Just About Perfect

When I was a little girl, I thought my father was perfect. Most people did. If you asked Pete Manale to help you with something, you could be sure he’d do a bang-up job, whether it was hanging living room curtains with millimeter precision, fixing broken things or creating something decorative. Dad’s never been much of a cook, but other than a lack of culinary talent he’s always seemed to be good at everything, probably because he devotes a great deal of thought and care into each undertaking. (This is code. It means he’s never in a rush, but it’s worth the wait.) It’s a philosophy he reinforced in me, his eldest child: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Dad has a very innovative mind, forever dreaming up ways to make things better around the house. Every time I visit, he has something new to show me. His creations are the perfect extensions of himself, equal parts practical and playful. Over the years he’s added two pantries and a corner bookcase in the kitchen, and managed to beautify a run-of-the-mill electric fan.

Then there’s the custom magazine rack Dad built into the wall of Mom’s bathroom, complete with wiring for her phone. They call it the phone booth. Haven’t you always wanted to make a call from the john?

Probably the cutest of his creations is his storage solution for Mom’s many pairs of reading glasses. She has at least a dozen pairs of cheapie drug store magnifiers that Dad finds scattered all over the house. So he designed a shelf above her desk with a built-in row of little felt-lined cubbyholes to protect them from scratches. Pure genius.

I like to think I inherited Dad’s problem-solving, let’s-make-it-better mindset. (At my job we call this continuous improvement, but if I ever start sounding like a consultant here, somebody please stage an intervention!) Anyway, that’s my excuse for constantly rearranging the stuff in my cabinets and closets, something that might drive you crazy if you lived with me. 

When I was little, I enjoyed being Dad’s helper. I’d watch him work, handing him tools and asking a million questions. If he ever got impatient with me, he didn’t show it. It was a sweet bonding experience for us and it taught me a lot about approaching a task thoughtfully. I don’t trust people who toss out the instructions. 

My first clue that my father might not know how to do everything came when he tried his hand at brick masonry. We’d just moved to a new house and instead of a wooden gate to the backyard he wanted to install brick columns and an iron gate. It seemed simple enough. Lay a row of bricks, spread the black mortar across the top with the trowel, repeat. I watched excitedly because I couldn’t wait to swing on the gate.

Except the bricks kept sliding out of place like a layer cake with slippery frosting.

I don’t remember how long Dad struggled with the task but it felt like forever to me. No matter what he did, the bricks would not form a wall. When he finally gave up, I felt disappointed. I’d never seen him fail at anything. But of course, Dad didn’t really give up. The next Saturday, he tackled those bricks again with fresh vigor and a new plan. 

We were no longer living in the house when Hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish in 2005. But I’ll bet that brick and iron gate was still standing. 

Some things from those days aren’t still standing. When I was in high school, my parents divorced, Dad remarried and my mother died. That time, Dad couldn’t fix everything. I don’t know how we all got through those years and it’s still hard to talk about sometimes. But my father was there. Through all the changes, both his and mine, he’s always been there for me.

Lucky for us, Dad is enjoying good health at age 82. He chafes at the restrictions of old age and sometimes he flagrantly defies them. A couple of Christmases ago, Dad tried out my nephew Christopher’s hoverboard. It didn’t go well. The board zipped out from under his feet and he crashed onto the cold kitchen floor flat on his back. Scared us to death! But my crazy daredevil father got to his feet, rubbed his head and asked, “Hey, where’s the seat to this thing?”

He hasn’t lost his sense of humor and he’s still creating things. I’ve tried to talk him into downsizing, selling the house and moving to something smaller and easier to maintain, but he won’t do it. He says he can’t find a retirement community that would let him have his workshop.

Last summer, I was feeling nostalgic for those sweet times with my father when I got an idea for something we could build together during my visit. Dad was a little confused by my request at first. 

“How are you going to take a bench home on the plane?” he asked.

“A meditation bench is really small, Dad. Not like a park bench.” I held my hands about a foot apart to give him an idea of the size. “Space for one butt. About eight inches tall. Flat seat. You kneel on the floor to sit on it.” I pulled up the directions I’d found online to show him what it would look like. 

Dad studied the diagram and then launched into a search on Pinterest, his new jam, to do a little more research. In the end, we settled on a design and found the wood and stain we needed for the project among his everyday supplies. Mom and I went shopping for the fabric to cover the seat, because shopping is her jam.

Dad’s shop is a carpentry wonderland. It’s easy to see what he does with all those Lowe’s gift cards we give him for every occasion, but I’m clueless naming his many fierce-looking power tools. For our modest meditation bench, we used a couple of different saws, at least three sanders, a device that did some kind of planing and possibly a drill. I’m not sure. Other doodads may also have been involved. The man has everything. 

Just like old times, I passed Dad tools and watched him transform scrap wood into something useful. He urged me to try my hand at it. The little palm sander was fun. The big saw that bounced was scary. Dad applied the stain and the next day we padded and covered the seat, securing the material with upholstery tacks. It’s just about perfect. Kind of like Dad.

I know Dad doesn’t understand why I’d want to sit on a little wooden bench and watch myself breathe. (Nobody in my family does. I’m glad they all indulge my oddities.) But he was delighted to build it for me, gifting me with all these fond memories.

Dad tries meditation

And my very own meditation bench will have the touch of my father’s loving hands upon it forever. 

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Notes to My Younger Self

“If I’d known then what I know now…” Almost everyone

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The month of January was named for the ancient Roman god, Janus. Depicted with two faces – one looking forward and one looking behind – Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. Perfect choice.

During this month, we all become a little like Janus as we review the year that’s passed and plan the one ahead of us. Maybe because my birthday is in January, it’s a double reminder of how quickly life moves.

Depending on my mood, looking at the past can be sweetly nostalgic or remorseful, filled with the what ifs that hindsight brings. Looking to the future, I foresee either exciting opportunities or dreaded obstacles. Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

Having another birthday (my 56th, in case you’re curious) is a blessing. I wouldn’t trade the wisdom I’ve gained for the young body I‘ve lost for anything, even with the annoyance of hot flashes and the occasional arthritis pain that have become a part of my life. It’s probably a fair exchange. I don’t think we’re allowed to have both at the same time, anyway. Growing older has its well-deserved rewards.

If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, would I change anything? In spite of the heartbreak of a failed marriage, I’d never alter the course that gave me my sons. And though I regret living so far away from my parents, and will probably miss my beloved New Orleans for the rest of my days, I wouldn’t have met my husband Ret or have the good life I’ve made in Georgia if I hadn’t moved away. Maybe that’s why we don’t get a crystal ball. We wouldn’t always choose what’s best for us. 

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With Ret, 2017

But if I could go back and counsel my younger self, these are some of the things I’d say to me:

Those mean girls in school are going to vanish from your life forever.

Don’t listen to hateful people who make fun of you. Chin up! (And don’t slouch.) Stick with the friends who are kind to you and forget about everyone else. People who bully or ridicule others do so to inflate their own meager sense of self-worth. It sucks to be them! Graduation day will come, and you’ll never have to see these people again. They’re irrelevant.

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Gawky sophomore

Ditch the pointy-toed stilettos. They are going to destroy your feet.

Believe me, one day you’re going to wish you’d spent the 80s in more comfortable shoes. You might cringe over that big hair in old photos, too, but at least it won’t inflict permanent damage.

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Big 80s hair

Be nicer to your mother.

She’s not going to be with you for long, and you are going to miss her for the rest of your life. Hold on to the memory of the sound of her voice, and the tender way she kissed your eyelids. Remember her playful silliness, and how she loved Coke floats with chocolate ice cream, and that she couldn’t ride a bicycle, and how she snorted when she laughed. And learn to let go of the sad memories. Mama loved you, and she would have wanted you to be happy.

Mama and Me w Cat Glasses
Mama and me

Your dad’s new wife is going to become your best friend.

Sometimes life is tragic. Even now, it doesn’t make much sense to me. But God knew that you would still need a mother, so He made a way for that. And this new mom really loves you. In fact, she’s going to become the person you call first when you need advice, or have good news, or just want to talk. So be nice to her, too.

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With Mom at my wedding, 2011

When the baby sleeps, you sleep.

This piece of advice will come from Ricia, and she was right. Steal a nap whenever you can while Kevin and Jared are infants. No one is going to judge a new mother by her unfolded laundry. (And shame on them if they do!) This time with your newborns is precious and fleeting. Take good care of yourself, and snuggle up on your babies every possible minute. The postpartum hormones, sore breasts and sleepless nights only seem like forever while you’re in the foggy midst of them. It’s over in a blink. One minute you’re pacing the floor at 2 a.m. with a colicky baby and spit-up caked in your hair, and then a few weeks later, that baby has a fuzzy little mustache and wants to borrow your car. Cherish this sweetness while it lasts.

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This is sleep deprivation, and big, big love

Stop straightening your hair!

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Women pay obscene amounts of money to have curls like the ones you inherited for free from your Sicilian grandmother. Save the 5,382 hours you will spend over the next 20 years trying to make yourself something you’re not, and embrace who you are – in every way. (It’s futile anyway; you live in the humidity capital of the US.)

Lee 5.13

And another thing: in your 40th summer, you’re going to be tempted to highlight your hair. Resist! Otherwise, what will start out as a summer fling is going to turn into an annoying, expensive, long-term commitment, complete with more bad hair drama than any one person needs in her life. Be a happy brunette. Trust me on this.

Use that 5,382 hours you’ve saved and write that book.

Enjoy your artsy side. Write. Draw. Play your guitar, for heaven’s sake, instead of letting it gather dust in the corner, vowing you’ll get to it one day when you have time. Yes, you have a duty to take care of your family and earn a living, but don’t let months or years go by without indulging your creative soul. It’s what makes you, you.

Oh, and don’t listen to anyone who says you aren’t talented enough, especially yourself. That’s not the point. It’s the process that matters, not the end result.

Find out about this weird thing called yoga.

Namaste

No, not yogurt! Yoga is going to change your life, giving you grace and strength you can’t imagine. If only we’d discovered it back in the 70s, when regular folks thought it was bohemian and outlandish, it might have dramatically altered the way we navigated our teenaged years, pregnancy and new motherhood. Maybe we could have even avoided some of these nagging health issues I’m dealing with now. And we would have learned to relax a long time ago.

Save, save, save money!

Seriously. Having to work for 40-plus years is just as excruciating as it sounds. And credit cards are evil. They suck you in with false promises of the good life until you wind up in bondage. Don’t fall for it.

And finally, this too shall pass.

Whatever you’re struggling with now, I promise it will come to an end. You will survive high school chemistry, fickle friends, getting fired and immense, consuming grief. You’re going to earn a bachelor’s degree at age 40 while working full-time and wonder how on earth you did it. Facing the shattering end of a long marriage will temporarily tear your heart to bits – but it will also forge your unbreakable spirit. Your cranky, never-let-you-sleep babies will become adorable little boys. Then those adorable little boys will transform into exasperating, petulant teenagers whose behavior keeps you up at night all over again. And then one day, they’ll hug you, say, “Thanks for everything, Mom,” and move away to build their own lives.

Nothing lasts forever.

So, the best you can do is take it one day at a time. The only thing you can control is yourself; give the rest to God and let Him be responsible for running the universe. Trust that whatever unfolds in life will ultimately be for good, and your responsibility is to do your part, the best way you know how. Have faith. Love people. Give yourself a break.

You’re going to be okay. Really.

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