Memoir / Essays: My Parents Used to Say: Lessons Learned Just By Listening to My Parents

Kelli J Gavin 


Eat your vegetables so that you will grow big and strong. 
Sit up straight or you will be hunched over by the time you are 40. 
Make your bed every day. It will make you feel better. 
You are never too cool to wear boots and a winter jacket. 
Dry your hair before you leave the house, or you will catch your death. 

My parents said a lot of things to me growing up. Some useful and some half-truths mixed with myth. Some so comical and far-fetched, I still laugh thinking about them. But some of the things they said were meaningful, heartfelt, and so extremely important.


“You were born in Minnesota and will be raised here. Figure out a way to love it.”  

As a young child growing up in Forest Lake, Minnesota, my parents were at a loss when it came to raising me. I loved being outdoors in the summertime. I enjoyed harvesting vegetables from the garden, running in the fields, biking on the dirt roads and exploring the woods that surrounded our home. I found humor in stealing as many raspberries as I could fit in my mouth and feeding stray cats because they always seemed to make their way to our home. My sister and I would play for hours in fallen tree forts and with the dog in the backyard. We would build makeshift homes in the woods, gather pretend supplies and enjoy water fights and hide and seek until after dusk.

Winter was another story. I hated the cold. I hated the wet. I hated the ice. I hated winter. Go play outside?  Why would I ever want to do that?  My socks would get wet. I didn’t have sufficient snow pants so snow would go up the back of my too thin jacket and I would fall apart. The time it took to warm up in our very rustic basement next to our not up to code fireplace would sometimes take all night. What was the point?  Boredom often set in. Apparently, now as an adult I have learned that boredom often leads to naughty behavior. Naughty behavior leads to punishment. Punishment leads to being upset. Being upset leads to parents doubting the punishment in the first place.

After such an incident of punishment, my dad sat me down. My dad has these amazing kind, bright blue eyes. Now, even in his middle seventies, his eyes still shine brightly. 

With a deep intake and exhale of more air than was necessary, my dad began carefully. “Kelli. I love you. You are an amazing child. I want to talk to you. Have you noticed that you often get into more trouble in the winter months?  I think I know why. In the summer, you are outdoors constantly. Your mom and I have to beg you and Angie to come in each night. It is a different story in the winter. You hate being outside. You say no each time we encourage you to even go out for a half hour. Then you confine yourself to staying indoors all day. Your mom and I feel that you have started to think that your boredom is an excuse to do anything you want without asking. You are touching things that are not yours, making mess, destroying projects in the works, taking food from the root cellar and opening jars just for fun. You know these things are wrong, but you continue to do it.”

           He paused for a moment and then continued. “Kelli, you were born in Minnesota and you will be raised here. You need to figure out a way to love it.”  I stared at him. I guess I wasn’t really sure what he meant. “Tomorrow after breakfast we will begin.” 

What was it that was about to begin?  I guess I was still upset about being punished earlier in the day, and I chose to stay silent. 

The next day was Saturday. My mom had laid clothes out for me and had pancakes and eggs waiting by the time I woke up. I sat down at the table and watched as my dad sipped his instant coffee. We ate in silence. But then as we both finished eating, my dad asked, “Are you ready for an adventure?”  

We suited up in all of our winter gear and my dad even gave me an extra pair of his heavy wool mittens. We exited the house in silence and I followed him as he entered the woods about a block from our house. “Today, we will explore. First, I want you to find three things. A bird. A fallen tree. Animal tracks.”  

Oh. Okay. I could do this. When I found the cardinal, we spoke in quiet voices about how much Grandma Re loved cardinals. He told me to notice the quick turns of his head, the way he pecked at the air. We discovered many fallen trees that day. Even pondered why the good ones couldn’t fall closer to our home so we could make a fort in them. And as we progressed on our walk through the woods, we found animal tracks aplenty. Rabbits, deer, possibly coyote. My dad encouraged me to touch each of the spots where the animals had left their mark. He asked me about school, about what figures I saw in the clouds, about friendships and voice lessons.

My dad told me that my Saturdays would no longer be my own. I would now be in his employ. He told me I would need to get ready for the day, eat and then do any chores my mom requested of me. Then I would be helping him. I was dumbfounded. What did he want me to do? His requests were odd at first. 10 small pines cones, 10 medium pine cones, 10 large pine cones. Something beautiful. Tree barks in three different colors. A sign of spring. For each accomplished task, I was paid 50 cents.

My boredom, my naughty behavior, the punishments ceased. I was given a job. I was on a mission. I was employed. I was earning money. Spring quickly approached; the snow began to melt as the crocuses and daffodils made an appearance. The temperatures got warmer and my excitement for summer reached an all-time high. The last Saturday of the school year was upon us. My dad caught me early that morning. I met him in the garage after chores. I saw a large metal trash bin with the lid on. Every item that I gathered per his request that winter was in there. It then dawned on me. My dad taught me to love my surroundings. Even when it was cold, even when there was ice. Even when my feet got wet and I shivered. He taught me to love the beauty of creation that surrounded me. He taught me that boredom was no longer an option.

That summer, I turned 10, and that winter, my dad only revisited the troubles I had experienced the prior winter. He explained, “This winter, I will not receive any reports from your mother about poor behavior. I taught you this past winter how to keep yourself busy and how to enjoy your surroundings. This winter, you will teach the kids in the neighborhood. Two Saturdays a month, you will create an activity or a scavenger hunt. Locating items, exploring, drawing pictures, timed or untimed. It doesn’t matter. It is up to you. But you are now in charge of winter adventures for all the kids off Humber Street.”

Clever man my dad was, he disciplined me, guided me, encouraged me, taught me and then pushed me to do the same for other children. For some reason, all the kids in the neighborhood began to behave that winter. They spent more time out of the house. They learned to love Minnesota in the winter and all that it had to offer.

“Always sleep if you are given the chance.”

My dad worked the majority of my childhood for 3M Corp, installing and maintaining Corporate Alarm Systems and as a self-employed Home Improvement Contractor. He was very good at both jobs, great with people, knowledgeable and hardworking. He was an asset to 3M and a good businessman once he became self-employed. My dad worked what I thought were strange, long hours. He would leave as I was going to bed, work all night installing alarms and return home as I prepared to leave for school. He would take two Excedrin, eat a large bowl of oatmeal or farina and crash into bed. 

He would sometimes still be sleeping when Angie, my sister and I returned home from school. My mom would meet us at the door with her finger pressed against her lips, “Your dad is sleeping, keep quiet. I have a snack for you and Little House on the Prairie will be on in 10 minutes.”  

Our evenings were filled with lots of whispering. Dinner dishes were saved until dad woke up when cuddles and bedtime stories seemed so exciting. My dad always looked tired. Always. Even after a good 8 hours of sleep. He struggled with the nights and days and back again and just tried to be as present as possible when he was awake. 

Angie and I sometimes found we wore out our welcome with our mom. Mom tried her best, but she was trying to do it all. She worked part time, was always home to get us off the bus, and was very involved in helping at my sister’s dance studio (so that lessons would be free). She would observe my sister or I moping about. 

“Angie, I know you are bored. I got you some cardboard from work today to make more rooms in your basement Barbie Village.”  

“Kelli, let’s play dolls. I made a new scarf and booties for your Cabbage Patch Doll.”   

Our mom knew our moping was because we missed our dad. He was exciting and funny and silly and enjoyed everything that kids enjoyed. Even though he was there, I missed him.

I struggled with this. One afternoon when Angie and I returned from school, we increased our speed when we saw our dad was awake and waiting on the front porch. Hugs and kisses and animated stories of our day were freely shared.

Dad had us sit down, and when we finally settled and told him everything there was to share, dad broke in. “Oh, daughters of mine, I wanted to talk to you this afternoon. I know that I haven’t been home or even awake much lately because of my work schedule. I am working very hard right now so that we can save money for the winter. Work is hard to come by for me in the winter months, and having a cushion is important. To pay for food and gas for the car, the house and clothing. And I know that I don’t get the chance to spend much time with you on bike rides and just playing anymore. But something I have discovered is that you should always sleep if you are given the chance. Now that I focus on trying to get a good solid 7-8 hours of sleep each day, I enjoy my job more and I am more productive. I also have more energy when I am not working and can enjoy our time together as a family. So even though I miss you guys all the time and maybe you miss me too, I still want to tell you guys that for the rest of your life, always sleep when you get a chance. Your mind, your body, your family, your employer will be happy you did.”

As an adult, my dad’s words can still be heard, but also understood. When I worked a split shift at the bank for two years, 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., I had three plus hours off in the mid afternoon. I always laid down to rest and often would sleep two hours. When my son was tiny and had been up six to eight times the night before, I would take a nap when he did in the afternoon before leaving for work. Now that my kids are older, I work when they are at school. But on Mondays, I get home 45 minutes early before my son’s bus, to ensure that I have time to rest. I wake up when he arrives home, get up and conquer the rest of the day. No, I don’t always sleep when I lay down, but I often feel rested, physically and mentally and ready to take on, whatever comes my way. It also makes me wonder why children fight sleep. Why?  If you are given the chance to sleep, don’t you always feel better when you get up?  Never fight sleep. Always give in.


“Just love him. Love him like your life depended on it.”

At two months old, my son Zach started to cry. Not really cry, more so just scream 6-8 hours a day. In addition to the screaming, he was up no less than 6 times per night. Projectile vomiting 2-4 times a day and constant diaper changes disabled me from leaving the house even on the best of days. I was exhausted, unhappy, and felt like I was failing as a parent, as a mom. I was trying to make our family “work” on about three to four hours of sleep a night. It wasn’t working. Nothing was working. My husband was amazing and did everything he could to help me, but nothing seemed to change with Zach. 

I would call upon my mom when things got really bad. I had slept about 12 hours in 4 days and I became a weepy mess. Josh, my husband, called my mom this time and asked if she could come and stay for a few days. To take care of Zach, maybe do some laundry and the dishes and cook a meal or two. But mostly, I know he called her to take care of me.

My mom arrived with so many bags, I thought she was moving in. Photo albums, baby books, notebooks, journals. I strongly believed she may have packed everything she owned. She walked in, stashed her belongings in the corner and took Zach right out of my arms. She wanted to know when he last slept, when he was last changed and how much formula to put in his bottle. She explained that she didn’t want to see me for at least two to three hours. She would have dinner going by that time. She wanted me to rest. To put earplugs in and rest. She wanted me to take a long hot bath. She wanted me to read a book. She just wanted me to have some time to myself. I thanked her, hugged her and kissed Zach and walked upstairs to my room crying. This was hard. I was tired. Oh so tired. I think I may have fallen asleep as fast as my head hit the pillow. I slept. I slept for three hours straight. I woke up confused, unsure what day it was, and panicked for a minute, not really sure where Zach was.

When I walked down stairs after taking a quick shower, the smell of dinner was so amazing. I was starving. I questioned if I had even eaten yet that day. I rounded the corner and saw that the entire main floor was clean and there were three baskets of folded laundry in front of the fireplace. The dishes were done and there in my mom’s arms was a content sleeping baby. “He ate, he slept, he peed a lot and he even told me a story. The story of his tired mom who can’t do it anymore. He told me to tell you he loves you and to never forget that. He told me to tell you that it will get easier. That these days are hard and long, but you are a great mom and things will get better.”  Tears rolled down my cheeks. My mom stood and put Zach in the bassinet. I hugged my mom, and thanked her.

My mom had laid out two photo albums on the kitchen counter. She warmed a plate of food for me and encouraged me to take a look. The beauty I found in those pages. Babies. My grandmothers, my mom and my dad, my sister and I, aunts and cousins. So many wonderful stories and memories. The notebook?  My mom kept a journal after I was born. Entry after entry I read. ~I am tired. I haven’t slept in two days. Was I meant to be a mom? How am I going to be a good mom to these two girls when I can’t even seem to take care of myself?~  My mom had all of the same doubts when I was a baby. 

She smiled when I met her eyes. “Kelli, you can do this. It is always hard at first. Just love him. Love him like your life depended on it.”

I remember these amazing times with my mom from 17+ years ago like they were yesterday. My mom passed away over 7 years ago, and I miss her so very much. Zach, now over six feet tall and 17 years of age, is amazing. Diagnosed with Autism at a young age, I felt even more challenged at being his mom. But what do I do when I feel overwhelmed, unqualified as a parent and discouraged?   I just love him. I love him like my life depends on it.

“Life isn’t fair. You will not always get what you want. Sometimes, that is a good thing.”

I began singing when I was 9 years old. First at church, then in small local and regional competitions. I moved onto state, then joined traveling singing groups and enjoyed all that it entailed. I was known as the vocalist amongst my friends at school. I enjoyed the attention and the accolades. I found my calling in high school with musical theater productions of Because Their Hearts Were Pure, Carnival, and the role as The Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music.

I was not sure what I really wanted to do with my life. I did know that I wanted to sing and see how far that took me. I went to Crown College in St. Bonifacius and was very excited to recreate myself as I began my adult life. Upon arriving at school and after getting settled in the dorms, I was excited about auditions for Chamber Choir and possibly the traveling music group I had always had my eye on. Auditions went quite well, I thought. I was well prepared with three songs and sang all the scales which showed off my powerful soprano voice.

With great disappointment, I wasn’t admitted into Chamber Choir, but to Women’s Chorale. And I didn’t make it into the traveling group either. But wait. I was the accomplished, well trained vocalist. There had to be a mistake. I went back and checked the posting a second time, just in case I had read it wrong. Nope. Women’s Chorale. I walked calmly back to my dorm on the first floor and lost it. I couldn’t stop crying or catch my breath. I felt sick. How was I going to tell my mom and my friends?  I had talked a big game and shared all of my lofty ambitions before I left for school. I got myself in check by dinner and went to grab a quick bite, determined to return to my room and call my mom.

The moment I heard her voice, I wept. I explained what happened. She was quiet for a bit and let me cry. She let me work it out and share my heartbreak. “Kelli, life isn’t fair. You will not always get what you want. And sometimes that is a good thing.”  Why was it that my mom, all 5’4’’ of her, could drop these truth bombs all the way from Anoka County to me in Carver County?

“Did you ever think that possibly there was something bigger and better in store for you?  That you will learn from this, grow from this and come out more driven and determined in the end?  You have been blessed beyond measure in this life. You have always gotten what you have wanted. Now you will learn what it is like for the rest of us.”  We call those Jo Cook-isms.

And of course, she was right. My mom was always right. I was able to receive an amazing amount of encouragement and training from Dr. Klempay in Women’s Chorale and grew immensely as a vocalist under the tutelage of two private voice teachers. I had fantastic opportunities through referrals to sing at huge fundraisers, weddings of epic proportions and corporate sponsored events. I am not sure if I would have even said yes to any of those requests if my time was consumed by Chamber Choir or the other music group. I also had the benefit of learning at 18 that you don’t always get what you want, rather than struggling through that truth at 25 or even later. My mom telling me that not getting what I wanted was a good thing, was a foreign concept back then, but is now an everyday truth. When I didn’t get that Bank job that I really wanted, I found a better one at an Insurance Agency as a Bank Consultant. When I didn’t get the medical test results that I wanted, I made changes that affected my overall physical wellbeing and I have improved significantly. When I was told to not carry any more children, I became content and discovered that I had a heart full of love for the two kids I was already blessed with. And when I got rejection letter #156 from the Blinder’s Journal, I started writing for the local paper. Indeed. That is one of those good things.

These life lessons were not always easy lessons to learn. But they were lessons learned just by listening to my parents.

Bio: Kelli J Gavin of Carver, Minnesota is a Writer, Editor, Blogger and Professional Organizer. Her work can be found with Clarendon House Publishing, The Ugly Writers, Sweatpants & Coffee, Zombie Pirates Publishing, Setu, Love What Matters, and Southwest Media among others. Kelli’s first two books were released in 2019 (I Regret Nothing- A Collection of Poetry and Prose and My Name is Zach- A Teenage Perspective on Autism). Her 3rd and 4th books will be published in 2020 and 2021. Kelli is currently writing a book of fiction short stories. She has also co-authored 15 anthology books.

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