84: Modeling Change

84: Modeling Change

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Modeling Change

If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.

~Mary Engelbreit

My mother sat crumpled on the floor, phone to her ear, the cord coiling around her like a snake. It was dinnertime, but she wore the same housecoat she had pulled over her nightgown that morning. She was sobbing. I was eight and I stood there watching, eyes flitting between her and my five-year-old brother. His eyes were wide, his fingers tight around his raggedy blankie. “Who will make dinner?” I thought.

That was the year my dad commuted between Long Island and Holland, Michigan. Every Friday right after school, my mom would pack us into the powder blue Chevy and make the trip to the airport. She was afraid to drive after dark, so we could always count on a long boring wait inside the terminal. My brother and I passed the time by checking the phone booths and vending machines for change left behind. Early evening we would watch as Daddy emerged from the jetway amongst a crowd of business travelers. Grinning and wriggling, we would run to greet him.

Daddy’s return each weekend meant I could be a kid again, not worry about dinner or shielding myself and my brother from Mommy’s angry outbursts. In my memories of that time, my mom was either moping and weeping or screaming and swinging at us. Daddy was my hero. When Mommy was in one of her moods, he would swoop down, scoop us up, and scurry out of the house. What I didn’t know at the time was that my dad drank too much, too often. He was not a mean drunk; he was a sleeping drunk. “Daddy’s tired,” Mommy would say. It would be some time before even she realized he was a problem drinker.

And then, a couple of years later, she did. Mom started going to Al-Anon and that was when her life, and mine, began to change. Mom worked the program—taking the principles she learned there off the blackboard and applying them to herself. The woman she became bore little resemblance to the mother I knew as a young child. The things she learned in Al-Anon empowered her to change the things she could and accept with grace the things she had no control over. She took responsibility for her life and taught me how to take responsibility for my own.

The Al-Anon liturgy is rife with prayers, pithy little sayings, and acronyms. She recited them to me often, seeming to know just what to say, which slogan for which occasion. They were words I could hold onto, remember, and use as a guide. Moving from childhood to adolescence, Mom was there to help me grow up. She was more than a sympathetic ear; she offered me real tools to fix real problems. Mom was my model. In her I saw how a change of attitude could change a life. Mom taught me to believe in my potential.

“Lorri, how important is it?” she asked, as I sat trembling over my algebra textbook, anticipating the test scheduled for sixth period the next day. “A or F, ten years from now do you think your grade will matter to you or anyone else?” She said, “It’s just one test. In life, there will be many. Study hard and then let go and let God.”

Of course, Mom was right. Life had tested me in many ways, and the echo of her words always helped to get me through with a measure of peace. They grounded me, pulling me out of senseless worry, reminding me what mattered. She gave me the gift of perspective, showing me how to see the big picture and to value myself apart from my accomplishments and failures.

Another favorite saying of Mom’s was “Feelings are not facts.” “But Mom I just don’t feel like I can,” I said, listing all the reasons why.

Mom heard me out and gave me a hug. “I know that’s how you feel right now, but feelings aren’t facts. Let’s talk about what you know to be true.”

Mom taught me to take a step back and question my feelings with objectivity. She got me to see for myself that my feelings changed from moment to moment and day to day. They did not make for a firm foundation upon which to base decisions. When I had a difficult choice to make, she told me to list the pros and cons in order of significance. She didn’t solve my problems for me. She taught me how to find solutions myself.

At twenty-one I was back living with my parents, finishing up school at a local commuter college. I had no campus life, few friends, and no boyfriend. As was the case most weekend mornings I was dragging around the house, bored and lonely.

“Look at this,” Mom said, pointing to a calendar listing in The Roslyn News. “A square dance tonight. You should go.”

“Not happening,” I said. “I can’t go alone.”

“Sure you can. It’s a square dance and besides,” she said, fixing me with her gaze. “No one’s going to come knocking at your door.”

Mom was always pushing me to take charge of my life, to get out, to move my muscles (another one of her maxims), and to change the things I could. “Aw, PLUM, Poor Little Unhappy Me,” she mimicked. “If you’re miserable being alone, then YOU do something about it. Self-pity will get you nowhere,” she said.

So I went to that square dance and somewhere between swing your partner and do-si-do I came face to face with the man who would be my one love for many years.

Two decades later Mom’s words still resonated at the most unpredictable times. I was living alone in a new city and I knew only a handful of people—all barely acquaintances. When Barb called and invited me to a small dinner party, I was ready to say “thank you, but no thank you” when I heard my mother’s voice: “No one’s going to come knocking at your door.”

I was in Chattanooga and as far as I knew, she was in New York. Yet there were those words again, inside my head, but coming through loud and clear. I looked around my apartment. All was still save for the hum of the refrigerator and the chirp of crickets through open windows. Not once in the four months I’d lived there had there been a knock at my door. So with my mom’s words ringing in my ears, I swallowed my “no thank you” and took down the address for the party.

The evening was uneventful in every way but one: I met the man who remains my beloved life partner.

Today Mom is eighty-eight and I am sixty. She is a wellspring of wisdom and though I don’t often turn to her for guidance anymore, it isn’t because she has nothing to offer. It’s because over the years, she has taught me so well.

~Lorri Danzig

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