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Remembering we can choose

Some time ago, Iwas at a ‘memorial party’, celebrating the life of a remarkable woman. I had met her only once, shortly before she died, but I had come away with an impression of someone I would like to have known earlier in her life.

One of the stories about her, recounted by her niece, has stuck in my mind as a delightful example of the choices we have in the face of perceived ‘wrong doing’.

The story

‘I don’t remember exactly how old I was – just that I was young enough to be put to bed for an afternoon nap. On one particular occasion I took my nap in my aunt’s bedroom, whilst other grownups were socialising downstairs. But I soon got bored – and began exploring my aunt’s dressing table. I dipped into face creams and slathered my face with powder and makeup.

Then my attention turned to an enticing pile of shoe boxes, topped by a brand new pair of irresistibly pretty party slippers. I took them out, put them on and pranced around the bedroom.

What I didn’t realise was that I was walking on a wooden floor, and the sound of my footsteps soon attracted the attention of my mother. She flung open the door and was about to erupt into an angry tirade when my aunt appeared.

No angry, reproachful reaction from her. Instead, she laughed. ‘Look at those legs’ she said admiringly before gently but firmly telling me that the shoes were for a very particular party but that I could wear them for five minutes on my next visit.’

What I like about this story is the memory of her aunt that the storyteller holds to this day: firmness, yes, but good humour, tolerance and empathy for the innocent fun.

The outcome, it seems to me, was a strengthening of the relationship between aunt and niece – and, I expect, no repetition of the behaviour. The aunt’s choice left a legacy of trust and connection that endured.

I am reminded of Jane Nelsen’s query (which I can’t quote exactly): Wherever did we get the crazy idea that in order to get children to do something BETTER, we first have to make them feel WORSE?

And the story itself reinforces the awareness that I want to hold on to: namely, that moment by moment, I have a choice about what I say and do.