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.
Join My Mailing List
Category Archives: Family
My mother says vanity is the worst sin. Her mother always told her that, so it must be true. And she likes to remind me of this terrible sin periodically, probably because she knows I’m vain.
But guess what? It doesn’t bother me because I don’t agree. I know plenty of sins that are way worse than being “excessively concerned with one’s own appearance.” So that whole guilt trip thing isn’t going to work, Mom.
Besides, I don’t mind owning up to my vanity. It is what it is, as one of my sisters likes to say. (Not about my vanity, but about everything. She just likes to say that, and I guess it’s true. I mean, everything is what it is or else it would be something else, wouldn’t it?)
Anyway, I was recently reading a book about body language and it hit me that all this so-called expert analysis regarding the hidden meanings behind people’s gestures and expressions is totally bogus. I’m sure the scientists think they’ve got us all figured out but they failed to take into account one very important component which throws the entire area of study into complete chaos. I’m talking the VAIN WOMAN. Let me give you a few examples.
1. Arms folded across the chest. According to the books, a person sitting with her arms folded across her chest has a nervous, negative, hostile, defensive, or insecure attitude, depending on the position of the hands. Double arm grip shows insecurity, clenched fists reveals hostility, hands gripping torso means defensive. I beg to differ. Here is a supposed insecure and defensive posture, and what I—as a vain woman—would be thinking if this were me.
2. Hand supporting the head. Bored. Yes, that’s what it means. The person is bored and would like to go to sleep—that is, if the hand is supporting the head. If the hand is open with the chin lightly resting in it, then the person is genuinely interested. But as in the picture to the right, where a finger points vertically up along the cheek, the listener is having critical thoughts about the speaker or his subject. Except I’m not even thinking about the speaker orhis subject. I’m thinking about ME.
3. Chin stroking. When someone strokes her chin it means she’s thinking over what’s been said and is going through the decision-making process. Usually what the person does after the chin stroking gives you an indication of her decision. If she then begins to rest her head on her hand, then look out because she’s lost interest. Except when the person is me. If I’m the one stroking my chin, then all bets are off.
4. One foot pointing in a different direction from the other. These evaluations of people standing during conversations are the most ridiculous sections of the books as far as I’m concerned. I mean, really, what woman doesn’t pay attention to the way she’s standing? Anyway, supposedly, when someone stands with one foot pointed in a different direction than the way he is facing, he wants to leave, and is, in fact, already stepping out with one foot, planning his escape at that very minute. Maybe that works for a man, but …
5. Both arms and legs crossed. Uh-oh. The person is not open to communicating on any level. She is totally closed off, and she wants you to go away. She’s already emotionally withdrawn from the conversation, so don’t waste your time. Unless she’s me. Then waste away.
So you see why I’m worried. Here are all these scientists going around analyzing people and they’re overlooking the most basic information out there. I mean, those books might be true when it comes to men because let’s face it, men are easy. But women are vain … I mean, COMPLICATED … and anyone who thinks he can just give us a glance and know what we’re thinking is absolutely, inarguably NUTS!
I read somewhere that family get-togethers are all about making memories. Seems like get-togethers should be about enjoying family, with memories just a bonus. But I guess that’s the way we are … always racing around, trying to get to the future so we can look back on the past with fond memories. And I get it, I do. For some of us, looking back on false—I mean, fond—memories is the only way we can enjoy the holidays. Until now … because I’ve put together a list of ten things that will ensure your celebration is both enjoyable and unforgettable … exactly the way it actually happens.
1. Don’t host the dinner unless you need an impetus to clean your house. Leave hosting to family members who like to show off their homes and belongings. You’ll still have to help clean up the dishes … unless you pretend to be a man. In that case, walk into the kitchen when the clean-up is down to the last sixty seconds, glance around innocently and say, “Anything I can do to help?”
2. Carry a large purse, preferably one with a zipper. Trust me on this. You don’t want relatives seeing your bottle of liquor. Not because they’ll be shocked, but because someone will steal it.
3. Scrutinize the food dishes carefully, and find out who brought what. Take a turn with each person, remarking on her home-cooked dish while pretending you don’t know it’s hers. Take a bite and struggle to swallow, then choke out something along the lines of, “Wow. Marshmallows on sweet potato casserole. What an … interesting … choice.”
4. Don’t let anyone keep you from taking your turn at karaoke, especially if you’ve downed all your liquor. Giggle uncontrollably throughout everyone else’s turn.
5. Participate in the games. Every time someone wins, no matter who it is, shout out, “I won! I won! I’m the winner!”
6. Gossip. A lot. The best targets are family members who aren’t there to defend themselves. Be sure to end each remark with “the poor dear … bless her heart.” This will allow you to toss out salacious tidbits that everyone can enjoy, while at the same time making you sound compassionate and sympathetic. It’s a win-win situation.
7. Invite as many children and teenagers as possible. Make all the adolescents except one—the one most likely to lord it over the others—sit with the young children.
8. Tell the kids to come to the party au naturelle. I’m not talking naked, I’m talking off their medication. Family dinners are more fun if adults are off their medication too, unless they’re on something that will improve the family experience, such as pain pills or valium. In that case, they should take double.
9. Speaking of kids, if you have any, criticize everyone else’s and brag about yours. Every time you open your mouth.
10. Be sure to wash your hands when you use the restroom (a sanitary guest is a welcome guest). Before you dry your hands, dribble some water on the toilet seat.
And because you’ve been patient and read all the way through this post, here’s a tip I wasn’t planning to give, but which I think you probably deserve: Don’t follow any of the tips above (well, except for the one about the large purse and bottle of liquor. Trust me … you’ll want to follow that tip.) Instead, plan to attend without any expectations, be yourself, and allow others to do the same because each person brings something special to the table. And what a boring table it would be otherwise.
If you’re looking for more to read, check out these blogs . . .
- Wade Rouse actually makes his sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top, and don’t eventhink about removing them. Check out his Chick Lit Central blog entry, The Go-To-Gay: Kid-ding around on Thanksgiving.
- Persephone Magazine’s A Beginner’s Guide to Surviving Dysfunctional Family Holidays gives advice in the form of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I had to list it because the writer refers to the holiday get-together in question as The Smith Family Apocalypse. It’s a sign!
- On the Oprah.com website, Martha Beck gives 5 Ways to Survive Your Next Family Gathering. It’s another sign. My mother read “Brer Rabbir and the Tar Baby” to me—a lot. I didn’t care for the story but my mother sure did enjoy reading it.
Not that I’m crying. I haven’t yet and I may never. Or I might. It depends on what happens and how I feel about it. Or just plain how I feel.
The point is, this is my cancer experience and I should be allowed to get through it the way I want to, assuming that what I want isn’t illegal or doesn’t hurt anyone. And when I say doesn’t hurt anyone, I mean physically. Because here’s how I plan to handle this:
I’m not answering questions. That doesn’t mean you can’t say you’re sorry to hear about this or that you’re praying for me (pray for me!!) or any of the other things you might say/write to someone who’s having a difficult time. But if you don’t already know the details (and few people do), I don’t plan to tell you. If this hurts your feelings, I’m sorry, but not sorry enough to answer your questions. There are several reasons for this:
- Health is a private matter for me and I’m not comfortable sharing the details of mine.
- I don’t have the time. Answering one question brings on a slew of others. What kind is it? Where is it located? What kind of treatment are you getting? Can it/has it metastasized? What’s the prognosis? How did you find out? How do you feel? Etc. And I’ll get the same set of questions over and over. This will stress me out majorly. Like everyone else, I have things to do. I love my day job and I’m busy from the minute I get there until the minute I leave. In addition, I would dearly love to self-publish the books I have written (and am writing), and I’m busy the rest of the hours trying to pull that together.
- I don’t want people feeling sorry for me, or wondering if I’m going to beat the odds. If they don’t know the details, they have less information to ponder. In fact, they won’t even know the odds.
- I’m a little bit scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen or how well I’ll deal with it. We all hope we’ll deal with upsets gracefully, but grace under pressure is not something I’m known for. I suspect there’s little chance of a personality change now, and it’s just better for all of us (really) if people aren’t asking me for updates. Besides, I don’t want my life to be about this cancer. If I become cancer-free, I’ll let you know. If I die, you’ll hear about it. For everything in between, life goes on, and I plan to keep living mine.
For those of you who know the details, that part I wrote above about this being my cancer experience and I should be allowed to get through it the way I want to, still goes. I should be able to express my fears without being told that I have to be positive every minute of the day, without being told that everything will be fine because God would never let anything happen to me. I believe in God and I believe in being positive. But I also believe that sometimes you just need to talk about what you’re feeling and what you’re fearing, and when people love you, they let you do that.
You probably think I came up with that title just to get your attention. Well, I did, but getting naked really is the topic of this blog.
I had the good fortune to be invited to the Island of Kaua’i by my cousin, who has been there six or seven times. It’s one of the places where she feels really grounded. She ought to, considering that she spent half her time hugging the trees.
It’s also one of the places where she takes off her clothes at every opportunity. And I mean every opportunity. I’m not just talking about “home,” which was the cottage we stayed in. I’m talking about the yard, the outdoor Jacuzzi, the beaches, the ponds, the waterfalls, the paths through the woods. Heck, I’m surprised she wasn’t naked on that helicopter tour. And everywhere we went, I trailed right behind her fully clothed.
Okay, so I’m a prude. I admit it. Always have been, always will be. Or maybe not. My mother used to be a prude and now she pretty much takes her clothes off in front of anybody, whether we want her to or not. But then, as she says, she’s old and can do as she pleases.
But back to me and my cousin. We rented this nice cottage above Secret Beach, which turned out to be the “nude” beach. I’m sure my cousin knew it because she and 24 other people once rented the main house. The cottage was down the lane (or through the orchard) from the main house, which was directly above the 300-foot almost-vertical decline to Secret Beach.
The first night it was too late to go down to the beach, but I could hear waves crashing so loud that they sounded like thunder. It was pretty scary, actually, and I wondered what a beach could look like with such powerful waves pounding it. When I slipped out at the light of dawn and went down by myself, I don’t think I even noticed the beach because right there passing back and forth across my line of vision was a naked guy, strutting as proudly as anyone possibly could. I can only use the word strutting because that’s what came to mind. And if I were a guy and I looked like that (naked), I would be strutting, too.
I thought about taking a photo, but there wasn’t much light and he wasn’t close enough for the flash to help, so the shutter speed would have been slow and the aperture would have been large, and the problem is that anything moving would be blurry. Sure, I could pan horizontally as the guy walked across my line of vision and that would keep him in focus, but there was a part of him that wasn’t moving horizontally; was, in fact, doing more of a vertical bounce. And if I couldn’t get an in-focus picture of that, the photo wasn’t worth taking. I swear to God (who probably will not like my oath on this particular subject), it’s a miracle that thing didn’t wrap around his knees and trip him.
That wasn’t my first experience with public nudity, and it certainly wasn’t my last. During our trip, my cousin went swimming naked in Bette Midler’s pond, in the lake under Wailua Falls, at Secret Beach and Ke’e Beach. When we went to the Blue Room, which is a cave that looks crystal blue due to tunneled sunlight, I thought no way would she swim nude in the freezing springs water. And when a family spilled out of the car next to us, I was even more relieved—until my cousin said, “Damn, I hate getting naked in front of kids.” I guess the parents didn’t care much for it either, since they magically disappeared about the time the halter top came off. I have to admit that those double D’s scared me a little bit too.
So while I have some beautiful pictures of Kauai, they are mostly devoid of living, breathing (and naked) people. I have plenty of memories, though. Memories of an (unexpected) truckload of Hawaiian workers gawking at me from 10 feet away the one and only time I gathered enough courage to walk naked to the outside Jacuzzi.
And then there’s that other, albeit made-up (though I’m sure it really happened), memory of my naked cousin and 24 of her naked friends climbing down that 300-foot cliffside to Secret Beach. I’m only glad I wasn’t waiting for them at the bottom because that would be a memory I’d never forget.
But maybe that would be okay, too, because aren’t memories supposed to be what life is made of?
I have all of my Great Aunt Louise’s diaries, which she began back in 1926 when she was just 27 years old, and I have found myself so touched by her writing that it’s difficult to speak of it or even to read the passages aloud to myself without my eyes filling with tears.
My Great Aunt Louise was a remarkable woman with a profound faith in God, and I have yet to read a passage that isn’t saturated by a positive, joyous outlook on life. She writes about what a lucky woman she is, how every day is a beautiful day to be shared with God. She tells how she lives in a triangle of love and she draws a triangle with the words My Parents, Home, and Dale (her fiance) along the three sides. In the middle of the triangle is the word GOD.
She mentions an evening spent with friends, and then writes of how she wishes never to judge another human being and never to take away from someone through criticism or disinterest that which is uniquely his — his individuality — and how, though someone may be difficult to deal with, each of us brings something wonderful and special to this life. I inferred from her words that she had met someone that night who had sorely tried her patience, but I’ll never know who it was; she would never have written his name.
I found myself thinking wistfully about my writing eliciting the same feelings in a hundred years from a great niece who had never known me, and I mentioned it to my sister, who was as touched as I was by some of the passages and who agreed that I couldn’t leave behind a better legacy than my writing. And I believed her — until I spoke with my mother a couple of days later and brought up the subject of Great Aunt Louise (my mother’s aunt) to her.
My mother started to giggle and I asked what was so funny, thinking that perhaps I had gotten Great Aunt Louise all wrong. Maybe my secret romantic nature that always wants everything to turn out happily ever after had caused me to misinterpret the entries. But no. Mom wasn’t laughing about that.
“Yes, your sister told me about your conversation. We laughed so hard we had to hang up the phone. You’re so negative, after all. What could you hope to pass on?”
This gave me pause because I have never thought of myself as negative. True, I have a self-deprecating, cynical sense of humor, but that doesn’t mean that I see the world that way or expect everyone to behave in the worst possible manner. In fact, every morning as I drive to work I look at the gorgeous sky and thank God that I’m alive to enjoy such a sight. And it wasn’t just that my mother said that, it was also that my sister had been so supportive to me and then had called my mother so they could enjoy a laugh at my expense.
So, remembering that old saying that if one or two editors say something negative about your writing you can kill them (oops, I meant blow it off), but if three or more say it, you’d better take a hard look at it, I decided to poll a couple of friends. Not about my writing, since they haven’t read any of it, but about my being negative. I ended up asking just one.
“Yeah, you are pretty negative,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that I live in my own little world, unwilling to open up to new experiences. I won’t go out partying with him and his friends at night and I don’t want to play volleyball on the beach on the weekends or spend the day on the “party” boat (a paddleboat that moves so slowly that even the drunkest of drunks can maneuver it) because I want to stay in my own little house and write, or putter in my own little butterfly garden. He even brought up the fact that I don’t like seafood as further proof of my negativity.
I was depressed all night about the things he said, and even when I went to bed I felt like a failure as a human being. But when I awoke the next morning, I realized the first mistake I made was in assuming that he knew what he was talking about. So I asked myself, am I really a negative person or is he just a jerk?
I decided he’s just a jerk.
I quit partying every night when I got to the age of 30. I quit spending my weekends at beach parties and keg parties even earlier than that. I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying my home and my yard and my family and my friends and my home repair projects and yes, my writing. Why should I have to spend every night getting high with deadbeats, drinking in bars and eating seafood that I don’t like just because he thinks I should? Why didn’t I turn the tables and say that I find him negative because he goes out every night to party instead of staying home to write? As far as I’m concerned, I’m not the one with the problem. He is. He needs to grow up and get a real life and until he does, he needs to stop criticizing others for having one.
And then I thought about Great Aunt Louise again, and I vowed to change my attitude or at least the way I present myself so that people don’t misunderstand and think I’m negative. I don’t have to like seafood, but why did I even have to tell him that I don’t like seafood? And why do I have to criticize him for criticizing me? Just because I don’t consider partying every night to be a “real” life doesn’t mean it isn’t. It is for some people, just not for me.
I’m obviously not going to be the same kind of writer as my Great Aunt Louise. She probably met someone just like my friend that night when she wrote that she never wanted to judge others because we all bring something important to this world. Not me. I write that he’s just a jerk. And I hope that a hundred years from now someone can appreciate my writing anyway.
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.”