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Leslie Cox - What I Would Teach My Children

If I had it to do over, here’s what I would teach my children.

Explore the world.

Do everything you long to do.

Listen to your instincts.

Trust your heart.

Never ever think you’re not enough.

But the truth is, they live by these virtues. If only I’d known better to do these things for myself.

I’m trying to reconstruct my childhood, and this is what comes to mind.

I’m anywhere between age eight and twelve, traipsing along trails on rugged mountains, pedaling my bike across town, coasting downhill, having picnics with friends at a nearby cemetery, and playing outdoor games with neighbor kids—hide and seek, red rover, Simon says. I try to remember not being outdoors and my mind goes blank. But then, I see myself walking up the hill from school, arriving home and heading straight for my bedroom, turning up the volume on my stereo and singing every word of every song from Carole King’s Tapestry album. If my Grannie was there, she’d peek through the door and say “Don’t take it too hard. Life is short.”

Now I see myself sitting at the breakfast table alone, staring at my plate of toast or bowl of Cheerios, watching my milk curdle in the glass and finally being excused when the milk makes me gag. Sometimes Mom threatened to throw my plate out the back door if I didn’t finish, but she never followed through. “Leslie’s meals last for hours!” was the joke I always heard growing up. But now I know it’s okay to take my time with a meal, and if I don’t like milk, I don’t have to drink it.

My brother paid me a dime to make his bed every morning, and each time I would find his breakfast toast underneath the bed or dresser, shriveled up and dry from the day before. As always, he found a way to avoid the drama. Sometimes, he attacked it head on. Anytime we heard the sound of a metal fly swatter jingling as it was removed from its place behind the washing machine, we knew to expect a good swatting. Usually, it was because we were fighting as siblings do. But my brother would simply grab the fly swatter from Mom, bend it in half, and run down the street to the Perry’s house, leaving me there to take swats for both of us, usually on the backside of my thighs, leaving red, swollen welts. I had no place to run. My own kids didn’t get swats. Yet, somehow, they learned self-discipline, responsibility, and respect.

As I grew up, evenings at home were mostly the same. Dinner at 5:30 followed by television until bedtime: Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, Laugh-In, or The Carol Burnett Show. When Grannie stayed with us, she and I would sit at the dining room table to study, share stories, or play scrabble. What mostly comes to mind is an image of my little-girl-self, sitting quietly alone in the hall linen closet playing with Barbies or writing poems.

I asked my mother recently to tell me about my childhood. Here is what she said, “Well, you spent a lot of time outside, and other than that I only remember you sitting alone in the linen closet surrounded by toys, writing. You were very different.”

That’s it. That is her memory of my childhood. For my lifetime, I believed my childhood was perfect. Dad and I were close, and I’d give the world to ask him the same question I asked Mom, but we lost him several years ago. I have a feeling he’d come up with some charming stories I would cherish. One story he loved to tell was about the time I was three years old, sitting on the wire gate in front of our house as it swung back and forth, singing “Oh my darlin’ Clementine.” Ol’ Mr. Hayes, our neighbor across the street said to Dad, “Well, if that aint the cutest thing I ever seen!”

My brother and sister were several years older than me and by the time I was ten they were both away at college, so my childhood memories rarely include them. But I remember the gifts they brought me when they were home for visits. When I was in fourth grade, my sister brought me a midi, peasant dress. They were in style in the city, but nobody in our small town had seen them yet. I proudly wore it to school and was laughed right out of the classroom. My brother brought me record albums—Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg, Bonnie Raitt. My friends were into disco and hadn’t heard of these artists, who to this day are my favorites. Before long, my friends were listening to these artists and wearing midi’s and maxi’s.

Somehow, I feel cheated. I want a record of what I did as a child, funny things I said, books I loved. To be honest, I don’t recall reading any books. My teenage years are easier to remember and for the most part, those memories are happy ones. But even then, I didn’t have a plan. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always came up with the same answer, “I want to be a hippie, but a clean one.” And they would always laugh. Now at age sixty, I guess you could say I’m a clean hippie, and still, I don’t have a clue what I want to be when I grow up.

My dad gave me music. He taught me to play the guitar and sing. He showed me his love for the outdoors—gardening, hiking, appreciating nature as I do now and always have. He taught me about honesty and hard work. He always said that with mental determination, I could accomplish anything I set out to do. The sad thing is I didn’t know what the possibilities were.

So, I let others make all my decisions for me. My brother suggested I become an accountant. He must not have known I despise anything related to numbers. My sister and I never talked about the future. Mom had no suggestions other than the expected trajectory to get a college education (in whatever…), get married, have kids—in that order. So that’s what I did.

Had I taken a different path, one set by me, I would be enjoying a career as a journalist, author, or professor. I would have waited for the right partner to share my life and traveled the world before settling down. In the end, I suppose these things work themselves out. Now, I have an obsession with reading and writing and the time to do both. I’ve traveled some but not nearly enough, and the prospect of finding the right partner—well, I’m not sure it will happen. But I can say my children did all of those things I would have liked to do given the opportunity. They have taught me a few things about life.

Nick and Courtney have encouraged me to be brave and try new adventures like whitewater rafting, snorkeling, kayaking and parasailing over the ocean—activities I loved even though I’m terrified of deep water. They support my endeavor to be a writer and they actually read some of my essays. They stood by me when I lost my dad and when I lost my dog, giving me strength and love even though they too were grieving. It was my own children, not my parents or siblings or teachers, who helped open my eyes and my heart to the ways of the world that I never before understood. By their example, I’ve learned not to judge and instead to show empathy and compassion toward others. I also learned from them how to let go and to trust their wisdom when they took on their own adventures and began living their dreams.

If I had it to do over, here’s what I would say to my younger self:

Explore the world.

Do everything you long to do.

Listen to your instincts.

Trust your heart.

Never ever think you’re not enough.

But it’s never too late to learn these things. Even at sixty.

 

Leslie Cox is a writer of creative non-fiction, with a focus on personal essay and memoir. Her essay “My Favorite Chair” was a runner up in the WOW! Women on Writing Q1 2020 Creative Nonfiction Contest, and she published two essays in “Her Vase” in 2020. Her essay "Distracted" was published in the Pure Slush anthology: "Love, Lifespan." Prior to semi-retiring from health care administration in 2019, Leslie wrote and published technical articles and a guidebook for health care professionals for HCPro. Her long-term plan is to teach and indulge her passion to write.

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