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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Mottos are like family heirlooms, part of family heritage

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

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I never liked bedtime when I was a kid.

I didn’t like stopping what I was doing. I didn’t like going to my room where it was quiet and lonely and dark, and I didn’t like lying there, waiting to fall asleep.

All of the kids in our house went to bed at the same time — usually while the summer sun was still wide awake — but I felt like I was going to miss out on something if I went to bed. (What I wouldn’t give to go back to my 5-year-old self and do nothing but sleep until I turned 25.)

I did my best to drag bedtime out.

“I love you,” my parents would say as they tried to leave the room.

“I love you more,” I countered.

And we went back and forth, volleying who loved whom more. I was trying to gain time, but I earnestly meant what I said — I thought, if I loved them so much, how could they possibly love me more?

It became ingrained in me, this saying, lining right up with all of the other sayings my parents had, each like bullet points in the summary of my childhood.

“Avoid debt like the plague,” my dad told me over and over when the family finances were strained.

“Look with your eyes and not with your hands,” my mom told me with a vise-like grip on my arm as we entered tempting stores.

“The No. 1 rule is ‘don’t get hurt,’” my dad said when I was old enough to drive.

“You ate it all,” my siblings joked when the last bit of food was taken, no matter how much had already been eaten.

These were their originals. But there were others that I didn’t realize until now were inherited. Some of the sayings I heard as a child were the same sayings my dad heard as a child.

His mother, my grandma Fleeta, died before I had a chance to meet her, but hearing her aphorisms and knowing they were hers brings her one step closer. Most of what I have learned about Fleeta has been paraphrased, except one or two key maxims I’ve mentioned before that had a significant impact on me.

But these sayings, simple and common as they are, are verbatim. I heard my father say, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach” most of the times I didn’t finish my plate, and I imagine how many times Fleeta must have said the same thing to him. How many other mothers said the same thing to their children?

“Don’t let that money burn a hole in your pocket,” my parents said when I wanted to spend my birthday money on something frivolous. Fleeta said that, too — except, I’m guessing, when my dad chose to give a friend a ball of string for a present.

And she had other sayings that she inherited from growing up in the South during the Depression, like, “We were so poor we didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of,” that belie her wry humor. “Kick yourself on through,” she told her sons when things got difficult.

I’ve already started passing on these same sayings to my children, but through the influence of my generation, I find myself adding a few of my own.

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” I tell my children when they rage and demand whatever it is they’re being denied. It doesn’t stop their temper tantrums, but it makes me chuckle, and being able to chuckle in the midst of toddler warfare can be a useful thing when it gets crazy. At the very least, a chuckle is “better than a kick in the pants,” as my husband likes to say.

My parents probably felt a little crazy when I used to stall at bedtime all of those years ago with my “I love you more” trick.

For years, I thought I won our ongoing volley, but the joke is on me.

A few weeks ago, a surprise package with my name on it came in the mail. Inside was a soft, narrow pillow that’s been on my bed ever since as a sweet reminder of all of those exchanges and the parents that sent it to me.

There are three words written on the pillow.

“Love you more.”

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

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