My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Fifty-nine Things Mom and Dad Did Right

Photo by Marianna Bartholomew

What do canoe paddles and toe shoes have in common? 

When I was a toddler, Mom wore me like a leg warmer because I was a shy, clingy kid. To peel me off, she bought Size Zero dance slippers and put three-year-old me into a ballet class for five-year-olds. I was hooked, eventually asking for a ballet barre for Christmas. Graduating to toe shoes, I was so excited I wore them to bed. 

When Miss Yvonne Brown (God rest her soul), offered me a dance scholarship, I faced a dilemma. I could attend public high school and accept the scholarship, teaching and taking dance classes four days or so a week. But I also loved to write, and the historic, Benedictine-run academy my brothers attended, beckoned. This former orphanage featured monks in robes and sandals, 19th century orphans' graves on the property, rambling brick buildings, and even resident ghosts on the fourth floor of St. Joseph Hall. (Along with modern science and computer labs, and devoted religious and lay staff, of course!)

Wearing my two favorite kinds of footwear...
my parents join me, left photo.
I dreamed of going to historic, Benet Academy.
I was a romantic, but, also, a realist. My Charlotte Bronte-loving soul longed to step back in time and attend this school. But I also knew I couldn't meet study demands of a college prep school and accept a dance scholarship.

At this point, my parents did an amazing thing -- they left the decision to me. At age 13, I needed to wrestle it out and discern God's plan for my life. My parents seemed impartial, not lobbying for one choice over the other.

With Thanksgiving's approach, I'm feeling thankful for lots of things Mom and Dad did right. Trips down memory lane can be scenic if handled with care, and it's good to be grateful for all God's I made a list. You might recognize therein things your parents did well.

Mom and Dad, made for
each other.
Whatever your age, situation or vocation, may you draw inspiration, like I do, from this unique couple's strong, upbeat approach to life. Maybe you'll decide to draw up your own list, and thank your Mom and Dad. So, here it is, definitely not in order of importance, Fifty-nine Things Mom and Dad Did Right:

1) Created family traditions, such as after-dinner Romping with Kids and Cats in the living room, weekend visits to grandparents, Sunday evenings watching All Creatures Great and Small, movie nights with homemade hot fudge over Neapolitan ice cream, and holiday charade-playing.
2) Allowed us to get dirty camping in the woods, digging gargantuan holes in the next-door prairie or stirring Mud-and-Berry Backyard Pies.
3) Permitted household messes with a purpose, such as forts of blankets, tables and chairs; endless hot wheels highways, cooking supplies flung around the kitchen as a brother made his awesome baking powder biscuits or as 12-year-old me created World-Famous Italian Dinners from Scratch Complete With Homemade Bread and Multi-Layered Pudding Dessert.
4) Plied us with classical music, playing "Guess that Composer" when pieces came on the radio, and sharing their love of Gilbert and Sullivan songs, Wagner arias, Beethoven and Bach concertos, Mozart and even Bartok.
5) Allowed "NO TV ON SCHOOL NIGHTS," jettisoning us onto our own resources so we (gasp!) did homework, read, chatted or challenged each other to Yahtzee, Chess, Boggle, or my favorite card game of all time ...Pounce!
Photo by Arvind Balaraman
courtesy of
6) Planted organic gardens and made us help, piling kitchen counters and dinner plates with asparagus, zucchini, swiss chard, rhubarb, tomatoes, red raspberries and the tartest green grapes known to man (Mom turned those into jelly).
7) Explored roads less traveled, driving and camping through the midwest and western states, reaching as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico and as high as Estes Park, Colorado. Like a circus, we'd hoist a vast, striped, canvas tent that took a strong kid and Dad to heft from the car.
8) Divied out treats sparingly.  Pop and chips were for weekends, and candy and desserts, limited. I might be the only kid with half a Ho Ho in her lunch bag, but I was well into my 20's before I had my first cavity.
9) Modeled a philosophical approach toward discomfort.  Mom and Dad endured all sorts of inconvenience lugging our tribe around, so I took it in stride when I was packed in at my sibling's feet for a car drive to Colorado. (Before seatbelt laws.) I was cozy down there with sleeping bag and pillow, until things got tense with carsick siblings above!
10) Depended on us for every imaginable household chore. Working with Mom and Dad, we learned household tasks, handling our own laundry, unplugging drains, scrubbing on hands and knees or using our terrifying electric floor cleaner (the thing was powerful) and cooking meals.
11) Encouraged lively conversations over dishes -- a good thing since we lacked a working dishwasher for years.
12) Established civilized dinner etiquette, such as combing hair and donning shoes for dinner, restraining ourselves from whipping dinner rolls the length of our trestle table, and engaging in the art of general-interest conversation. 
Every family member pitched 
in to upkeep our garden.
13) Never accepted age limitations. Mom, a registered nurse, earned a Piano Performance Master's Degree in her 50's, and teaches Suzuki piano (at age 78). Dad, an electrical engineer, worked until his 80's. Now 93, he's a cancer survivor, and still accompanies Mom line dancing. They hiked, camped and cross country skied into their 70's.
14) Refused to let lack of funds stop them. It's a family joke that Mom proved to Dad on paper how summer family vacations were cheaper than remaining home. In winter, they laid out and flooded old plastic tablecloths to form an ice-skating rink in our back yard -- and often brought us ice-skating at the outdoor rink at the park before school! They pursued free and inexpensive outings for the family: touring Fermi Lab, hiking in the woods around a historic grist mill in town, fishing expeditions, etc.
15) Put top priority on sending us through good Catholic schools, forgoing luxuries and working extra hours to meet tuition payments.
16) Familiarized us with Chicago, so we wouldn't be intimidated by the big city. We attended Taste of Chicago and Fourth of July fireworks, took in Christmas windows in the old Marshall Field's and Carson Pirie & Scott, accompanied Mom to music classes at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and learned to ride city trains, buses and the "el."
17) Pursued their interests. Dad never read just one book at a time, but trod toward his reading chair with a stack of nearly a dozen (I have a picture to prove it). Mom practiced up to six hours daily on the piano. The kids all grew up great readers and music lovers.
18) Discouraged overscheduling and allowed time for boredom and daydreaming, leading us to develop hobbies, write poetry and find creative ways to fill our time. 
19) Compartmentalized problems. Mom and Dad had serious talks on "The Couch," then put problems aside to play a game at the kitchen table. 
Chicago born and raised, Mom and Dad made sure their kids
were also at home in the "Windy City."
Photo by Marianna Bartholomew
20) Told us how much they loved and enjoyed us. Dad bypassed job opportunities requiring more travel so he could be a good husband and father. Mom scratched her head when friends gleefully sent kids off to summer camps. Mom's and Dad's favorite times were family times.
21) Read classics aloud. When we were young, it was Milne poetry ("Christopher Robin goes hippity-hoppity"), The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (we rode broomstick steeds through the house), and satisfying reads such as Beatrix Potter books, Alice in Wonderland and Little House on the Prairie. On a camping trip when I was a teen, we read Les Miserables by lantern light. Later, we read aloud The Old Man and the Sea.
Music by Johann
Sebastion Bach and other
master composers filled
our house. Painting is by 
Elias Gottlob Haussmann 
courtesy of Wikimedia 
22) Said it was fine to be a "late bloomer." Since I struggled with acne-prone skin, crooked teeth and mediocre grades through mid high school, this philosophy removed pressure.
23) Had full confidence their kids would bloom. Even when nothing ran smoothly in our middle school or teen lives, I still knew Mom and Dad believed we had great things to offer the world. 
24) Never pressured us about less than stellar gradesjust encouraged us to do better.
25) Promised to promptly fetch us for whatever reason if we ever needed to escape a party or event.
26) Showed sensitivity to family dynamics by not leaving certain family members alone together if siblings made that request.
27) Encouraged family sing-alongs and drama productions. After-dinner singing with Mom (and, sometimes, Dad) at the piano "entertained" the kitchen crew, and exempted a child from dishes. Mom produced little musicals for family, including Hansel and Gretal, landing me a starring role, for a change (I was Gretal). My red-haired older sister played the witch, being a great sport since she was in her 20's.
28) Insisted we choose words carefully. We weren't supposed to call each other "stupid," make denigrating personal comments or say "shut up." Mom and Dad worked on our language, teaching us to speak grammatically and keep our words decent.
29) Taught us to love words! We picked up a monstrous dictionary at a garage sale, the type you'd expect to see at the Library of Congress, and it held a place of respect in our living room. I grew up reading the dictionary for fun and having cousins try to trick me by giving me hard words to spell.  
30) Took calculated risks. Exploring Canadian wilderness captivated Mom's and Dad's fancy,  so they set  us to learning "orienteering" with a compass and map, and other outback survival skills. We took canoe trips when I was 13 and 14 into Canada's Quetico territory, seeing no airplanes (it was a no-fly zone) and scarcely a soul for 2 1/2 weeks at a stretch. 
31) Taught us to rough it and love it. We learned to appreciate stars and the Northern Lights; cool, potable lake water; portaging; silence; little cubes of sausage and cheese that kept us from starving when fish wouldn't bite; ziplock bags of chocolate-laced "gorp," a sort of granola; late night chats caccooned in sleeping bags; the simplicity of changing one t-shirt or plaid, flannel shirt for another; the no-care joy of sweeping hair back into a bandanna; and the first shower and diner meal after canoeing back into civilization. 
Mom and I pursuing paths less
32) Creatively problem-solved. Mom and Dad encouraged us to think "outside the box," even if solutions might seem silly. When we found an old swing set dumped blocks away in a field, we attached to its posts snap-on roller skates, and rolled the cast-iron structure blocks down the street to our house. 
33) Shared family stories. Dad's trials after his first beloved wife died from a brain embolism (leaving him with four young children), and Mom's episodes as a young Registered Nurse working in emergency rooms and confused wards, made for riveting conversation. Learning about life during the Depression or World War II  was invaluable. Exploring the roots of my Pennsylvania Dutch, Quebecois and Irish ancestors became a lifelong hobby, as did traveling to destinations important to my husband's and my family history. 
34) Gathered us at mealtimes, although this did get sketchier as kids reached their teens and older, and started working.
35) Gave us the opportunity to put ourselves through college. Knowing I was paying for each credit hour got me serious about attending classes.
36) Toured us through museums such as The Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Planetarium, and Aquarium. My feet hurt even thinking  about it!
What would we have
done without our
dog-eared book of
37) Gave us a family night out at a dinner playhouse for a Christmas present, making for a life-long favorite memory. We saw Oliver!
38) Took us to see student operas, plays and concerts, an affordable route toward sparking their kids' appreciation of fine arts.
39) Brought home gigantic art books about Michelangelo from the library,  inspiring me to read The Agony and the Ecstasy and to savor classic art.
40) Encouraged us to read poetry, short stories, and essays we wrote for school assignments aloud. Our biggest fans, Mom and Dad always asked about and gave feedback on our work.
41) Took time to help us with homework. although I admit, those evening multiplication table sessions with Dad could be torture. He talked about it into my 30's.
42) Showered each other with spousal affection and appreciation. Mom and Dad still hold hands. 
43) Never gave up, no matter how challenging the crisis. They needed plenty of fortitude, raising seven kids. We always trusted our parents would work out whatever difficulties came their way.  They always said divorce was not an option.
Dad bursting with joie de
vivre as he "kicks the habit."
44) Helped us value people more than things. With nine people in one house, we lived frugally, not following all the fashion trends, or buying the latest in TV's or appliances. But we wouldn't have traded in our siblings for any material gain. 
45) Showed us family life was interesting and fun. Some of my favorite memories from childhood are having giggle fits with my two older sisters when all three of us shared a bedroom, and meandering from room to room to see what complicated projects my electronically-inclined brothers were doing. 
46) Didn't shelter us from death or sickness. While in middle school, I lost both grandpas and an uncle within a six-week span, spending countless hours trotting from one wake and funeral to the next (wakes were three days back then). I saw family members support each other warmly and prayerfully. Later, as cancer claimed Grandma and she suffered through her last six weeks of life, we took her into our home, establishing her in a hospital bed in our living room. My grades plummeted that high school year, but I never regretted those precious final days with Grandma, nor the lessons I learned about caring for the critically ill. 
47) Had role-playing and assertiveness-training sessions in the living room with the kids, so the shy ones learned how to stand up for themselves. After a summer working through such exercises with Mom, I astonished friends by returning to school my Junior year with new confidence.
48) Started us managing finances early, taking us on Saturday morning runs to the bank to deposit part of our allowances into college bank accounts. (Then, to the old-timey dime store next to the bank!) I also helped write checks and manage household bills in a hand-written ledger. 
49) Encouraged us to start young in working jobs outside the house to add to our college fund. By the age of 14, I had a job at the library.
50) Prompted us to be optimists, seeing potential in every situation, and quoting this favorite poem by Edgar Guest: "Somebody said that it couldn't be done, but he with a chuckle replied, that maybe it couldn't but he would be one, who didn't say so 'til he tried..."
51) Lapsed into silliness. Mom and Dad were known to tickle each other, and chase each other around the house. In response to a dare when he was at least 60, my dignified father skipped through a crowded parking lot to the car. Mom got goofy singing old love songs, improvising words.
52) Viewed adversity as a school for character, saying "Every knock is a boost" and "Offer it up."
53) Insisted we honor our father and mother in tone of voice and deed.
Our canoes lashed together catamaran-style.
Finally, drumroll please, the final, most important things Mom and Dad did right:

54) Stayed open to life so I could exist! As the youngest of seven, I'm so blessed to even be alive. How many families of seven children do you know these days?
55) Kept the faith, through thick and thin, even through those tumultuous 1960's (and '70's, 80's, 90's, etc!)
56) Explained the sacramental nature of marriage and intimacy, and how it was all a beautiful mystery -- and how living outside of God's plan stripped the mystery and complicated everything.
57) Modeled a lifetime of service and charitable giving, lining up envelopes for charitable causes alongside bills, taking us to nursing homes to sing Christmas carols and visit residents, channeling Christmas money into buying cows for third-world families, and sponsoring a little girl in Africa. 
58) Took us all to weekly Mass and kept practice of our Faith alive in the home, leaving me with rich memories of mealtime prayer, candlelit family rosaries, bedside prayer, missionary magazines around the house, Dad reading scripture, Mom teaching me to pray the 54-day-rosary novena,  togetherness at Sunday Mass, Christmas Midnight Mass and devout observance of Holy Week.
59) Taught us God must be our top priority and best friend, and that seeking and following His will in everything leads to fulfillment and peace.

So, back to the opening story. What do canoe paddles and toe shoes have in common? 

Remember when Mom and Dad left the decision to me as to whether to choose dance or academia? I was 13-years-old and still pondering this choice when we headed off for our Quetico canoe trip. I paddled and prayed about the issue for days. By the end of that trip I knew: dance made me happy but it needed to step aside, pun intended. I passed up the dance scholarship, so I could be taught by Benedictine monks. It was a great decision. I love writing more than I miss dance.

Sometimes the wisest thing for a parent to say, is nothing...
My well-loved toe shoes, and the map we brought
into Quetico.

Please share your stories! In the comments section, feel free to tell what your parents did right, and how it impacts you today...
A Special Message to Readers: 
Maybe you lost a parent to death or divorce as a child, and practices on my list seem foreign to you. Perhaps addictions or abuse broke your home, and your childhood was lonely or unhappy. If so, I'm deeply sorry. (See message below for "My home was broken.") May God ease your pain. Time and again, He has healed mine. I experienced a miraculous renewing of a family relationship after a healing Mass in my 20's.  Like any home, ours had its share of crises and tragedies, rivaling any soap opera on TV. No community lacks conflict, after all. (Imagine, my parents had teens in the house from the 1960's through early '80's!) However, focusing on the positive refreshes the soul.  
"My home was broken." 
Aspects of every home are "broken" in one way or another, but some homes are especially so. If thinking about your childhood pains you or you're in a hurtful home setting now, please don't despair. Pray for healing and reach out to others for prayers and practical help. If your first attempts to seek help aren't successful, then try again. Aid is available but you need to initiate the process. Don't remain isolated. Forgive those who trespassed on your childhood. Confess your own failings.  Take heart: 
"For I know the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope. When you call me, when you go to pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me with you, says the Lord, and I will change your lot." Jeremiah 29 11-14
About the art: you may have noticed, the paddle shown is not a canoe paddle, simply because I didn't have one around the house! I did, however, have this pirogue oar, given to me by a Cajun gentleman who lived on a Lousiana I took a little artistic license and used what I had! I wonder, did anyone notice?


  1. DEar Marianna,
    Who are those remarkable people that you have written about? I found it very touching. VR

  2. Those remarkable people are my parents, Virginia and Joseph! I chose Virginia as my Confirmation name because my mother was and continues to be an inspiration to me. When I open my Bible, it's one given to me by my father on Christmas, nearly 25 years ago.

  3. When we interviewed you Marianna for 30+ minutes on our Catholic Vitamins Podcast -- you started by saying that she could talk about your early years for all of the time we had (or some such construct). I see now why that is true. You were so blessed. So very blessed. Share more as the Spirit (or spirit) moves you. Deacon Tom

  4. This is one of the best and most uplifting essays I have ever read. Thank you so much for writing and sharing it. And thanks to your parents for everything you thanked them for.

  5. You just helped make my day, everyone. Thank you! This essay was many experiential years in the making...God is so good.

  6. Marianna,

    What a wonderful tribute to your parents. There are many things on your list which are also important to us as a family. it is encouraging to see your thanks and appreciation.

    God bless you!

  7. What an excellent shopping list! All newlyweds should be required to take a seminar on each point. It sure seems like there are a lot of families out there that have absolutely no idea how to even start at making this kind of lovely incubator. This is a great resource.

  8. Marianna-

    This brought tears to my eyes. I especially appreciated your end note.



  9. Thank you for demonstrating obediance to God's command to 'Give Thanks in All Circumstances'. I think it is impossible to think of the things we are thankful for, and at the very same moment be discontent. So, to be content, be thankful!
    I would like to say what I am thankful to my parents for: My father and mother would have heated arguments (behind closed doors but the sound would give them away). BUT, my father would always apologize and offer the first step to reconciliation to my mother in front of us. It was a first hand example and he took a risk to do so....she could have rejected it. For my mother, she was not perfect, of course, but offered so many phrases to live by that have become part of my being: "If at first you don't succeed...try, try again". "Do your best, that is all you can do".
    Thank you Marianna for the essay and encouragement to give thanks!