Sunday, August 25, 2013

german bedtime stories

"Struwwelpeter" describes a boy who does not groom himself properly and is consequently unpopular.

For some reason I woke up this morning thinking of the German bedtime stories my parents read us when we were kids. Along with "The House at Pooh Corner," we were periodically read tales from Dr. Heinrich Hoffman's "Der Struwwelpeter," a work of literature I'm certain has long since been banned by concerned parents groups in every corner of the globe. The book contains graphically-illustrated stories about children who misbehave and the horrible consequences they reap in doing so. Like the bratty kid who is mean to others, including his own dog, who retaliates by attacking the boy; the child who won't eat anything on his plate and eventually dies of starvation; and the little girl who plays with matches, catches herself on fire — and burns to death. The protagonist Struwwelpeter (pictured on the book's cover) appears a gruesome looking beast — a result of his refusal to attend to the rituals of his own grooming. And my personal unfavorite: a thumb-sucking boy is attacked by a scary joker-looking guy who slices the boy's thumb off with a pair of scissors (a thumb-sucker myself, this was especially horrifying!). Most of the naughty children in this book end up dying as a result of their naughtiness. That these nightmarish stories and images are still in my brain is a wonder, as I never read this book to my own children, for obvious reasons.

Yet my German mother and American father thought it important to retell (in English translation) the stories of Struwwelpeter to us when we were kids. My mom's parents read them to her when she was little, and for some reason my dad, God bless him, was also on board. Believe it or not, the collective hours these disturbing tales were read at our bedside are some of the happiest memories of my childhood. I love them so much. 

I'm pretty sure my brother and sister would both agree we were not traumatized by their telling — we recognized their absurdity and understood this was pretty far out stuff. In contrast to the horror we viewed on the pages, the rhyming prose was lilting — even soothing. I especially remember the stories read in my father's comforting tenor voice. We totally understood the underlying messages  and what our parents were teaching us through each little drama: If you are unkind; if you fail to treat other people and your parents with respect; if you don't take care of yourself; if you are reckless in your actions — there will be consequences. Probably the most important life lessons parents can teach their children. 

Perhaps the reason these books are heavy on my mind lately is that my own children are currently approaching their lives as adults. Whatever lessons their father and I taught them when they were young are pretty much set in stone, and to my sheer gratification, both have made excellent choices in their lives to this point in time. The other night I had a "date" with my son at a nice restaurant. He  thanked me, not only for the gourmet meal, but also for NOT handing everything to him on a silver platter when he was growing up. He's living on his own and financially supporting himself through college, and although money is always tight, he's quite proud of himself for doing so. My children grew up knowing about boundaries and consequences. Like if you misbehave at a store we are leaving that store, and so on. Every now and then I had to say "that is not acceptable." No need to spank or lecture; they understood. Where did I get this stuff? I'd have to say Struwwelpeter was a large contributor.

I am by no means a perfect parent. I have stumbled and corrected and stumbled again and corrected again too many times to count. But the older I get and the more knowledge I acquire I see more and more human behavior, both locally and globally, I absolutely deplore: Selfishness, greed, dishonesty, laziness, disloyalty, disrespect, spitefulness ... The list goes on and on. Parents make their children the center of the universe and as a result of little or no boundaries they grow up believing they're just that. What can be done about the roots of evil that have plagued societies for centuries and by every indication are likely to exist for centuries to come? You gotta love the Germans, who offered the world a simple answer in the mid-nineteenth century through this book and others like it: Nip them. Nip them in the bud.

"Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar" (The Story of the Soup-Kaspar) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.

In "Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Philipp" (The Story of the Fidgety Philip), a boy who won't sit still at dinner accidentally knocks all of the food onto the floor, to his parents' great displeasure.

In "Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug" (The Dreadful Story of the Matches), a girl plays with matches and burns to death.

In "Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich" (The Story of Bad Frederick), a violent boy terrorizes animals and people. Eventually he is bitten by a dog, who goes on to eat the boy's sausage while he is bedridden.

In "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher" (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

the little jabs hurt the most

I adore my parents and feel I grew up in an incredibly loving home. My dad was a generous, gregarious soul with a quick wit, a heart of gold, and an ability to laugh at himself that was so endearing! He adored my mom and our little family of five and went out of his way to show us that love, often with grand gestures — like taking my mom to Germany on a regular basis to see her family there; he knew it was important to her. My parents met on a cruise ship — yes, the Love Boat — and fell hard for each other from day one. I liked to think of theirs as a storybook romance, and wanted exactly that for myself someday.

For many years, I thought I had one. I was married to a man who said I Love You at least five times a day and always made sure I had freshly cut flowers in the house (from the garden he himself tended). He once had an exquisite cross necklace from Tiffany delivered to me (it was not my birthday or even a holiday) —  a beautiful, meaningful gift neatly wrapped in that little baby blue box every woman dreams of receiving, complete with note that  read, "all my love." He renovated a portion of our garage into a jacuzzi spa room that was to be my oasis from a hard day's work and surprised me with its unveiling on Christmas Eve. All proof positive of an enduring love that would last a lifetime. Really long story short: It wasn't to be.

While all of the wonderful occurances mentioned above — and hundreds more like them — actually happened, my "head-in-clouds" view of love and romance failed to allow for any of the little jabs I may or may not have endured during the course of said relationship and others like it. Like being laughed at for breaking a wine glass while washing dishes, mildly lectured for failing to vacuum ALL of the dust from the floorboards, looked at in a weird way that nonverbally screams "Really? You're going to choose THAT outfit?" And worse: "Because you arranged for your sister to arrive on the very week I scheduled my vacation, I  cancelled the appointment I made for you to get your teeth whitened. Which, by the way, I was going to pay for." For many years, and in more than one serious relationship, I'd chosen to sweep all of these things under the carpet as though they didn't exist. After all, they were really just little things, and you're supposed to forgive, right? Problem is, like all food particles left unattended on the floor, that shit increases in mass and rots and festers and creates anger, not to mention resentment. Eggshell walking becomes a way of life and you get quite used to it. And, if I'm truly forced to remove my blinders here, the exact kind of stuff I witnessed in my parents' "storybook romance" during my formative years. Add a little alcohol and verbal abuse from their backgrounds to the mix and you can begin to see where much of this stuff comes from.

Why did I put up with any of it my own relationships? I'm smart. I took a women's studies course in college. I know why the "caged bird sings"! Yeah, I don't really know the answer, but I'm sure it has a lot to do with my own upbringing. Also, people, men in this case, are not "black and white" in their behavior. Wonderful, fabulous people can say some really mean things (often cleverly disguised as humor, by the way). Let's face it: we're all pretty much the result of our DNA and whatever parenting model we're dealt. Some of us learn by example not to love ourselves, and instead of dealing with that cold, hard fact we project our self-hatred onto anyone who's close enough to reap the fallout. And if we're on the receiving end, we pretty much take every negative sling and arrow thrown our way as God-honest truth. "Why DO I break so many wine glasses? He's right, I must be a total idiot!!!" This stuff runs so deep we don't even know we're doing it. 

But I have learned this and am happy to share it with any young person I know, particularly 17-year-old girls. That shit's not OK. If you are ever made to feel stupid or powerless or that you're not as good as the man in your life, get out — before you've invested so much in it that you can't. This goes for friendships too. Make kindness your credo in your life and your relationships and surround yourself with people who do the same. (Contrary to popular belief, they're out there in abundance!) Master this concept early in your life, because I guarantee you, it's the most important thing you will ever learn. Don't allow for negativity of any kind (including those "innocent" little jabs), and if you see it in yourself, get help and learn to love and forgive yourself. Only then will you be fully able to offer — and receive — the unconditional, kind-hearted love you deserve.

You do deserve it, by the way. 

Postscript: I've finally found the love of my life and have enjoyed more than four of the happiest years  with him. He would never utter an unkind word and directs his anger at his sports teams instead of me. Life is grand.

* Photo by Melissa Mathieson