From very early, Mom taught the importance and impact of gratitude.
Before I could even write and talk, she guided me in how to thank others for the love they showed. She told me stories of how she would guide my hand to write my name on thank you cards. Later, she would put me on the phone or remind me to call people to say “Thank you” whenever I received cards and/or gifts from friends, family and neighbors. To Mom, acknowledging the outreach and outpour of another’s heart was important. Whether it was a tangible gift like a check, present or the cooking of a favorite dish, or intangible like a phone call to wish me “Happy Birthday” or message of congratulation or affirmation for academic or personal achievement.
A person’s volunteered sincere attention to a life accomplishment, big or small, material or immaterial, should never not go without recognition and immediate response. Yet the lesson of conveying thankfulness, then and now, extends beyond the display of good manners.
Overtly reciprocating gratitude for the of love others fostered both my responsiveness to and responsibility with other peoples’ attentiveness and fondness. Yet the lessons underlying the saying of “thank you” and gesturing gratefulness through phone call, letter or card began morphing….into the building of a relationship. Beyond a reflex of obligatory appreciation, the lesson became a stepping stone into learning how to love, love in the sense of reaching for and holding others in my heart long after a simple deed.
What has evolved from gift-generated action and reaction is a habitual conversation between hearts, a commitment to continue corresponding with people who thought enough to celebrate me not only during moments of earlier accomplishment, but since and throughout . I write cards and letters to my former childhood neighbor Bunny; she and her now deceased husband treated me more like a niece, writing cards and even buying me bonds as an investment in my future. Ms. Jessie, my Mom’s former co-worker who sent cards and gifts when I was a teenager, has since become a elder in my life who I call, write, and text message throughout the year. Ms. Connie, a former neighbor who when my Mom passed made it a priority to check in on me (even though at the time of her passing I was an adult), I send cards and pictures and also call. I text, call and email my former midwife Susan, who gave great advice and anecdotes throughout both pregnancies, keeping her abreast of how the boys are doing. And for those that have since passed on, or whom I have lost contact, I include them in my remembrances.
Following tradition, I am beginning to teach my sons lessons about showing gratitude and caring. I trace their hands as their “signature” on thank you cards. I have them call grandma and granddad to say thank you for the annual birthday card. I have them call our friends and family to say thank you after receiving a card or gift.
Yet I am also using such instances of relaying gratitude as springboards for two things. One is facilitating literacy, literacy in the social context of overtly learning to say and do within interactions with friends and family that evinces caring and affection. Saying “thank you” and employing vocabulary and phrases demonstrative of tenderness and fondness. With my oldest son (age 3) now being quite vocal and social, I facilitate real time interactions with friends and family. I have him initiate phone calls with family and friends, practicing him in conversational protocols for interactions such as seeing how someone is doing, wishing them wellness if they are sick, singing the “Happy Birthday Song” as remembrance of his or her special day, etc. Calling Daddy each day at work to check in on him and the progress of his day. Sending a text message or creating a voice message for Uncle Craig and Uncle Chris (childhood friends of my husband) just to say hello. The other is using the teaching of thankfulness as a portal into teaching my sons how to build community, as I had learned to do too.
My oldest son has now “upped the ante.” Keith takes initiative to regularly check in on people. He’ll say, “Mommy, let’s call Mr. Tyrone (a neighbor we would see when taking walks in the park in our old neighborhood). We haven’t talked to him in awhile. Let’s leave a message.” He will remind, “We haven’t talked to Ms. Brenda” (another neighbor we would see when walking in the park). He will request, “Can we call Aunt Stacy, and leave her a message?” He also hints at who he thinks I should call if I have not been in touch recently. Recently saying such things as “Oh, we haven’t talked to Ms. Pam (our former realtor) in a while,” “Let’s call Aunt Betty” (my mentor from graduate school), ” “Let’s check on Uncle Sug” or “We have not talked to Auntie Mary.” Each of these people have at one time or another given the boys a gift or committed an act of kindness. Mr. Tyrone gave the boys Clifford books and cereal snacks. Ms. Brenda would help Keith cross the street while holding his hand, try to make Maceo smile, and also calls periodically to see how we are doing. Aunt Stacy hugs and plays with the boys during our visits, and bought the boys an array of educational gifts last Christmas. Ms. Pam showed Keith how to trace his hand with a crayon to occupy him while the home inspection was taking place. I’ve told Keith of the impact Dr. Shadrick (to him, Aunt Betty) had on me, and in adopting my honor and sentiments leaves voice messages along with mine. Uncle Sug regularly calls to see how we are doing. Auntie Mary showered them with love and attention during our last visit, and sent the boys books the following Christmas. Yet I am impressed that Keith remembers the gestures of so many others, big and small. Related by blood or by love. Who have bought him gifts or called to see how our family is doing. Who simply love us and show it.
Keith also upped the ante by now wanting to give gifts to others. I have been recording Keith reading aloud for almost two years as a means to both chronicle his reading progress and also because he LOVES being recorded. Now he wants to use his reading aloud and recording of his favorite books as a means to show his remembrance and his love. An avid reader, he asks to read his favorite books to people he thinks about. Sharing aloud his favorite books has become his means of keeping in contact with people he holds in high esteem. It has become his tool through which to initiate and maintain correspondence with those he loves. It is his gift to others of saying “Thank you” for treating him as part of their extended families.
Last year he gave a Hallmark recordable book to his grandparents. Recently I called my mentor and dissertation chair Judith, just to check in and see how she was doing. Unable to leave a voice message, Keith suggests, “Can I read to Auntie Judith one of my favorite books?” Keith read aloud to Auntie Karen (a friend and colleague from NCTE who is like a big sister to me) one of his favorite books from the Mo Willems Don’t Let the Pidgeon… series as a birthday gift. What follows below is the read aloud Keith did for Auntie Karen on February 2015.
The showing of love through reading aloud as a gift seems to benefit Keith in several ways. They provide him an authentic reason and purpose for practicing reading. Albeit Keith is a voracious reader, reading aloud for others gives him the means and opportunity to do something for someone else. He is learning that a gift does not have to be material, a trinket or expensive investment. He is also learning the responsibility of maintaining relationships, to take the initiative to reach out to others and let them know they are on his mind and in his heart. He is taking initiative to build, maintain and love others within a community he is growing book by book. Heart by heart.
As I look back, I realize Mom was instilling within me the practice, and importance, of acknowledging the kind words and gestures of others. Not in hopes of gaining more and bigger material things, but to reciprocate the love they showed me throughout my growing up and adult life. The majority of these people were not my kindred genetically, but friends of my parents and neighbors who were, then and now, adopted as aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters and elders. Their investment in me has yielded a larger impact…the growing of a community. Through phone calls, emails, handwritten notes and cards, I show others I am thankful for giving me space in their heart and life. This lesson has drilled itself into my bones, becoming my marrow.
A lesson from my Mother I impart to my sons.