It is the mid-60s and it is appropriately reflected in the cramped kitchen’s yellow formica table, Harvest Gold appliances, and the wallpaper…oh, the wallpaper!
Every night at 5:30 the four of us gather around the table to have dinner. Every night. It’s a ritual I treasure to this day.
My 4-year-old pig-tailed self is enchanted with the familiarity of routines, rituals, and family time. It builds in me a sense of both security and adventure. The dinner rituals begin when Mom says, “It’s time!” and I scurry to the front porch, antsy and breathlessly waiting to spot my dad’s car turn the corner and head toward our house. Only years later to I sit amazed at my mom’s sixth sense of timing, always knowing when Dad was just about home. I race to the car, he drops the briefcase and swings me in the air. Rain, snow, cold or hot, the routine is the same. There is such comfort and love in the the routine. Every night.
As we sit down to eat, another nightly game begins. Dad holds my empty Flintstone jelly-jar milk glass (a true sign of the 60s), beings pouring frothy white milk, and says,” Say when!”
It’s our game. Some days I let him only pour a drop or two before I squeal “WHEN” and he stops. Other days I test the limits of both the glass and his patience, holding my “when” for the very last second.
It’s always the same. He let’s me say “when” and I live with the consequences. Too little and I’m thirsty and must ask for more. Too much and it’s sloshing from the top as I sip. And some magic days we get it just right for my chubby 4-year-old hands.
Tonight feels just the same as every night before. We’re all seated, Mom is dishing out a casserole while reminding my brother to wash his hands, and Dad grabs the glass and playfully states “Say when!”
I watch the milk slowly drip into the glass. He’s playing with me tonight and is going extra slow. I’m not sure what happens next. I’m not sure if the extra time is more than my energetic preschool brain can handle, if my brother annoyed me, or if I just missed the mark, but a puddle of silky, slithery white is forming around my plate, coming out of my overflowing glass.
My mom looks at us like we’ve lost our minds, and jumps up for a towel. “What in the world are you doing?” she asks in her exasperated voice we seldom hear from her gentle soul. But Dad stops her with a steady hand.
“She didn’t say ‘when’. Let her get the towel and clean it up. Tomorrow she’ll pay better attention”.
There is not an iota of anger or irritation in my Dad’s voice, just a matter-of-fact statement that I let a mess occur because I wasn’t paying attention, and it was my job to mop it up. To him it wasn’t a problem, just a natural consequence. So clean it up, I do.
And once again he reaches for my glass, laughingly says, “Say ‘when’!” and this time I nail my half-way mark perfectly, wrapping my sticky fingers around the glass, sipping with pride.
One night, over half a century ago.
One blip in the memory bank of a little girl who’s 4-year-old days were full of little but wonder and adventure.
But oh, how it stuck.
It seemed easier at 4 than it does most days now.
I look at my day planner, the color-coded attempts at organization looking more like tie-dye, overlapping and bumping up against one another in an almost manic overcrowding.
I’m feeling a bit stressed. I have some major project deadlines approaching . I’m not sure how my forward-thinking self didn’t see the traffic jam of commitments piling up.
Head in hands, sighing deeply in a feeble attempt to center, I hear Dad’s calm and steady voice, crystal clear even decades after his death, lovingly yet matter-of-factly saying, “Well, Baby Girl, you didn’t say ‘when’.”
Truth, plain and simple.
How is it I mastered the art of saying “when” as a preschooler, but am still cleaning up messes as an adult?
I know so well what it looks like when I don’t pay close enough attention and catch things in time.
An over-booked schedule.
More commitments than energy or even excitement.
Relationships that go on a bit too long, and turn withered rather than growing under healthier boundaries.
Feeling fatigued, needing space.
The list goes on.
All results of taking my eye off the glass, letting it overfill, and then needing to take the time to clean up the messes.
All results of not keeping an eye on limits, on space, on boundaries, and just saying “when” when it got to be enough.
So how did I do it back then? How did that glass only overflow once?
Because I learned to stay focused and keep my eye on what mattered. Never again did my attention drift, did I let it get overfull. I honored the limits of the Flintstone jelly-jar glass and gave it the reverence and respect it deserved.
When I am focused, when I keep my eye on what’s important, I don’t have milk spills to mop up with a kitchen towel. I don’t have sleepless nights and over-extended social schedules. I have just enough for my family, my work, my self.
So today, sipping chai tea instead of cold milk, my calendar looking like a box of melted Crayola crayons with all the color coded obligations, I decide to channel my inner little girl, keep my eyes intensely focused on the current moment, and answer the next email with “I’d love to, but I can’t right now. I’m available in a month, but right now my glass is a bit full.”
Learning to say “when” is still in progress, but a certain little girl and her dad will keep reminding me. I promise to pay attention.