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Even twenty-plus years later, I can still close my eyes and instantly remember the amazing way it felt to walk into my bedroom after a long day as a teenager only to find it perfectly cleaned by my mother.
I grew up with lots of sisters—there were seven of us girls in my family. It probably took my parents no time at all to realize that one small bathroom would not be sufficient. So at some point in my childhood, they added a large vanity, complete with a big mirror and sink, along the wall of one of the three upstairs bedrooms which we all shared.
That vanity was the hub of our teenage life. I remember standing in a row with my sisters as we got ready for school. I remember sitting propped on a stool in front of the mirror having my hair and makeup done for my first high school dance. I remember sitting on the counter with my knees up to apply nail polish to my toes. I also remember leaning back against the mirror, feet dangling off the counter, while I chatted with boys on the phone during my allotted phone time. (We also had allotted shower times. You really had to hustle. And it was considered a major sin if you didn’t turn off the shower to save hot water while shaving your legs! I try to tell this to my daughters, but they just can’t imagine such primitive living.)
Like many teenagers, I was busy. I was heavily involved in school sports. I always woke up before 6:00 a.m. and rarely walked back into the door before dinnertime, usually with a load of heavy homework in my bag. I enrolled in difficult classes and kept good grades, stayed active and involved in my church youth group, and worked many weekends during the school year at our family restaurant. Somehow I managed to squeeze a healthy social life into all of that. It was a glorious, cherished time of my life. But sometimes I marvel at the serious pressures of the teenage life.
Occasionally, between trying to fit in socially, trying to think about college and scholarships, trying to succeed in sports, trying to make good choices among all of the temptations, trying not to stress over the ACTs, trying to show up to work on time, trying to navigate the treacherous waters of dating, trying to be a good driver, trying to figure out my newfound financial freedoms and responsibilities, trying to be involved in church and well, somedays, just plain trying to get out of bed… occasionally, I left my bedroom in a horrific state.
And that’s got me thinking. I’ve been taking a casual, non-official poll of parents over the last few years. Most people seem to think that they were taught how to work hard (presumably at the hands of their parents). I know I certainly feel this way. But at the same time, most people seem to have some level of worry that those same lessons are being lost on the next generation. I admit, I have those same fears with my children. In fact, as a mother, it’s a wild and adventurous guilt trip I often embark upon. But then I stop and think. Really? Did EVERY single one of the adults I’m around have parents who successfully taught their children to work hard and yet I, with all of my daily efforts, will be the lone parent who fails?
Of course not. That’s ridiculous. Learning to work hard is most likely a combination of being taught and encouraged to work, having great examples to follow, and then (importantly) finding it within one’s self to dig deep and accomplish great things. So, as parents, if we are trying to teach hard work, we are probably doing better than we give ourselves credit for. At least that’s what I remind myself from time to time. And it makes me feel slightly better.
Now. Back to my teenage bedroom left in a horrific state. I can only imagine the discarded hot curlers spread across the counter; the hair spray and tooth paste spots on the mirror; the tangle of cords hanging from the outlet where curling irons and blow dryers have been dropped to the floor; the pile of clothing thrown on the bed—a result of many indecisive girls choosing the perfect outfit; the makeup drawers left open; the wet towels on the floor; the bed covers all askew.
I can also imagine the gentle reminder from my mom as I shoveled in my hot breakfast: Don’t forget to leave your room clean! And then I would have to enter my room one last time to grab my backpack, picking my way through the danger zone and guiltily feeling my mom’s reminder echoing through my head. But I had my science teacher to think about. He gave me a zero on my bell quiz every single time I walked in even a few seconds late. It was a discouraging and disappointing feeling, but the cleaning would have to wait. I would quietly turn off the lights, shut the door, and hope with all of my heart that my mom wouldn’t enter my room that day.
My parents did teach me to work hard. I helped clean the house, worked hours and hours in our massive yard and garden, supervised weekend shifts at our restaurant, and had summer jobs every summer since I was eleven. But I wonder if when my mom entered my room, she questioned whether she had taught me anything at all! Maybe she deliberated about what to do.
But my mom also taught me a lot about love. And cutting someone a little slack. Especially when that someone is trying to do what’s right.
Here I sit, all these years later, and I can feel the rush of love I felt when I opened my bedroom door at the end of the day and found it bright and airy and clean. It smelled of Ajax and Windex and there were fresh vacuum lines on the floor. Suddenly, my heavy backpack didn’t feel so heavy. I felt at home. And home felt a lot like love. Mixed in with all of the love and gratitude was a resolve to do better at keeping my room clean. I wanted to do it. For my mom.
Most of the time my kids leave in the morning with their rooms clean. But occasionally I will go up and find a mess to rival a bomb site. My initial reaction will tend towards freaking out. But then, quietly, I will remember my teenage bedroom with its large vanity and mirror. And I will take a deep breath and enter into the mess. I’ve realized that as a mother I spend plenty of time lecturing on hard work and cleanliness. Maybe I need to spend more time showing love and offering a helping hand.
I think there were a lot of other lessons my mom could have taught me when I left my room in such a state.
But she chose love. It’s what I remember most. And I’ve never, ever forgotten that.