Meandering and Matriarchs

Country roads, take me away.

Sorry, John (Denver). I love my home, but country roads do not take me there. In fact, they take me in the opposite direction.

And apologies, Calgon. Bubble baths don’t do it for me either.

No, if I can’t have vacation, give me country drive therapy — that getaway feeling where responsibilities recede into the scenic background, compressed stressors gently unwind like a wisp of smoke spiraling skyward, and jumbled thoughts order themselves into peaceful arrays of swaying silver birch trees. The mind breathes deeply, exhaling thoughts that are free to meander along wide open roads of perspective and connectivity.

When I started The Not Too Long and Short of It, I never intended to do a four-part series on anything. Yet, here I am, fourth newsletter in, having meandered along the winding thematic byway of the phrase, a Jack of all trades is a master of none, picking up people and places along my journey. It’s been a fun drive, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it, but I fear that now it’s time to head home, to take the task in hand, to get to the point. Every vacation must come to an end. After all, if life were all vacation, vacation would lose its vacation-y-ness.

And, since I am a person who goes crazy without a certain level of structure (as long as I have ample opportunity to meander at will when it all feels too confining), let me organize my thoughts on the topic in a way that I hope will be clear:

I.  I am not a big fan of the saying, a Jack of all trades is a master of none.

A. It is not nuanced
B. It is a lie
C. I could probably nuance B a little more

II.  I am adding this because you should never have a I without a II in an outline.

There, I got that out.

I am aware that sayings are supposed to be brief and pithy and that they can be unbalanced to make a point, but I fear this one goes too far. It seems to me to be saying:

  • If you are a Jack of all trades, you are less than.

  • If you are a master of a skill, you are more than.

  • If you want to be, or have the potential to be, a master of a skill, you should sacrifice being a well-rounded person.

  • There is nothing more important in your life than to become a master of something.

It could be that I am reading this unfavorite phrase of mine all wrong, interpreting it through my own experiential and psychological grid, so please forgive me if it looks like I am ripping it to shreds when maybe all it was trying to do was encourage some lazy soul to get up and work hard. But why, oh why, did it have to demean poor Jack in the process? And why, oh why, did it need to leave out so much of life and make such a value statement? Don’t we already feel enough pressure from our overly celebrity-oriented, high-achievement culture? And isn’t it difficult enough to find our way to contented self-discovery and life purpose without having unbalanced views hurled at us?

When all is said and done, mastery of a skill is just that — mastery of a skill. A, as in one; skill, as in a very minute part of who we are. Mastery of life, now that is much more difficult. Balancing talents, self-sacrifice, love, service, mundanity, trials, faithfulness, and contentment. Try mastering that.

I have now hit the confined spot where I feel the need to shift gears and take you on another drive along my little life’s meandering path.

If you read my last newsletter, and even if you didn’t, I ended by saying that I intended to write “more reflections from a non-expert parent’s-eye view on Jacks, Jills, and masters. And a little bit more about Mom and Mom’s mom.”

Mom was really good with balance and nuance. She had a philosophy on parental guidance handed down from her mother, albeit in reverse, derived from one of those things her mother did that she was never going to do with her own children. I will tell you that philosophy shortly, but first, let me introduce you to Grandymommy.

Sadly, my memories of Grandymommy are vague and few since she died when I was in sixth grade, and by the time I was old enough to remember much of anything, we lived over 600 miles away from her home in Columbus, Mississippi. To me, she was Mom’s mom, an adult who spent a lot of time cooking and talking with other adults. I do remember one specific occasion where we were playing kickball in the basement of our Kansas home, and she was trying to teach me some kind of sports technique or rule. I think she was wearing capris, which would have looked nice now but looked far too short to a kid trying to be cool in the late 60s/early 70s when there was nothing more important than making sure you were never accused of wearing pants that looked like you were expecting a flood. Nope, you were always safest if your flared jeans were long enough to scrape the ground and get a little frayed. Thinking back on her fashion now, I think she looked pretty classy.

The kickball memory happens to be quite apropos, given that Grandymommy was known to have been very athletic, a trait my aunt inherited and I did not. She even coached a boys’ high school basketball team after graduating college. Did you catch that? A boys’ basketball team. After graduating college. These were both rarities for women in her day, as was having all three of her children in her thirties, something totally normal by today’s standards, like capris. Maybe she was meant to be a woman of our time.

The athletic part I had heard about, but I learned something new during one of my conversations with Mom while winding along my Virginia country backroads several days ago, my communications device hands-free, but, you’ll be pleased to know, the wheel nowhere near so. Grandymommy was musical and played the piano.

Somehow, that little piece of knowledge completed a mental circle for me. The piano, that noble instrument that got me pondering this whole theme in the first place, thanks to Mrs. B., who introduced me to the Jack of all trades, master of none phrase, was again making an appearance.

You see:

  • Mom did not like playing the piano.

  • Grandymommy felt it was important for Mom to learn to play the piano.

  • Mom was forced to take piano lessons.

  • And dance lessons, which were also a part of a young woman’s education.

  • So off Mom went week by week, to her dreaded lessons. Or so Grandymommy thought.

To this day, I remember sitting at the piano, Mom standing to my left at the entrance to our hallway, telling me about the abhorrent dance lessons (I seriously don’t remember anything about piano) and how she would never force me to take any lessons I didn’t want to take. She went on to tell me the exciting tale (kids love stories about their mature parents being mischievous) of how she would skip those lessons and sneak off to get ice cream. And maybe something about a dime? Maybe that was the price of the ice cream. Or maybe she went to a dime store. Or maybe there was no dime. Kid’s-eye view memories are funny things.

I actually fact-checked this story with Mom on aforementioned country drive, but I failed to ask her about the dime, and I may have still gotten the ice cream part wrong.
I am, however, certain about the skipping classes part. In fact, I took the opportunity to share with her a parallel story of my own. I finally confessed to a long-held secret, figuring that it was too late for her to get mad at me now. I, too, had skipped dance classes. Yes, it’s true. I normally loved dancing, but this particular class was horrible. The teacher did not teach, and there was far too much ballet and dancing in heels for my taste. And it was much more fun to sneak off to a nearby restaurant with my friend to drink Coke and smoke cigarettes. Kids, you should not skip your lessons, but if you ever do, eating ice cream is a much better choice. Even if you drink a Coke with it.

Sashaying away from dance now and back to my seat at the piano, I can only say that Mom was true to her word. I was never forced to take piano lessons. All I had to do was beg for them, and in the end, Mom and Dad purchased our family’s upright piano so I would have the opportunity to begin my grand piano lesson journey. And when that journey came to an end six years later, Mom remained consistent. If she wasn’t going to force me to take lessons in the first place, she certainly wasn’t going to force me to continue if I didn’t want to. This perspective was also likely influenced by an earlier event in her own life.

The fact that Mom did not like piano and dance does not at all imply that she did not like art and music. She had a beautiful, well-trained voice, the solo performance kind you get from having talent and taking lessons, and had begun her college career in music studies. While she loved singing, she did not want to spend her life doing it professionally.

Not only that, she wasn’t too excited about the fact that piano lessons played into that picture, as did music theory. Against the strong encouragement of her college professor, and the more than strong encouragement of her parents, to stay the course, she made the decision to switch schools and study business. In the end, she was much happier. Then she married Dad and had me, and was much, much happier. (I made that last happier part about me up, although I like to believe I have at times made her life happier.)

It wasn’t that Mom was a quitter or encouraged me to be a quitter. When I told her, probably several times, that I wanted to stop piano lessons, she made sure I thought about it very carefully. She advised me that once I decided to quit, it would be hard for me to pick it back up again. She was semi-right about that one. When I went away to college, I proved her wrong by signing up to take piano lessons again. I went to one lesson, starting feeling those same old high-pressure vibes, mostly because I hadn’t really practiced, and promptly proved her right by dropping the class. Just like there was a time and a season for Mom’s voice lessons, I came to the conclusion that my piano lesson season had come to an end.

Because of Mom’s philosophy, I was able to spend my childhood exploring multiple interests, like violin lessons and dance lessons and softball and choir and cheerleading and drill team. I had time to be creative on my own and write stories and create secret codes and draw and paint and sing into the tape recorder and prepare really bad plays for my parents to watch. I did not have to go to charm school or take voice lessons just because Mom did or be on the swim and dive teams like my siblings, all of whom are much more athletic than I.

I hope it goes without saying that it wasn’t all do-whatever-you-want in the Christoffersen household. We did have to do chores and go to school and have a bedtime and later a curfew. We had to follow rules like no running or throwing balls in the house, no chewing with your mouth open, and no putting your elbows on the table at dinner. We had limits for use of the telephone (10 minutes!?!) and were made to answer the phone properly: Christoffersens’ residence, Valori speaking — one of my least favorite rules ever — so embarrassing! But rules are rules.

My parents guided me, but they also gave me space to be me. They taught me about work and play, hobbies and careers, self-discovery and thinking of others. Had I really been gifted enough to become a master of any skill and had I really wanted to try, I know that both Mom and Dad would have supported me along the way. But they would not have been more proud of me or seen me as superior to anyone else had I succeeded. In fact, I feel certain they would have kept me in my place and helped me to stay grounded. I consider myself very blessed to have been given such a secure foundation of love, acceptance, down-to-earth wisdom, and encouragement before launching into the world on my own. I already had enough wrestling to do with all of those insecurities that parents cannot fix in their children.

I am now almost the age that Grandymommy was when she passed away. I am pretty sure that if I could talk to her today, I would find that we have many things in common, maybe even a little of the sports interest since I did enjoy playing softball regardless of my lack of talent. I would love to hear her piano story and her thoughts on children and lessons. I have no doubt that she was a loving mother who was trying her best and did not in any way destroy Mom’s self-confidence — that her lesson philosophy wasn’t an effort to define her daughter or make her into some kind of superstar, but just the way parents parented back then. I know that because she gave me Mom, and Mom carries a lot of Grandymommy with her.

As for me, I actually adopted a philosophical mixture from these two matriarchs in my life. I made all of my children take piano lessons. Yep, all five of them. It was part of their homeschool curriculum, and everyone knows that all children need to go to school. I also let them quit when their piano lesson time was finished. And I never, ever made them take dance lessons.

It’s funny how it’s sometimes the littlest things that influence you as a child and shape your own parenting. We interpret so much of what we experience through the grid of our own personalities. In the end, though, it’s not about making kids take lessons or not making them take lessons or being perfect parents. It’s about the bigger things. It’s about our children knowing we are for them, that we are here to help them find their way, and that we are not here to make them into someone that we or society want them to be. If they have that foundation of love and acceptance, it should go a long way toward helping them figure out the rest.

Thanks for reading! Tune in next week-ish for more meanderings or maybe even something more creative.

To receive these weekly-ish stories in your inbox, sign up for your free subscription to The Not Too Long and Short of It.

Interested in reading more short stories, poetry, and personal meanderings?

Read more

Leave a comment