It’s funny what details you remember from your childhood, little random things that seemed significant or special. I remember on some visits I would get to go to work with my grandmother when she was the office manager for a dental surgeon. I would get to lay down in the recovery room and watch soap operas when there were no patients. She would give me pieces of paper to “file” and let me play on the phones. We would put in a day there, go home and catch our breath, then onto the next job.
I remember my grandmother always having extra jobs. We say “side hustles” now, but for my Mimi there was no “side” about it. It was all hustle. I would go with her to big, beautiful houses where she would watch the little kids of up and comers. I thought it was funny that they called her Mimi, too.
If we did stay home a night, she would spend it ironing. She had mastered the starched and pressed shirt. The “who’s who” of her town came very early and late to pick up and drop off their custom shirts. She would point out the monograms on the cuff and tell us how much they cost or where they came from. This one is from a judge or that one is the president of such and such bank.
Her “side hustle” paid off her beautiful townhome and 2 of her 3 Cadillacs. Her clients adored her, and she adored them. I remember being in town for a visit and one would call and just want to talk about a failing marriage or financial troubles. Or they would open up her fridge, sit at her counter and visit while she totaled up their bill. I wondered if they heard as much about us as we heard about them. There were definitely times when her family seemed to be the stepchildren and her clientele the heirs.
It wasn’t until high school or college that I became aware of some of the more complex layers and dynamics in my family. I would catch little snippets of conversations when my mom was trying to plan a trip to visit her mom or asking her mother to come visit us. There was always work, always ironing. I remember hearing my mom telling Mimi that she was concerned she was wearing out her body… her hands and her shoulders specifically, from the heavy irons. Or my parents would offer money to eliminate any worries Mimi had about finances, offer to pay for trips or repairs… whatever was needed to free her up to travel or really experience life. They would look over affairs and remind her that she no longer needed the extra money.
They encouraged her to retire in her sixties, then in her seventies. They begged her to relent in labor, to enjoy her efforts, to enjoy her life and family. They offered to move her closer or buy her a house to preserve independence. Every offer declined. She was never done with work, she was never leaving her home.
And I don’t blame her, it was stunning. There was nothing “old lady” about it. It was straight from the pages of a magazine. One of my other favorite things to do when visiting Mimi was to go to the furniture stores. She always had her eye on something. She would tell me how many shirts it would take before she could bring it home. She kept a ledger of how much each thing cost and when the time came to replace it she got as close to the price she paid from a neighbor, friend, or child.
Hard to fault frugality. Who can criticize work ethic? Is there even a downside to having pride in your home and a desire to make it lovely? You wouldn’t think so.
You also wouldn’t think that the love of money or possessions could rob you of life and it absolutely can. You may not know that vanity can cripple you, but again– I assure you it can.
The determination to be independent proved costly. In her eighties she fell in her home one night and broke both of her legs. Overnight the home, the car, and everything about her life changed. It was a painful and unfair tragedy to see unfold. Understandably, it amplified insecurities about her “things.” My mom made her hospital rooms and rehab rooms look like the Biltmore in hopes that seeing her treasures would calm some fears. Pretty dishes and blankets, curtains and custom cornices. But it was never what was in the room that was discussed, it was only what wasn’t and why it wasn’t.
I remember getting her ready to move rooms in an assisted living center/rehab and a nurse told her that some of her furniture could not go with her. It was already taking up too much room in walkways and causing trip hazards for her. She wasn’t having it. Nothing would be given up. She fell that night in her room and broke her pelvis. She never made it back to independence.
As much as I reflect on our history and say, “Never me” in my head, I know it’s easily “Me, Me!” in my flesh. This very week, we are downsizing and moving, and I feel myself longing for things that shouldn’t be missed. Like square feet or an extended island. I find myself looking at new homes and telling each one how much better the last one was.
Hey Salty Lady, I see you. I know we frown at Lot’s wife for her inability to move forward and leave Sodom. It seems crazy that possessions or our home could be possible reasons for paralyzed pillars of salt, unless you’ve seen what I have seen. It makes perfect sense to me. A woman who cannot let go to save her life, love or lead her children well? That’s not as ancient as we’d like to believe, my salty sisters.
Can I tell you a secret? Friend, leaving life as you know it or the identity you have manufactured and tethered yourself too is harder than you think. If we are being honest, disobedience has been caused by far, far less. Like a mood… a feeling… or a grudge.
I know these seem like petty musings and I’m fine with the perception. There is much left unsaid, buried in dirt or the dark closets of hearts and minds. Painful wounds and words that landed and were felt deeply then and have since found their full measure of healing in time and Christ. There’s no need to dust them off now.
But a word of caution to you hard workers and hard timers, if your “making a living” is killing you and those around you… it might not be a life that you’re making. Mimi the Great surpassed her stated goals of survival decades ago but habits hardened and then hearts. The work became a way of life and then sadly, the point of life.
Bitter roots begin there for all of us, friend. When anything but God is our source of satisfaction, security, joy and identity… it breeds hard ground where not much can grow.
At the funeral, I told my mom that though I knew her childhood was difficult, I was grateful for it. I was grateful for the woman that she was and how she had been shaped by her life. I was grateful that because of it, she always made my family feel valued and wanted, she always had a healthy perspective on work and stuff.
My mother treated her family the way her mother treated her work or income. And that was really saying something. I never heard my grandmother talk about people the way she talked about things.
How do you offer encouragement to children who would know you were lying if you said, “Your mother loved you more than any anything?”