Amy Choate-Nielsen: Parental lessons passed through generations

Published: Sunday, April 15 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Time is a funny thing.

It moves so deftly, swiftly, that it sometimes stuns me into thinking it's standing still (especially in the afternoon, between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m.). Then just when the slowness of time has dazed me sufficiently, I am shocked into realizing another month has passed, or another year.

Suddenly I have graduated from high school, and college, and I've gotten married and have two children. I'll have another birthday in a week or two, but time is tricky. It doesn't make me feel older. It simply adds things to the equation, so that I have moments when I still think of myself as a 15-year-old, and yet simultaneously, I'm in charge.

Those startling moments come often, especially between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m., when my daughter asks for another handful of crackers and I tell her, "No more crackers, you'll spoil your dinner," just like my mother told me.

The 15-year-old me thought spoiling your dinner was a silly idea, but here I am, propagating the message because now that I'm in charge, I know spoiling a toddler's dinner is a big deal after I've spent an hour making it.

That is one of the benefits of time: perspective.

I can't always see what I'm learning or how I'm changing while I'm in the midst of it, but once in awhile, the dawn breaks and I realize I understand things now that I didn't when I was 15. That you shouldn't spoil your dinner is one. That the mother I am today is largely based on the mothering I had as a child is another.

As I've researched and learned more about my grandmother, Fleeta Choate, who died before I was born, I expected to learn more about myself — but I was surprised to discover that learning about her would teach me to better understand my father.

He has a brilliant mind, a good sense of humor and an inspiring nonchalance about popular opinion, but I've always thought my dad has rotten luck.

He's been a practicing attorney for most of his career, but he's always had projects on the side — grand entrepreneurial dreams that never got off the ground, no matter how he tried.

In the beginning, there was an oil well, a television station and a run for public office that didn't work out, and for the past few decades, he's worked on a revolutionary keyboard layout that has been slow to catch on.

I've often wondered why my dad worked so hard, investing precious time and money on each of those projects when they were out of his expertise and he already had a chosen profession.

Why didn't he just give up when one venture failed, instead of finding another and another? But learning more about my grandparents helps me understand.

My grandmother was a licensed nurse, and my grandfather was a mechanic — he repaired typewriters, which ultimately inspired my father's lifelong passion for keyboard layouts. But they also had side projects, rental properties and investments — some of which were unusual.

For instance, a man once persuaded my grandparents to start a chinchilla farm in their basement, with the idea that they could harvest and sell the fur. My grandparents bought the animals, special cages to keep them in and expensive food to feed them.

After one of the animals died from the summer heat, they cooled the critters with a brand-new window air conditioner — the only one in the house.

Eventually, another chinchilla died from eating a calendar hanging on the wall near the cage and the rest failed to breed, so Fleeta gave up the business and sold the remaining animals. But in the process, she taught my father a valuable lesson that he has passed on to me: Never be too afraid to try.

And now, as I prepare my children for their world encounters, strange as it is to be the one in charge, I find that I, too, can draw on Fleeta's influence.

"You can do hard things," I will tell my daughter. "Don't be afraid to try."

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer at the Deseret News. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. In this column, she writes about family history and her quest to understand the mysteries of life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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