My Helping Tree

Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving.  In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood. 

My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life.  With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.

Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way.  Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.

Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.

That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others.  In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help.  The kid never had a chance against the three of us.

Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy.  I showed him how to open a bank account.

I have ornaments from my teenage years, too.  Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best.  I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.

On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers.  My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery.  They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion.  Lost my job, though.

Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path.  Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help.  She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.

Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own.  With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way.  The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.

Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed.  There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children.  I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.

I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.

Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing.  I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.

– by Vickie Wade

All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments.  My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot.  I wonder where they ever ended up?

Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.

Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree.  For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.

More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence.  I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.

And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.

I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others.  I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.

Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can.  And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!

No, no, wait…I mean…

Listening to My Mother

As a young boy, lo, those many years ago, I listened to my mother—not because I always wanted to, but because I quickly learned that not doing so could have severe consequences.  She’s been gone ten years and more, and yet I find I’m still listening, especially now, living in this pandemic world in which we find ourselves.

“Wash and brush your teeth first thing,” she’d say, “and brush your hair.  Make your bed before you get dressed, then come down for breakfast.”

bedroom

She didn’t tell me to shave, of course, my being but a stripling who had no need to do so.  But I was told to put my pyjamas away and drop my dirty clothes into the hamper on my way to the kitchen.

I didn’t need telling every day, but the reminders were frequent enough.  And woe betide me if I neglected any of the tasks.

Fast forward to today, and you’d see this past-mid-seventies man I have become still making my bed right after returning from my first visit of the day to the bathroom (where, of course, I wash and brush my teeth).  I still don’t shave, at least not every day, but I do brush my hair assiduously.

After slipping my PJ’s under the pillow, I get dressed (always neatly, if not stylishly), gather up any laundry, and head for the kitchen.

My mother always had breakfast ready when I got there, sometimes preceded by my brother and sisters, and she watched closely to ensure we ate everything—juice, oatmeal porridge, toast, and milk.

eating

“Sit up tall,” she’d say.  “Lift your spoon to your mouth.  Lean over your bowl.  Hold your spoon properly.”

My remembering it like this might make her sound like a martinet, but she was not.  Neither was she a nag.  She simply wanted each of us to be the best we could be, and she had strong opinions as to what the best looked like.

Today, my breakfast might consist of cottage cheese with fresh fruit mixed in, and a couple of oat biscuits; or granola with fresh fruit and yogurt.  Green tea has replaced the glass of milk, but juice is still a staple.  And while I am eating, I sit straight, careful not to lower my chin to the bowl.

“Don’t leave your dishes on the counter,” my mother would say when we’d get up to leave the table.  “Put them in the sink.  And make sure you fold your napkin and push your chair back in.”

To this day, my napkin is rolled carefully into the napkin ring, the chairs in my kitchen sit squarely around the table, pushed in just so.  And no dirty dishes adorn the countertop (although a dishwasher has replaced the sink to receive them).

I Love School

Our reward back then, as we tumbled out the door to school, was a smiling kiss from our taskmaster.  We expected it, looked forward to it, and remembered it often throughout the day.

Looking back, I think these instructions from my mother helped prepare us to face the world in front of us.  The subtle sense of accomplishment we gained from completing such simple chores, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it, instilled a sense of confidence in us that we were more than up to the task of dealing with whatever might befall us.

Of course, we were uncomplicated souls back then, my siblings and I.  As a senior citizen today, I would have expected myself to be much more jaded by now, much less naïve, not so likely to be swayed or influenced by simple rewards for elementary tasks.

Yet, here I am, confined to home because of the dreaded pandemic swirling around us, unsure as to what might lie ahead, needing that jolt of confidence more than ever.  I’m making my bed first thing every day, brushing my teeth, sitting up straight at the table.  I’m doing the dishes, the laundry, the numerous other household chores that keep my shrunken world from toppling over the edge into chaos.

And why?  Well, the answer to that is simple.

Mum

I’m still listening to my mother.