25: Learning to Communicate

25: Learning to Communicate

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom's Survival Guide

Learning to Communicate

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fred and Shari introduced themselves the day Phil and I moved into a house two doors down from them. While Fred helped my husband unload the moving truck, Shari chatted with me about the neighborhood. Over the next few years, as the men hiked and camped with the local Boy Scout troop, they developed a strong friendship.

During that same period, I gave birth to three little ones. I didn’t necessarily plan to have three children under the age of three — perhaps God thought it would keep life interesting. If so, He was right. And with each precious arrival, Shari was first on the scene with a delicious casserole, a thoughtful gift, and a helping hand.

Shari and I swapped recipes and traded the proverbial cups of sugar. My mother had died before I married so I called Shari instead when one of the children came down with an earache or a stomach virus. The mother of five, she always knew what to do.

Our friendship was polite and comfortable. That is, until a situation pushed us to a deeper level of intimacy and bound us together as kindred spirits.

It was a sweltering Saturday in late July. The children were four, five, and six. The previous evening, Phil had tossed his sleeping bag into the back of Fred’s pickup. The men took off to the mountains for a weekend of camping with the Scouts. Not long after they left, our air conditioner decided it would take a vacation too.

I had been in and out of the house all morning, trying to catch up on endless loads of laundry. The laundry room was outside the kitchen door, to the rear of the carport. Sweat rolled down my back as I transferred loads from the washer to the dryer or from the dryer to the laundry basket. I usually folded the clothes as I pulled them from the dryer, but the suffocating heat made that impossible. Of course, the living room wasn’t much cooler without an air conditioner.

The oppressive heat made the children cranky. They whined, picked fights, and ran to the kitchen door every few minutes to tattle or complain. I waited anxiously for the buzzer to tell me the last load of towels was ready to come out of the dryer. I wanted to fold them, make lunch for the children, and then soak in a cool tub of water.

The buzzer sounded, and I went out to the laundry room. Just as I opened the dryer door, I heard glass shatter. High-pitched little voices began to assign blame.

I flew into a red-faced tirade. “Stop fighting! What have y’all broken? I’ve had enough of this! If your daddy ever gets home from this stupid camping trip, I’m going to —”

That’s when I saw Shari. She walked down our steep driveway with her head thrown back in laughter.

“Stupid camping trip? Oh, Arlene, you’ve been holding out on me. All this time I thought you were the perfect little wife and mother. Always supportive of Phil. Always patient with your children. I’m so relieved to know that you are just as human as the rest of us.”

I was too mortified to speak. I turned my back to Shari, covered my face with both hands, and bawled.

Shari nudged me toward the back door. “Go on inside. I’ll be in there in a minute.”

When she pulled a hand towel from the dryer to fold, I tried to object. She pointed to the kitchen door with mock sternness. Inside, I collapsed on the sofa. I didn’t even bother to wipe away my tears of frustration and embarrassment.

Shari came in and poured two glasses of sweet tea. She sat next to me and offered me one. “What’s the problem, honey?”

I tried to pretend everything was fine, but my neighbor wasn’t putting up with any nonsense. So, for the first time in years, I let it all out. “I’m exhausted, I’m overwhelmed, and I’m mad at Phil for being gone so much.”

Shari tucked a short, blond curl behind her ear. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I know what you’re going through. I feel the same way about Fred sometimes. And you know what’s really lousy? We can’t complain. Complaining about the Scouts is like saying we hate motherhood, apple pie, and the flag!”

My friend laughed at her own joke. “Scouting isn’t the problem. That program has done a world of good for my boys. Our husbands are just too involved in a good thing.” She placed a hand over mine. “I’m going to be plain with you about three things. First, I’d bet money you haven’t told any of this to Phil. He can’t read your mind, Arlene. You have to tell him if you need help.”

She squeezed my hand. “The second thing. No one around here expects perfection from you except you.”

My children — Joseph, Rachel, and Rebecca — were spying on us from the hallway. Shari motioned for them to join us. She pulled the girls into her lap and put an arm around my son’s waist.

“Here’s the last thing. Motherhood is a hard, thankless, never-ending job. I should know since I have a houseful of kids. But I’m convinced it’s the most important job in the world. And you’re a good mother, sugar. You just need a day off every now and then.”

Shari eased the girls to the floor, stood, and made a grand gesture with her arms. “Well, good news! Today is your day! I’m taking the children home with me. After I feed them lunch, we’re going to bake cookies all afternoon, aren’t we?”

My children danced around the room in answer to the question.

“Before I bring them home, I’ll make a casserole big enough for your supper tonight and for tomorrow night when Phil comes home.”

Tears spilled over as I shook my head. “Shari, I can’t let you —”

She put a sassy hand on her hip. “I don’t recall asking your permission. Besides, you need to save your strength. The laundry the men bring home will reek of campfire smoke.”

My friend tossed her signature goodbye over her shoulder, “Kissy-kissy!” She ushered my children out the front door. I half-laughed and half-cried as they skipped up the road.

Twenty-five years have passed since that hot day in July. Phil and I had many a talk as we slowly, sometimes painfully, learned to communicate our needs. His job eventually took us to another town. Shari passed away. Fred followed her a few years later.

Even though my kindred spirit no longer lives two doors down, I’ve never forgotten her important advice. Don’t expect people to read my mind. Don’t expect perfection of myself. Don’t expect motherhood or anything else of great value to come easily.

Shari taught me one other thing, but not through any of the words she spoke. Her actions painted me a picture of a true friend.

~Arlene Ledbetter

More stories from our partners