Friday, October 3, 2008

Speech! Speech!

One small tradition that happens in our family only occurs on birthdays. Every family has their own birthday traditions. In ours, most of them are the same as anyone else’s. The birthday person selects the menu for dinner and chooses which dessert they want. It’s not always cake, especially now that some of the boys are older and choo-choo train shaped cakes don’t have the same appeal as home-baked apple pie a la mode. We give presents. Sometimes we decorate.

Some of the things we do, or rather don’t do, are different from a lot of families. We rarely do a kid’s party with non-family guests. We don’t do McDonald’s parties. We don’t have any extended family that comes by for dinner. They all live too far away. Our gifts are usually not particularly expense, sometimes not even material. Some of them are: “I’ll treat you to a baseball game in Detroit,” or “Mom, I owe you one day’s work with a chain saw in the yard!” Yay! I love that one. Or, “Brother, I’ll take you out for pizza at Aubree’s.”

Present-giving happens after dinner when we all gather in the living room. Cards from relatives are opened first. Then, starting with the youngest child and working up by age, the gifts are handed to the honoree for the night. But before the first gift is handed out, it is time for “The Speech”. Dad usually gives it, unless it’s his birthday, in which case either I or one of his children who is inspired, does it. The speech is always very simple. It goes something like this:

Beloved (family member): We are all here with some presents for you. We tried our hardest to find something that you would really enjoy and cherish. We wanted our present in some small way to tell you how priceless you are to us, and there really is no present that can adequately say how much we love you. So as you open these gifts, remember we love you so much more than the value of these small tokens of our esteem for you.

That’s about all there is to The Speech. My husband started spontaneously giving this speech every time a birthday rolled around, and pretty soon everyone caught on. As soon as we assembled in the living room someone would start yelling for The Speech. We laughed about it a few times. “Speech! Speech!” Dad would calm down the clamoring and say the words we longed to hear. Then somehow the less sentimental ones of us sensed that laughter was not exactly appropriate. I think we realized it when my beloved started changing the speech a little so that it was not so predictable. He continued to say it in complete seriousness, and we realized ourselves, those of us cheering for The Speech, that it was serious. So serious that maybe it was the most important thing we ever did as parents.

So many people grow up and live their entire lives without even once having some family member say anything close to the content of that little speech. Oh, you could say that people don’t need to hear it. That what you do, how you treat someone, can say it as well. But I’ve reached the conclusion that that is not so. Sometimes we are worried and preoccupied and forget to do those small gestures of love. We forget that someone is there for us everyday, and they may be just as worried as we are, and no one is reassuring them that they are important no matter what. And there are so many things that we do that say just the opposite of that little speech, and we feel bad about it afterwards. Sometimes there is no afterwards, because we are insensitive to the fact that we devalued someone.

Every so often, not even on a birthday, I will grab one kid, maybe the one who’s been bugging me a lot lately, and I’ll say something to them. It might be that they don’t need to do anything, accomplish anything, be anything, for me to be so proud of them. I tell them that I will love them if they are a total failure, if they get in an accident and are paralyzed, if they make some terrible mistakes that change the course of their life forever. I will still love them. I tell them that there is only one of them in the whole world, and that they are a priceless treasure, and that if anything happened to them my heart would be broken.

When you say those words to your kid, whether it is a birthday speech or just a spontaneous need to let them know their worth, any foolishness they may have been tempted to act out at that moment drops away. Those words go straight to the heart, and whether they respond at all to your sincerity or not, they will never forget that you said them.

I have a different speech that I give now and then to one of my sons—far different than the one my husband delivers on birthdays. It is one I am not proud of. Once I failed my son in a significant way. It was very painful for both of us, and he knows how sorry I am that I did not behave in a way that made him feel cherished. Very occasionally, and it is getting less often as I heal from the memory, it will come to mind. My eyes will begin to tear up and I’ll feel the remorse all over again. All I have to do is turn to my son, and my low, quivering voice will croak out, “I’m so sorry.” He instantly knows what I am remembering. No explanation is necessary. He will stretch his arms wide to me, give me a big bear hug, and say, “I know, mom. It’s OK now.”

Words expressing love. Words expressing regret. Our children have heard them from both their parents, not once, but over and over again. It used to be difficult for me to say “I love you,” and “I’m sorry.” But as with all things that we don’t do well, it gets easier with practice, till we aren’t embarrassed or anxious about it anymore. I’m practically a pro at it now! But even more satisfying than getting better at it myself, is the fact that my kids are already good at it. Setting an example was all it took.

I talk to my kids a lot. They call it something else: lecturing. But they listen and I listen to them too. But when someone gives The Speech, then they really listen.

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