I could swear that was my mom’s most frequent lament, “Why can’t we have anything nice?” Lips pursed, hand on hip, she surveyed the latest damage done to a prized possession by one or more of her ten children. It could have been a broken glass, a torn cushion, or a chipped plate; the exasperated expression was always the same. Poor thing. After all, it was ten against one. She never had a chance.
In a poor household with ten children, there was little nice to be had. We lived in a world of mismatched cutlery, patched furniture, and scuffed walls. Our dining room table was a sheet of plywood bolted to an old dinette, then coated with tawny brown paint that remained slightly tacky for the 12 or 13 years it was in use. Every once in a while some new, relatively nice object would appear in our house. We would quickly break it or grind it to dust.
Some families manage to live with nice things, mine could not. My childhood friend Rocco came from a family that could. I always marveled and their spotless house, glistening maple dinette and perfectly appointed living room. The downside for Rocco was a childhood of sitting on plastic covers, forbidden entry to the living room, and most summer days he was banned from the house until dinnertime.
Years later, I could identify with my mother’s frustration. I learned that if you have children, you have no personal property.
After a few years of parenthood, my wife and I gave up on new furniture and put off remodeling our bathrooms until all our kids were in high school. Once our nest was empty, we began to acquire a few “nice things”.
I forgot all about the destructive capacity of small children until we became live-in grandparents. Once we moved from our empty nest to our three-generation coop, it was once again open season on nice.
We recently saw a retro swivel chair we thought would be nice to have. “I think the grandkids our mature enough now”, Debbie suggested. We bought the chair, and it soon became a micro amusement park for our grandkids whenever our backs were turned. Within a month it was a hopelessly lopsided wreck.
The upside is that I am learning about furniture repair.
It recently occurred to me that nice things are borne of mayhem. That beautiful table was chopped, drilled, chiseled, and stained before it became presentable. The crystal glass you admire was dug from the earth, burned until purified, formed, polished and cut to become a thing of beauty.
What’s more, nice things are hard to own. To maintain their beauty and value, silver objects and wooden furniture must be carefully maintained and polished. Nice carpets and upholstery must be protected against dirt, rips, tears and spills. Nice isn’t for everybody.
My mother did acquire a few nice things after all ten of us were gone, but truth be told, she wasn’t that interested in nice things by that point in her life. By that time she seemed to take more joy in the time she spent with her grown children, her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She also seemed to relish the solitude that resulted from not living with any of them.
Life is often like the last reel of The Wizard of Oz. You know, the part where the Wizard tells the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man that they possessed the traits they desired all along. I think my mom realized in the last years of her life that she had been blessed with ten very nice things all along. Like most nice things it took years of effort and mayhem to make them that way.
After years of poverty, conflict, doubt, and struggle they emerged as principled, resilient adults. This of course took large doses of discipline, study and prayer as well.
Prayer most of all. Be they prayers of thanksgiving or petitions for the wellbeing of ourselves or others, what other tool has power to bend a force as strong as human desire. What better path to happiness, than to turn your desire to the gifts that God has already given?
It may be the only way to have anything nice.
Copyright 2014 Kirk Whitney