Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

A Valentine’s Lesson for All of Us

“Take a look at this!” my mother shouted. “You won’t believe it.”

Not knowing what Mom was talking about, I put down the psychology text my neighbor Gary and I were studying (we had a midterm the next day) and the two of us got up from the kitchen table and headed straight to the family room. There we found Mom standing with a brown paper bag clutched in her right hand. Next to her stood Dad, looking two parts hangdog and three parts nervous. Something unpleasant was afoot.

As Gary and I approached my parents, Mom continued, “Do you two college boys see this bag I’m holding?”

“Yes,” we replied.

“Of course, you do!” Mom barked. “But can you tell what’s inside it?

“The bag’s opaque,” I answered, “it could contain almost anything.”

“Alright, I’ll give you guys a hint,” Mom said, “because I’m feeling generous.”

Mom (who usually looked as if she were about to give you a batch of cookies) didn’t look like she was feeling generous. She looked like she was searching for revenge. And Dad looked like he was about to eat a dish served cold.

Not wanting to get caught up in what appeared to be an escalating marital tiff, I directed the conversation away from the brown paper bag by making the following pronouncement: “Speaking of trying to guess what’s inside of something, were you aware that researchers now know exactly what’s inside the human brain and how it works? Not to get too complicated, but scientists poke wires into a cranium and then pump in electricity until a body part flops around. It’s fascinating.”

“Well, look at you!” Dad exclaimed as he patted me on the back. “I knew sending you to the local community college was the right thing to do. Not to say that I told you so, but I told you so.”

It turns out that Dad was also interested in dodging Mom’s brown-bag guessing game and was now diverting the discussion to an argument our family I had engaged in earlier that month. The quarrel had been a real heart breaker. Due to an unexpected decline in our family’s income, my folks let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be attending the ivy-clad, sorority-rich university of my dreams. Instead, I would be enrolling in the sad little community college located across town—a school comprised mostly of Quonset huts.

I know I shouldn’t have been humiliated by this change in schools, but I was. Enough so that when people asked me the meaning of the “GCC” printed on the back of a school sweatshirt I had purchased at the bookstore/cafetorium, I ducked. Instead of answering Grandview Community College, I replied: Grandview Ca-College. It was the best I could come up with.

Realizing that Dad and I were directing the conversation away from the contents of the brown paper sack, Mom exclaimed, “Let’s get back to the gift bag!”

Ah-ha! Now I knew the mystery object Mom was clutching was something small enough to fit into a bag, and that it was some sort of gift.

“I’ll give you two college whizzes a hint,” Mom offered, “What day is it today?”

“That didn’t feel like a hint,” Gary replied. “It felt like a question.”

“It’s February 14th. Do you know what happens every February 14th?”

“Oh yeah,” I responded. “I forgot about the holiday. I’m sort of between girlfriends.” (Of course, I was “between girlfriends.” I lived with my parents and studied psychology in a Quonset hut.)

“Alright,” I answered. “Does the bag contain a Valentine’s Day gift that Dad gave you?”

“Exactly!” Mom shouted as she yanked a heart-shaped box out of the bag and shook it in my face as if it were evidence in a murder trial and not a box of candy.

“This pathetic offering is what your father gave me.”

“It looks nice,” I said. “And who doesn’t like assorted chocolates?”

“Ask your father where he got the box,” Mom insisted. I remained silent.

“Go ahead, Son, ask ‘moneybags’ where he got it.”

“Okay,” I acquiesced. “So, Dad, where did the yummy chocolates come from?”

“He got it for free!” Mom interrupted. “At the convenience store he manages. He ordered 50 cases of beer to augment the store’s inventory, and as a reward for such an unusually large purchase, the vendor gave him a free box of chocolates—which your father then crammed into a brown paper bag and gave to me. So, this box of candy isn’t whispering ‘Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you!’ It’s saying, ‘I didn’t get around to buying you a gift, but I did manage to place an order for 50 cases of beer.’”

No wonder Dad didn’t want to open the bag. Mom had grilled him about the chocolates until he had admitted to the beer deal, and now he was going to have to face the music.

“So, let this be a lesson to the two of you,” Mom added as she turned her attention to Gary and me. “One day, each of you is going to find a life-mate and you’ll want to give her something special for Valentine’s Day—something that says, ‘I lay awake nights trying to find a way to express my undying affection for you.’ Giving your sweetheart a gift that you obtained (for free) from a beer-truck driver isn’t likely to send that message.”

“You’re absolutely right!” Gary shouted as he eased his way out the front door, thoroughly befuddled and bolting for home.

Of course, Mom was right. A gift needs to be the product of careful thought—particularly when it’s a Valentine’s offering. Surely everyone understands this point and, if not, Dad’s choice of gifts serves as a helpful reminder.

However, there was another lesson I learned that day, and it wasn’t contained in Mom’s lecture. It was displayed in the way she had treated Dad. She mocked him in public and this was a violation of the loyalty pledge the two of them made when they first got married. In fact, when any couple ties the knot, both parties pledge to speak respectfully about each other in the presence of others. They may not say this pledge aloud, or sign an official document, but they feel it in their hearts. When it comes to the love of your life, how could you do otherwise? And when it comes to Valentine’s Day, how could you not renew this pledge every year?

Naturally, even within the healthiest of relationships, couples disappoint, annoy, and offend each other and arguments ensue. Happily, seasoned professionals know not to go public with their grievances. They resolve them in private. They most certainly don’t transform the contents of their marital spats into back-fence gossip, water-cooler banter, or condescending punch lines.

So, here’s a Valentine’s message for everyone. Never trade a colossal beer order for, say, a box of chocolates, and then pass it off as a special gift. Equally important, should you be the recipient of such a “gift,” don’t badmouth your mate to a neighbor, or worse still, to one of your children. After all, you and your partner made a promise to steer clear of such thoughtless acts of disloyalty. And as we grads from Grandview Ca-College are wont to point out: a promise is a promise.

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22 thoughts on “A Valentine’s Lesson for All of Us”

  1. Allison Conrad

    Kerry, the way you instill your sense of humor into your stories is truly an amazing gift! Thank you for providing us with such an important reminder, not only for the way we treat or interact with our spouses but with everyone, family and outside of family. It can change your life and isn’t that what crucial conversations is all about!

  2. Teresa Washburn

    First, let me say that I am a woman. So, my comment is not to be misconstrued as “Female Bashing”. Two, I agree that spouses should be respectful of each other. Three, (main point of this response) is that this time I think the Mom missed the point of the gesture altogether. At the beginning of the story; it was revealed that money was tight; hence the son was going to a community college vs. an ivy league college. I think the Dad’s gesture of at least giving the Mom something for Valentine’s Day instead of nothing and he didn’t spend money that might have been needed for something else. In this case, he was at least thinking of her; regardless of her perception of his gesture.

    1. Erica L Arnold

      I am on the same page with @Teresa Washburn. It took a lot of thought to figure out how to show love and appreciation when he couldn’t go out and buy maybe what his spouse’s heart desired. It was so thoughtful to find a way to share a gift.

      1. Kim

        Perhaps augmenting the item itself with something heartfelt, such as a meaningful love note in a card might have contextualised the price of the gift. Its fair to assume that lasting couples don’t care as much about price as they do value; how you show what you value as well how you value it.

  3. Diana

    Great content and reminders
    but I am left to wonder just what token of love & affection gift did Mom give Dad or did she think it was a one way street?

    1. Jenna

      My thought exactly!

  4. MT

    Perhaps this was an opportunity for patience under current circumstances & gratitude on the part of Mom. Even if the chocolates were obtained in that manner (honestly, who doesn’t like ‘free’), the box could have instead been shared with Dad’s mom or a generous vendor/customer/etc. Financial circumstances are very difficult and Mom was likely frustrated with that on a number of different fronts. Humbly, she could have said ‘thank you and I love you,’ planted a loving kiss on him, enjoyed one piece in front of him with a smile and a ‘yum!’ and left with a wink.

  5. sharon naidoo

    WOW….. profound story….

  6. Judy Wilson

    Love this story! So true.

  7. Broni van der Meer

    While this is a good lesson, I do hope you had your mom’s permission for telling it because it would seem that you just did to your mom what your mom did to your dad…?

  8. Tanya Kruk

    I believe a gift is a gift and should be accepted as such. If money was tight, I would appreciate the fact my spouse didn’t squander money on a made up holiday (unromantic? perhaps). I agree humiliating him in front of the children is against the “united front” parents should portray to their children. Hopefully they forgave each other!

  9. Anita L.

    This is a good lesson for every relationship. Work out your differences privately. I had a good boss that I once told that I consider working like a marriage….I’m not always going to be happy, you’re not always going to be happy but as long as we are treating each other respectfully and we are both heading in the direction we need to, we’ll be successful. We accomplished a lot together for more than 25 years!

  10. Diane

    There are other setting events that are not factored here. Was this the first holiday that he’d not bothered to take even a few minutes to contemplate a gift for someone he should love and respect? Was this public dress down the first time the conversation had actually been had, public or private? To assume the broken trust was because of the embarrassment ignores that perhaps the broken trust was a partner that didn’t address marital issues in good faith to the point the other felt the need to take it public. My guess: Mom felt underappreciated and finally hit her fill.

  11. Stephanie

    I was on the edge of my seat through this entire story. It was making me sick to my stomach. The condescending tone of your mother’s voice was coming through the text loud and clear. What a great reminder of how not to treat your spouse (on both accounts).

  12. Stephanie

    The thing I took from this story? You mentioned that income had decreased of late….thus GCC. I’m thinking Mom could have accepted the gift of these chocolates and been in awe of how brilliant her husband had been to get her a wonderful gift without spending any of their precious grocery or bill money. WOW – the Mom in that story was the one who needed a lecture! Multiple great reminders in this story….Don’t be embarrassed over attendance at any sot of continuing education… kind…..but most of all….Don’t be an ass! Thanks for sharing! This was great!

  13. Jenna

    Wow, what a story! I cringe just imagining it playing out. And yet I wonder: What did his Mom get for his Dad that Valentine’s Day? Was she particularly thoughtful? Or did she just believe that she was owed a nice gift because of traditional gender role expectations?

  14. nancy lou little

    It’s great to see that misogyny is alive and well among women as well as men! Good for you Kerry, bashing your mom in public! I’m sure dad is proud! The moral is: Relax and enjoy it mom, no matter what “it” is. in this case, “it” is just a devaluing and demeaning gesture. It’s even more important to maintain silence when the abuse escalates. Male aggression toward women, whether passive aggressive as in this case, which is used to demean your mother further or in more overt or physical ways MEN SHOULD NEVER BE HELD UP TO SCRUTINY OR HELD ACCOUNTABLE!!

    1. Diane

      I think we both were thinking differently on this story than others. Sometimes a heartfelt “I can’t get you what I wanted because money is tight, but I think about you and love you very much” OR “let me fix dinner tonight because we can’t afford anything but I appreciate you” would have shown more caring and appreciation than what Dad did here. It’s not the dollar amount, it’s the lack of emotional intelligence and showing he didn’t think AT ALL prior to giving the gift, that was behind it.

  15. Nancy A Moores

    Great story to get multiple life lessons across. In addition, there is nothing wrong or embarrassing about attending community college!

  16. Debra Custer

    generally, while my husband and I had 4 sons at home and money was always tight, flowers and candy was an extravagance. My husband nearly always bought a card though. I was the one who didn’t like it when he spent money that we could ill afford. I didn’t appreciate the Mom’s tone. She could have handled this much differently.

  17. Lynn Patrick

    I can relate. My dad noted how much time my mom took balancing the checkbook … so one year he bought her an adding machine. I don’t recall if this was a Valentine’s day, Birthday, Anniversary, or Christmas gift … but it was NOT well received. Eventually, she forgave him. Looking back, if they could go back in time, each would have behaved differently.

  18. Julie

    Kerry – I love your stories and appreciate your messages. Good reminders for all of us!

    If your GCC is now Grandview University, you should see campus now. The Quonset huts are gone. 🙂

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