Family life sometimes requires smile therapy

October 24, 1999|By Susan Reimer

I DON'T KNOW about you, but I haven't said anything right in my house for a long time. My opinions are always unsolicited and inevitably unappreciated. No one cares what I think.

But I can't seem to keep my mouth shut, and as a result, I am always in trouble with some member of my family. One harmless little comment from me about, oh, say, a wardrobe choice or a possible college major, and someone gets upset. Sheesh. What a prickly group.

I was complaining to my friend Susan, the flight attendant, about the poor reception my comments get, when she flashed me a smile that would melt the chocolate bar in your pocket.

It was her work smile. Her airline smile. It was practiced and perfect. She could have been smiling at 100,000 complete strangers from atop a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Her smile was revelatory of nothing. "You should do what I do," Susan said, smiling. "I just smile."

My friend Susan can fuss and lecture with the best of them. But, unlike me, she is learning that sometimes it is best to keep your mouth shut around teen-agers. When she can't think of anything nice to say, she just smiles. "It is easy for me," she said. "I do it for a living. You are going to have to work at it."

For a quarter-century, Susan's job has been to smile at all her passengers, including some with enough steel in their hearts to set off a metal detector. She has served passengers who should be crated and shipped with the pets. She has learned what our grandmothers told us, that a smile can turn away wrath.

And she has learned something else I have not. After a certain age -- and your child has reached it if he is taller than you or she is giving you her hand-me-down Steve Madden shoes -- our children will not be talked into anything. Not into eating vegetables, not into wearing a jacket, not into doing their homework.

At this age more than any other, words fail us.

That's why Susan smiles.

If one of them was about to step off the sidewalk of life, you can bet Susan wouldn't be smiling. None of us would.

But if one of them wants to wear that to school, she smiles. If one of them wants to turn in a report that looks like that, she smiles. If someone is irritable and just wants to burn off some energy by picking a fight with her, she smiles.

She absorbs the ill temper of the age, and she allows them to absorb the results of their misjudgments. And she does it with a smile.

Not every time, of course. Those are worry lines, not laugh lines, around the corners of her mouth and eyes.

But she has patiently explained to me, more than once, that it is a nasty trick of nature that requires so many of us to endure one monumental hormone shift as our children endure another. It is unrealistic to expect us to get along swimmingly in this riptide of chemistry -- one flowing while the other ebbing. "Sometimes, the safest thing you can do is smile," Susan says. I'm not sure I can do it. I don't know if I can smile in the face of ill temper or impetuous decisions or fashion heresy. I will probably think of Susan's advice at those critical moments and, instead of smiling, ask my children if they would like a pillow or something to read, inflaming their irritation with more questions.

But Susan is right, I think. After her children pass through the fog of adolescence they will have the memory, not of their mother's carping voice, but of her smile.

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