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Assessing Childhood

Grandma lived with us, and entering the back door in cold weather, you could smell the work of her hands.

By that I mean, her pies.

You never knew what kind of pie would be sitting there on the counter, after school. It was fun to guess. Is this a coconut cream day? Or did she concoct one of those lemon chiffon pastry swirls that melted in your mouth?

But nothing matched the aroma and taste of her signature pie, bubbling with the sweet juice of baked apples, and the crust that covered it – buttery and flaky, with streaks of cinnamon steam rising from the fork holes Grandma would puncture in the dough just before sliding her masterpiece into the oven.

Baking that pie came easily for Grandma, but serving it up usually got her in trouble.

She well understood our mother’s rule: “No dessert before dinner.” But that didn’t matter because Grandma discovered a way to make the pie available to us before the meal, without overtly offering us a piece. She simply positioned the warm pie – flanked by forks and plates – on a table we had to pass. Our lack of discipline did the rest.

When mom came home from work and discovered a half-eaten pie, she looked suspiciously at Grandma. “Why did you put that pie out in the open where they would be tempted by it?”

“They’re a bunch of heatherns,” Grandma bluntly declared, her butchered pronunciation camouflaging her fake upset. “I don’t know why they can’t wait until after dinner.”

Nothing awakens deep thankfulness inside me like a pleasant childhood memory.

Gratitude for good times comes quickly and easily.

But what happens when, instead of a slice of warm apple pie, life serves you up a portion of turmoil and adversity?

In the same house where those pie aromas wafted, drama reigned.

You wouldn’t call either of my parents exceptional role models, or seasoned mentors.

My father was a talented insurance company manager and a frustrated entrepreneur whose work ethic couldn’t keep up with his schemes. He smoked cigarettes in the house, gambled on weekends, and drank too much.

That didn’t sit well with my mother, who put her game face on to run her beauty salon, but worried herself into a tizzy when dad stayed out late. Or when we forgot to wear a hat. Or when Grandma set her pie out in clear view.

The father whose extracurricular interests contributed to family distress also educated me about life on the street. He had a big heart for the homeless and downtrodden, and even as a kid, I took note of his extra-generous tips to low-wage waiters and waitresses.

Mom quelled her anxiety with religious fervor, but she often used her faith as a club to admonish and judge. She spoke to us as the self-appointed mouthpiece of God – in her mind, there was not a sliver of light between what she believed and the infallible truth.

That same mother pushed her children out to engage the world, welcomed strangers into our home, and extolled the importance of non-conformity that later influenced my business decision-making.

Dad brought softness and compassion to his checkered life. Mom lit up the room with her effervescent personality, and worried herself into long rosaries.

On Saturday mornings I watched cartoons like all my friends. I caught frogs in the creek, built forts, and played board games. Life was a blast, sometimes.

But when my twin brother developed a brain tumor and underwent surgery to remove it at age 15, he was hospitalized for ten weeks, and life wasn’t fun.

Hardships like that hit families in different ways. In my family, Jimmy’s surgery triggered all kinds of ripple effects. My parents clung to the nervous edge of the emotional cliff, wondering if he would live or die. Communication sucked. Impatience and short tempers ran the show. I was terrified, but being super-responsible, I didn’t know how to show it.

I had baseball practice after school, but some days, I skipped practice to drive to the hospital for a visit with my brother.

Sometimes, I talk with clients who sanctify their childhoods, as if their situations were perfect. Or who criticize their upbringing, as if their parents were devils.

But every family is a unique, mixed bag of function and dysfunction, saints and sinners, joy and heartache. It’s rare to meet anyone who’s not trying their best.

There are important lessons here for parents and leaders:

You can assess yourself, your team and your family honestly, without magnifying the positives or the hardships.

You can see that not all adversity is harmful.

You can realize that those who look too perfect are probably pretending, and those who you might judge to be losers could someday save your life.

You can appreciate that warm slice of apple pie and its happy memory without forgetting that every family, every leader and every organization, is imperfect and forever incomplete, a work in progress.


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