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The Power of a Single Phrase

The Power of a Single Phrase

I knew my Mom as a parent for most of my life, not as a person (probably typical for my generation). But after my Dad died, she opened up about herself in ways that have let me appreciate her for the extraordinary human being she was. Her intellectual prowess, her remarkable curiosity, and her evolving philosophies about life as she contemplated death conspired for me to see her in an entirely different way. I am so lucky to have had time with her, although not nearly as much as I should have.

When I was in Salt Lake City, I'd drive up every other week and spend about 6 hours with her. Once I arrived, we began our ritual of preparing breakfast and reviewing the list of topics to be discussed that day (handwritten using precise, elegant cursive in a spiral notebook). To give you a sense of the types of things we discussed, here's some from one of the visits: Ray Kurzweil's theories on intelligence, the value of millet as a food source, the country's changing culture from self-dependence to dependence. You know, just a few light topics. And these weren't just passing comments she wants to make. She wants to DISCUSS and DEBATE them. I'm was mentally stimulated but exhausted when I left.

Something that occurred from those discussions was some remarkable, small stories she told that disrupted my thinking. Parables that completely consumed me and changed the way I thought. I'm sharing this one because I believe it has great value for all of us. It's her story about going to college.

My Mom grew up in the depression. Her family was one hit harder than most, beset by setback after setback. Her father kept losing his job, and each successive job was lower paying. Their house burned down at one point. Her mother died when she was young, and her family became a blend of relatives, with eventually her aunt becoming her stepmother. In this day and age, when we hear stories of difficult childhoods, they are almost always accompanied by how damaging it was to someone's psyche, how it created a life of bitterness, anger, and lashing out. Not with my Mom. There was no bitterness about her past. She talked about how families just "made do" and didn't dwell on the past. You didn't complain.

The family assumed that once children completed high school, they would work and contribute to the family. There was no discussion of college or talk of a profession or career. "As a teenager, going to college had never even entered my mind." she reminisced. One Sunday at the main meal, my Mom said she could tell that something was bothering her older sister. Toward the end of the meal, her sister finally broke into tears and blurted, "I want to go to college!" Mom was mortified, sure her sister was in all kinds of trouble ("get whupped" was the term she used). "But instead," she recalled, "Daddy just looked at her and said 'OK.' "Within weeks, her father figured out how to get her sister to college, but importantly, Mom assumed she was also going to college. She went to undergraduate to get her degree in psychology and went to the University of Washington to complete her Master's of Education.

As my Mom told this story, she had the far-off gaze that besets any of us as we think of the past. As she ended, she looked at me very intently and said:

"I will always find it remarkable that a single phrase can change the entire course of one's life."

At first, I thought it merely an inspirational story. But on the drive home, I couldn't get that story out of my head and had a revelation that changed my perspective about not only my Mom but myself. She has always been adamant about vocabulary, and in particular, one's choice of words. Growing up, I just thought she was being a mom and making my life miserable. But I now realize its foundation. I wonder if I would have felt differently and paid attention had she told me that story back then? Maybe not - I was a teenager, and we all know how much teenagers love to hear stories from their parents. But it has reinforced two things in me:

  1. Always, always be careful of what I say. Be mindful of not only the words I use but how I use them. Be reverent to their incredible power. I now understand why I struggle in team cultures that are based on conflict and unfiltered challenge.

  2. I need to make an effort to share my life's learning moments with my adult daughters. I shouldn't wait until I'm reflecting on the end of my life but share the context of those lessons now. They may not mean something immediately, but hopefully, it will influence them in some small way. Even if it's that they see me not just as "Dad," but also as a mindful, considerate person.

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