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Life Lessons Learned

by Susanne Braham

As a youngster, I spent a fair amount of time playing in the sandbox my father built for me and my younger brother in our Morristown, New Jersey, backyard. My best friend Donna and I thought we could dig a hole deep enough to reach China, purportedly on the other side of the world. I had no idea how deep a hole we’d have to dig.

Years later, I took my own two children to many New York City playgrounds, where they, too, spent happy hours digging and building castles in the sand. Sand play became an important beach activity for the whole family on both New York’s and Florida’s shores. We sculpted huge towers with tracks running around their perimeters. From their tops, we would send hard handballs on a downward course toward the sea. Perhaps Edward Albee was onto something metaphorical when he titled one of his plays The Sandbox; it was the site where a great deal of the action took place.

Now, in retirement, living with two somewhat elderly cats, all of that digging and shoveling practice has suddenly come in handy. Sick and tired of having cat litter strewn all over my apartment, I’ve finally switched to the newer clumping litter. Little did I know how much digging and shoveling would be required: my two felines produce excessive amounts of urine, requiring much more labor than I was prepared for. So never put down the value of child’s play! It is, indeed, preparation for work and later life.

And on the subject of preparations for life, another little game we played, this one in second grade, comes to mind. It was a year when my classmates and I had Mrs. Pierson, the principal of our elementary school, as our classroom teacher. She seemed very ancient to us, certainly older than any of our parents, maybe even older than our grandparents. She had pure white hair, always nicely coiffed, noticeable age spots on the backs of her hands, and a slight tremor in her voice. Although she was much stricter than most of the other teachers in our school, I always enjoyed the games she had us play during class, especially when it wasn’t nice enough to go outside for recess. I assumed they must have been part of our learning experience, though back then I had no idea what, exactly, this one game might have been teaching us.

We often had math races at the blackboard (actually black colored back then). Two students would come to the board and write down a small set of math problems, either addition or subtraction, and then they would race to see who could complete the answers first. We were clearly learning our addition and subtraction tables, but what of this other game, which was called Eraser Tag?

Blackboards lined one or two walls of the classroom, and there were always numerous erasers sitting in the little galleys at the bottom ledge of the boards. Mrs. Pierson would choose two students to come to the front of the room. Each would put an eraser on the top of his or her head. But they couldn’t touch the eraser once they put it there, so they had to place it carefully. One person was “it,” while the other person had to run around the classroom trying to prevent the one who was “it” from tagging them. The difficulty was that if the eraser fell off of one’s head (remember, they couldn’t touch it), then they automatically lost and someone else was chosen to take their place. It was a race to see who could keep the eraser in place the longest.

What were we learning? Good posture! If you didn’t stand up straight and walk tall with good posture, it was almost impossible to keep that eraser on your head. I suspect wearing barrettes might have been a form of cheating for some of the girls, but the experience of learning how to walk properly has stayed with me for life, an important lesson—through kinesthetic learning.

While learning didn’t end with kindergarten (or second grade), the key later on was figuring out where the important lessons were lurking, which brings me to the story of my mother.

I don’t remember Mommy teaching me a whole lot of valuable stuff when I was a kid, except maybe how to swim and play tennis. (I was a latchkey kid.) But as my mom aged, because I was available to take care of her (my husband had died quite young and my children finally grew up), I was able to observe how she coped with the infirmities of old age, disability, and the general problems of inhabiting a body that’s becoming progressively decrepit. In a nutshell, despite having been born with a serious heart condition, she lived gracefully until she was 94, remaining in her own home, continuing to take courses at a local university till within a few months of her death.

I saw how she paced herself, always allowing extra time to get from point a to point b. I watched how she continued to exercise, albeit in a much less vigorous way, but she worked out, using nearly every part of her body, almost to the end. She exercised her mind as well, continuing to read plays, novels, and biographies, revisiting Shakespeare, the Bible, and many of the classics she’d read years back. And always the funnies; she appreciated the value of a good laugh. And as for friends, she found company in new, younger people when most of her old cronies were no more.  

So helping to care for my mom prepared me for what’s ahead, as I share many of the same ailments and familial problems. I watched how she dealt with them, how she modified her eating over time, and the spirit she was able to maintain, almost to very the end. If any of us thought our changing bodies were a challenge during adolescence, grab tight the reins and hold on for the trip of old age, where each day we awaken wondering which body parts are still working and what might need to go into the shop for repairs.

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