My Jewish grandmother leans over her kitchen table (covered in three layers of table cloths) and says, quietly, so my mother doesn’t hear:
“You think there’s a Santa Claus?”
My seven year old sister and I nod our heads.
“Feh! There’s no Santa Claus. That Santa Claus you love so much is your mother. It’s your mother who buys presents for you, with her own hard-earned money. Your mother who gives you the things you ask for.” She pauses, letting it sink in before delivering the final blow, “And this is the way you treat her?”
We look down, our faces burning with shame.
“You girls have no idea how much she does for you,” she added, regarding us with disdain.
We must have committed some sin, some infraction to deserve this terrible truth…probably we were fighting, as we often did. We looked at each other. No Santa Claus? How does grandma explain all the ho ho hoing in the upstairs hallway? The jingle of bells? The missing milk and cookies? Was all of that our mother?
When mom found out that grandma kicked the goyishe fantasies out of us (we told on her, of course), she was livid. I’m sure grandma was shocked that mom was upset. Or at least she feigned shock, “But Judi, darling,” I can hear her saying, “I only wanted the girls to appreciate what you do for them.”
Grandma, you see, was a pro. She knew how to wield guilt like a ninja wields his sword, slicing through sibling rivalry and misbehavior. And my mother, well, she learned at the foot of the master. She used it sparingly, but when I was a brat, mom could kick my ass with the withering, “This is the way you treat me? After all I’ve done for you?”
So, no surprise that these words would rise in my consciousness and bubble up to my lips when my own daughter lacks gratitude for the very…life...I gave her! Take, for example, last weekend when I took Sophia to see Curious George, LIVE! Now, I know that it is unfair to expect at not-quite-three-year-old to sit through an hour and a half long performance by a singing and dancing monkey, even if said monkey is her HERO and I spent over an hour in traffic to get there, and paid you-don’t-want-to-know how much for nosebleed balcony seats. Still, after the first half, when Sophia lost it, dangling herself over the aforementioned balcony, asking to repeatedly go to the bathroom (only to swing her legs from the potty and say “no, I don’t have to go.”), and using the handicapped access railing like monkey bars…I was tempted. It was a conscious effort NOT to say those thirteen little words.
But I refrained…because I also know that these words can breed resentment, shame, anger and the general sense that nothing you do can or ever will be good enough.
It is at once so easy and so difficult for me to shift my perspective. To not feel personally affronted by my child’s behavior, but to understand that she is learning how to be a decent human being and it’s my job to help her along.
Recently, at my mother’s house, Sophia was in her high chair eating dinner. She was suffering some injustice (I think I was making her eat a carrot), when she drew back her arm, prepared to hit me. I caught her arm, midair and told Sophia, “Use your words. Say: Mommy, I’m angry at you. I don’t want to eat this carrot!”
“Mommy! I’m angry at you!”
“That’s okay,” I say, an ocean of calm. “It’s okay to be angry with me when I’m asking you to do something you don’t want to do. But I tell you what. You eat this carrot and then you can have more cous cous.”
“Okay,” Sophie agrees. She eats the carrot. I dole out some cous cous.
My mother, watching this scene, said, “If I ever told my mother I was angry with her, she would have never let me hear the end of it.” I think I detected a note of admiration in her voice. And all at once I understood how she tried to swallow down these words too, words that she had heard many more times growing up then I did. I was awash with gratitude.
Parenting is a thankless job. But you don’t do it for approval. Or for gratitude. Or for love. And when it’s not expected, it comes much more freely.