I viewed it as one of those things that I had to do, much like school. After I left home at the age of fourteen, I continued to visit the church but never with any real sense of purpose. And yet I still believed in God and I prayed almost daily. But His presence in my life was something I took for granted.
In my mid-twenties, I met the man I thought I would spend my life with, but that lifetime lasted only eight years, and during those years I lost much more than I gained. You see, I hadn’t even thought to ask him if he believed in God before I let myself fall in love with him. He was a kind person and I simply assumed he was a Christian. I can still remember my shocked disbelief when he told me he didn’t believe in God or in any power higher than man, but I felt it was ignorance on his part, a lack of proper upbringing. I didn’t realize his convictions were as strong as my own.
Our relationship became intimate and we moved in together, even though it went against my Christian upbringing. I told myself that things were different now, the world was different now. People couldn’t be expected to live as they lived in the time of Christ, and surely God understood that. Anyway, we would be married eventually, and all would be forgiven. It continued to bother me that he was a non-believer, but I told myself I had a lifetime to change his mind. Instead, I was the one who changed.
My visits to church became less frequent because I wanted to spend my time with him. Eventually they dwindled down to none. What once had been daily prayers became sporadic ones, prayers that were said only when someone I knew was going through difficult times. It wasn’t long before those too were left behind. I still believed in God, but He was no longer a presence in my life.
As I lay in bed I thought back over my life. I had experienced other trials that had surely been as difficult as the present ones, but somehow I had known that things would turn out okay. There had never been any doubt in my mind and now, because of the minister’s words, I realized it was because of my faith.
I realized something else, too, something I had probably known in my heart but hadn’t wanted to face. I had been unhappy during the last few years of my love relationship and I had been searching, albeit unconsciously, for something that would make the difference in my life. But I had been searching in the wrong places. I wasn’t going to find it in a career, money or possessions. It wasn’t going to come from an exciting social life or from alcohol or drugs. It was something that I had once had and then let slip out of my life, without ever realizing its value.
It was God.
It was God that I had been searching for during those last few years. And now that I have found Him again, I’m not going to let Him go. Because living in faith means living with a serenity that comes from knowing with absolute unshakable certainty that the universe will support me, that everything will work out for the best or at least that I will make it through and become a stronger person. Living in faith means knowing that God will provide me with everything I need. Living in faith means living without fear, because just as the minister said on that fateful day that changed my life, “Fear can’t exist where faith resides.”