I was at a workshop a couple of years ago and the presenter asked us to think about messages we received from our early years that impacted our identity, our values, and the norms we live by. These values had always just lived inside my mind, gently guiding me to make certain decisions without making their presence known. To speak them out loud and recognize that these messages from my youth were so deeply entrenched in how I live my adult life was like the sun breaking through the trees in a forest. There IS a reason I do what I do! (Well…most of the time. Sometimes it’s just nonsense up there in my head.)
Some of the key messages that have powered my movements down this path of life:
Stand up for the equality of others – My ancestry, not unlike that of many other Americans, is one of survival from persecution. The stories that were filtered through my young mind when spending time with my dad’s side of the family were those of great suffering and strength. Like most children, I only half listened a lot of times when the adults would get amped up around the table, but I recall the sorrow in my auntie’s voices when they spoke of Armenia and its loss. They may have been diminutive in size, but they were powerful in their words, and used them to write articles and opinion letters to local papers about the atrocities their people had suffered. They fought not only for their own people, but also for others who faced inequity. They were passionate to wake the world up from its doze and pay attention to the plight of others. My parents instilled that in me, whether it was advising me to stand up for the kids who were teased in school, or to protect my sister from anyone who tried to hurt her.
Never say you’re bored – This was a biggie in my family. In my mom’s Polish upbringing, this meant that one should always be industrious. Have a purpose, be productive, don’t sit still when there are things to be done. If we ever complained of being bored, she grinned and said, “Well that’s great, because I’ve got a bunch of chores that need to be done.” We learned quickly to avoid that trap. For Dad, this meant to be curious and open to the adventure that is life in all of its forms. How can anyone be bored when there are so many questions about this universe? When there are so many interesting humans to observe? When there are flowers and boxing and opera and spices and supernovas?
Family comes first – This seems trite, but it was unique in my case in that “family” extended beyond our little nuclear foursome. My mom had about 100 cousins on just the Mulka side of her clan. For my dad, anyone whose name ended in –ian was family. Family for my parents meant their parents and siblings, aunts and uncles, first, second, third cousins, and of course, their “Finney Family.” The network on both sides of my parents families was so strong. If someone was in need, family was there. You care for your family and your family cares for you. The family will be there for you, in your most glorious days and your blackest nights. That’s why my sister and I trek to Michigan several times a year to hang out with our old neighbors, Finney aunts and uncles, and our beloved babysitter, mean old Aunt Carole. They may not be relations, but they are just as much a part of the family as those who share our blood. Our parents are gone, yet we have a dozen moms and dads all over the Detroit Metro area. When I go to California to visit friends, I drive 3 hours to Fresno to visit my dad’s cousin, Mooshig and his wife, who are in their 80s and adorable. When I have news about my life, I call Camille, my adopted mother from the neighborhood, who loved my parents like a brother and sister and treats my sister and me like her children. The list goes on. These people make me feel warm and safe and happy whenever I see them.
I’m grateful for these guiding messages in my life. They have influenced my choices about friendships, career, marriage, and now raising my own kids.