Playing “Homework”

In yesterday’s “Blondie” comic strip, Dagwood asks Elmo if he ever plays “homework,” with the assumption his answer is no. The present creator of “Blondie” must be younger than I to have presumed that no child would do such a thing. The truth is, I played “homework” for several of my elementary school years and I loved it, longed for it, looked forward to it. There was no television in our home to distract me and that was wonderful.
My Aunt Benny was an elementary teacher and she brought me old teacher’s editions of textbooks her school was throwing out. I was ecstatic. Here was information on every topic imaginable. I loved learning and now I could indulge myself. I could take the tests after each chapter and then I could check to see how much I‘d retained.
These books took me out of my everyday world of home–where there were difficult and dirty chores to be done in all kinds of weather– and school—where there were boys with beastly behavior. The world of textbooks thrust me into a space where all the wonders of the world were divulged and explained. In the world of textbooks, there were correct answers. Sure things.
I remember the science textbook especially because of the chapter on constellations. How the ancients saw those drawings in the arrangements of the stars was beyond me. While I admired their imaginations, I found their artistic skills lacking. No way did the stars look like that to me. Still, I memorized the names of the star groupings and tested myself nightly to see which ones I could find. That ships can sail guided by stars alone still amazes me. Cassiopeia, Orion, The Big and Little Dippers (or Big and Little Bears if you live in France)—all led me to the stories of the characters upon whom the names were based and I began to learn ancient mythologies. The mythologies took me into other short stories, novels, poetry. They took me into the history of western civilization and geography.
I read and read, answered the questions and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. I entertained myself for hours and I realized the world was bigger than my sphere alone. I concluded that life might not be so dismal, so painful, so mean in another spot under those same stars. I understood that knowledge could get me to that better place and it was the only hope a poor girl such as I had for such transport.
Looking back now, I thank that stellar grouping “Lucky Stars” that Aunt Benny brought me books when she did. Hitching my ride on that constellation has brought me to where I am today.

If Wishes Were Horses

“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”

Listening to my mother’s cautionary proclamations was like being on a verbal treasure hunt. For every situation, she had a warning to impart, thereby ensuring her children would grow up socially correct, at least in her world view of what was acceptable. The only trouble was, much of the time we children found it difficult to discern exactly what these tidbits of social dictum actually meant.
Let me give you an example: When her intention was to deride us for behavior that was childish, she said, “Too sweet and fat to pity all day for muzher.”
If we stopped our pouting, it was only to consider what the hell she meant by that statement. What about that sentence makes sense? I’ve been decoding that pronouncement all my life. Now, I sensed the emotional intent of the phrase was to convey, “You poor thing,” and mean the exact opposite. I understood the tone. But what about the words?
Later, as I studied French, I deduced that “too sweet” could possibly mean “tout suite” and “pity” could mean “petit” but what about “fat”? “Muzher” I’m reasonably sure meant “mother.” Still, that sentence means nothing to me and I may go to my grave pondering its derivation.
Another of her momisms was “Like it or lump it.” Again, the intent we children could understand. “That’s the way it is whether you like it or not.” Why not just say it clearly? What does “lump it” refer to? Where did that come from and whoever uses “lump” as a verb?
Her clearest decrees were known proverbs such as, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” All of us knew the message was that we could wish all we want but our wishes were fruitless expenditures of energy. That was harsh enough but it took years to piece together what wishes and horses and beggars all had to do with each other. We lived in the world of cars where beggars usually walked or bummed a ride—in a car, not on a horse.
I remember my sister challenging my mother who had told her, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” No one we knew lived in a glass house and why would they throw stones at it my sister wondered. “Just think about it,” my mother said. Obviously, she didn’t know either.
I suppose deciphering Mother’s dictums helped somewhat when we got to the analogy section of standardized tests. My scores were always high in that section since I’d been forced to figure out abstract meanings all my life.
As a mother, however, I chose to be as succinct and clear as possible in delivering my edicts. Having suffered from thinking so hard I walked into door jambs and walls while pondering various meanings, I came to a realization. A good parent needs to think before speaking and acting rather than relying on that parental tape in the head based on old and sometimes flawed information.
In all forms of communication, it is crucial to be as clear as possible so that misunderstandings and confusion do not arise. Pondering takes up valuable time and brain space. To that end, as far as I’m concerned, “Because I said so,” is as good as it gets.