Lessons From My Father

Growing up, my father had a large extended family of Italian relatives. They were like all Italians – boisterous, loving, wanted to feed you – but they had their own notions of how one moves through the world and the ways in which you act in service to others.

My father internalized those lessons and he lived them out every day for my sister and I to see. From him we learned about Love, Respect, Courtesy, and Obligation. We learned from his example how those four words make the world turn and can make it a better place in the process.

My Dad once wrote about these lessons and, with his permission, I’d like to share his words with you.

When I was growing up, my Italian uncles used to talk to my cousins and me about “things.” Life.  How to live it.   How to get along in it.  How to make things work for yourself and others.  I didn’t pay much attention at the time, I thought it was just the ramblings of “old men.”   But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I remember the things they said and have come to realize that I could have made my life much easier and made myself a more effective person had I listened more carefully.   

They talked about Love, Respect, Courtesy and Obligation.  Four very different but related and intertwined concepts; concepts I only understood superficially until recent years.

Love is what we feel for those closest to us.  Parents, spouse, children, close friends and relatives. Because we love them, we will (or should) naturally respect them, treat them with courtesy and always, always discharge our obligations faithfully.

Respect without love is what we have for those who we find admirable or even those who we don’t find admirable but who can affect our lives with their power.   By respecting them we will learn from those who we admire and we will not underestimate those we look upon as adversaries.  If we make that respect open and public, we can even curry favor and maybe turn situations to our advantage. Remember, these were Italians.

Finding advantage is second nature, even a bit Machiavellian.  By respecting those around us (and respect for self came into this as well, because by respecting others, we command their respect), we won’t allow ourselves to be taken advantage of nor will we take advantage of others, especially when it isn’t in our own best interests in the long run.

Self-respect also means we learn from what we see and avoid those who repeatedly treat us with obvious lack of respect or courtesy.  

Courtesy is the outward sign of respect.  It doesn’t mean you actually do love or respect someone, but it does lubricate the day to day friction of normal human interaction.  It can also put an adversary at ease and give you an advantage.  But mostly, it makes life work better because there is less conflict if one can find a way to be courteous to even the least important people we come in contact with.  My Uncle Tony used to say “Never do business with a man who treats a waitress rudely.  If courtesy in small ways isn’t in his nature, he will never show respect or courtesy when it comes time for him to meet his obligations. He will have no honor.”

Obligation is the last and, maybe in some ways, the driving force of everything.   If we commit ourselves to others, be it through marriage, friendship, business or social contact, we automatically take on obligation.  We may not like the persons involved, we may even look upon them as adversaries, but if we are to be honorable, we must always keep our obligations in mind and discharge them without fail. The world judges us more by how we handle our obligations than any other aspect of our behavior.  A person we’ve met for the first time will think less of us (we will have earned less of their respect) if we are not a person of our word.  If we accept responsibility, we must meet the demands of that responsibility.   It is upon us to make sure that all aspects of the situation at hand are covered and that anyone who is affected by the decisions or actions we take are informed and prepared for the action that will be taken and any potential consequences that can be anticipated. Just simple courtesy.   If we cannot fulfill our obligations, then it is incumbent upon us to inform those who will be affected, and to find ways to delegate or offer the power of decision making to someone else who may be able to do a better job, even if that means we lose the respect of those around us.  Never let your own failings or weaknesses spill onto others because you were too proud to admit that you were in too deep.  In the long run, they will respect you more for making sure your obligations were met and by admitting your own failings. You may also have created an opportunity to learn from someone else so that next time you’ll know better how to deal with the situation.  Once again, self-respect comes into play here both by taking advantage of the chance to grow and learn, but also in the positive feedback we give ourselves in having done the right things.  Uncle John said that we even diminish ourselves in our own eyes when we fail to meet obligations and that it becomes habit and self-feeding.  Eventually we are incapable of meeting any challenge.

Love. Respect. Courtesy. Obligation.   I’m sure that what I’ve written here only serves to scratch the surface. Maybe all I’ve done is make it obvious how little I understand of what my uncles tried to tell us.  I do know that when I look back on situations that have gone well and interactions that occur smoothly, it seems that these concepts have been applied, consciously or unconsciously.  

“It’s a simple thing,” they used to say.  Well, however true, I’m sure that as hard I may have tried, there are elements of these “simple things” that I have failed to live up to.  Failed miserably…any number of times.  As my very Catholic Uncle Louie used to say, that’s why we have confession and why we try to forgive others.  Forgive is part of respect and courtesy. All I ask from those around me (even those who don’t really love me) is the degree of respect that allows me simple dignity, the courtesy that would be afforded a waitress, and that those who have obligations that affect me discharge them with some measure of reliability, and in the end maybe a little forgiveness for my own failings. The rest is up to me.

Love. Respect. Courtesy. Obligation.

I hope that as I move through the world, I honor the ways in which my Dad taught me these lessons, that I live up to the ideals those words espouse. Just like Dad, I know I fail sometimes. Maybe too many times. What I do know is that I try. And tomorrow is always another day to get it just right.


Happy Easter!

Praise the Zombie Jesus, my children let me take a nice picture of them!

The outfit Jamie is wearing? Liam wore it 2 years ago. When he was FIVE.

I hope everyone had a lovely day with family and friends!

Big Boys

These kids, they just keep growing up.

Liam is currently at his very last day of kindergarten.  He has excelled this year and learned so, so much.  I’m really proud of him, proud of how hard he’s worked, and proud of how much he enjoys learning.  Some days I turn around and I can’t believe there’s this big kid standing in front of me.  Who let that happen!?  And how can he be so old when I’m still so young?

Clearly, he is a time traveller.

And Jamie?  Well, he has suddenly decided that he needs no help climbing into the car and into his car seat and then climbing back out again when we arrive wherever we’re going.  In fact, he’ll screech at you if you don’t let him do it himself.  Mr. Independent, that one.  He carries his own lunch into daycare when he goes and wants to walk in on his own two feet instead of being carried.

I wouldn’t be surprised if his next full sentence is “I do it, Mama!”

You’re probably thinking that I’m going to wax philosophical about missing my kids as babies.  Well, there’s no chance of that because I don’t miss it.  Not one bit.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the baby stage, too, but I’m glad to have left it behind.  Babies are great but they sure are confining and I’m tired of being a recluse.

With the kids getting bigger, we suddenly get to do more things with them and enjoy their enjoyment of exploring new things.  We’re not so tied down by twice-a-day nap schedules and when the baby HAS to eat and needing a suitcase full of stuff just to leave the house for 30 minutes.  I’m really looking forward to summer vacation this year and I’m hoping to create some really fantastic memories with my kids.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, the kids drive me bats, too.  But the fact that they’re getting older, more independent, less constantly needy of me – that’s a wonderful and welcome development.  Bring on the big boys!

All We Need Is A Car Up On Blocks in The Driveway

Living in suburbia has a culture all its own. We moved into our house in the ‘burbs almost 2.5 years ago and we’re still trying to adjust. Before we lived here we lived within Pittsburgh city limits (don’t blame Lukey on me! I never voted for him!) on a teeny tiny lot with about 3 trees – one of which was really the neighbor’s. Our lawn was approximately the size of a postage stamp (as was our kitchen) and took precisely 87 seconds to mow. Yard care was not a high priority nor a time consuming task.

The reason I tell you this is to explain why it is that when we were looking for a new house we never even considered how much yard care a given house would involve. Well, we found THE house and it just happens to be situated on half an acre and is surrounded by large maples and oaks. Like many homes in and around Pittsburgh, our backyard is a hill. We’ve got about 20 feet or so of flat ground directly out the back of the house and then it starts going up. So, the whole back hill is woods. The rest of the property is ringed with trees.

You can imagine what this means come Fall.

Now, it seems like the people in my neighborhood all belong to the Lawn Mafia. I’m not lying when I tell you that I once came home on a 20 degree day when it was snowing to find my neighbor across the cul de sac mowing his lawn and picking up leaves. The man is obsessed. He’s the worst example but everyone around here puts in a lot of work from early spring to early winter caring for their yards, gardens, and lawns.

Us? Well, not so much. It’s not that I don’t want to be able to devote time to to it but we have the youngest kids in the neighborhood and it always seems like there’s something else going on to prevent us from doing more than the bare minimum. Last Fall I was pregnant, had a 3.5 year old, and my husband had a broken wrist. The few nice days we had, I just didn’t have the energy to spend all day on leaf clean up. This year, I have an infant, a 4.5 year old, and a husband with the Hamthrax.

To top it off, our leaves tend to blow onto the lawns of at least 4 of our neighbors. I know they don’t appreciate it. Last year Neighbor Man (he of the 20 degree lawn mowing) left several bags of leaves out with OUR trash just as a silent dig to the fact that he was cleaning up our mess thankyouverymuch. This year, another neighbor has erected a leaf fence to defend themselves from our leaves.

I feel so bad, but I also feel torn. I only have so much time and energy and while I *do* make an effort, I can’t seem to get completely on top of the job, and keep the house clean, the laundry done, the kids fed, and myself remotely sane. It seems like every year I throw in the towel on the leaves in an effort to keep up with everything else. You’d think that with a college degree and no job, I’d be better at this. But I’m so not. Sigh.

So, yeah, we’re those neighbors you give the evil eye for bringing down your property values.

UPDATE: After writing this post I felt so guilty about not raking leaves that I went outside and raked for an hour and a half. The job isn’t even close to done but it’s the thought that counts, right? RIGHT?