…considering what you have to work with

Crystal and Bill Waller. October, 1942

My mother told a story about the first time she hosted Thanksgiving dinner in her own home. She’d laid out the china and the crystal and the sterling and the silver gravy boat my grandmother insisted every married woman must have (even when the married woman was going to live near an oil field where the silver would immediately turn black.)

Finished with the table, she indulged in whimsy. She went outside and picked some purple wildflowers she thought particularly unattractive. (“Ugly” was her exact word.) She arranged them and placed them on the table.

When my grandmother arrived, Mother said, “What do you think of my centerpiece?”

My grandmother, missing the humor, replied, “Well, dear, I think you did as well as can be expected, considering what you had to work with.”

That line entered the Waller Book of Familiar Quotations. We used it for every achievement: making pies, mowing the lawn, climbing on top of the house to turn the TV antenna, explaining first semester grades from college: I did as well as can be expected, considering what I have to work with.

I wish my parents could read that story. I wish they could see other things I’ve written. They would laugh at Miss Pinksie Craigo whacking her cane against a chair, and Mr. Archie Parsons using his favorite (marginally) un-blasphemous expletive, and Aunt Lydia…Oh my, I can just imagine them reading about Aunt Lydia.

Some old ladies are worth more than an ode. Some, however, are marked 75% off–too good to resist.

My parents were generous. They gave me language and laughter. I think they would approve of the way I’m using them. They would be pleased to know I’m trying.

If I could ask, I believe they would also grant permission: We gave you words. Use them as you will. No secrets. No holding back.

With such a blessing, a writer doesn’t have to be ruthless or to rob anyone.

She just has to do as well as can be expected, considering what she has to work with.

13 thoughts on “…considering what you have to work with

  1. How blessed you are to have had such a gift given to you by your parents–and to know they would approve. My mother encouraged me to read–introduced me to words, but hated it when I used them. I was always the one with the smart mouth, who only exaggerated or lied. Never did understand that. She would no doubt come back to haunt me if I ever decided to air the family laundry–even in a good light. My girls, on the other hand, love everything about words, always have, and know they have my blessing to write their hearts out!


    1. We weren’t a secretive family. My mother, in particular, believed children should be given “sensitive” information as soon as they were old enough to understand. There was no attempt to cover up or put a positive spin on things to make them look good. I’ve always appreciated that. Things were what they were, and there was no need for pretense.

      As for haunting, could it work the other way? Could putting it all on paper lessen that feeling? Your daughters are fortunate to have you teaching and supporting them.


      1. You may be right! After all, what could happen now? She can’t sue me! 🙂 I grew to intensely dislike secrecy. It’s much more hurtful to learn some family secrets later in life, esp. from someone other than your family. Been there, done that! Our lives, for the most part, are open books to our girls–within reason. Everyone has intimate details they keep private and I think that’s OK.


        1. I think the dividing line is how the thing that isn’t disclosed could affect children if they should hear it from someone outside the circle.

          I’ve read criticism of some writers for not telling all in their memoirs. Eudora Welty, in particular, is criticized for presenting her life in Jackson as placid when she was really conflicted about staying with a demanding mother, etc., and for not telling about a significant romantic attachment. Does she have to tell all? Does she owe her life as well as her work to readers and critics? Or if she plans to withhold, should she not write memoir at all? I’d be happy for someone to clear this up for me, but I don’t know that there’s an answer.


    2. “Does she have to tell all? Does she owe her life as well as her work to readers and critics? Or if she plans to withhold, should she not write memoir at all? I’d be happy for someone to clear this up for me, but I don’t know that there’s an answer.”

      I’d love to see a definitive answer for this as well, but I suspect the boundaries are different for each writer.

      I’ve always thought it was OK to focus on one part of one’s life in a memoir–one thing that differentiates it from autobiography. Now if the omission changes what was actually written–a lie about what’s in a particular memoir–that’s different. What is written should be the truth as best we know it. Otherwise, don’t bring it up.


  2. Your parents look so young and hopeful in that photograph. I love those 1940’s pictures. My family has so many of them. Maybe that’s why I love the WWII period. One of my grandmothers had a standard reply when someone asked her “How are you doing?” Her stock answer was always “As well as can be expected.”
    There was always a bit of mystery, something unspoken, a little sinister, perhaps, in that statement. Like, we are waiting for the other shoe to drop and it won’t be pretty.
    I think I understand why she said that now as I look back. I think it’s the glass half-empty way of looking at things. Or don’t tempt the gods.
    I read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth when I was 13. Quite racy at the time.
    When the lead characters took their baby son somewhere, a person admired him. The mother quickly said something about the child being sickly and puny. She said it loud enough for the gods to hear so they wouldn’t think she was prideful and therefore snatch her little boy away. If he was sickly and puny and worthless, then the gods wouldn’t want him. I read it a long time ago so my memory is a bit vague, but it was something like that. Perhaps my grandmother was afraid of sounding too confident, prideful. If she had said “I’m fine, tip-top, perfect…” who knows what dark force in the universe might swoop down and snatch away her health or her family members?
    I find myself practicing “I’m doing as well as can be expected” when I’m afraid to hope too much, get too prideful about my writing, too wrapped up in the fantasy of hitting the big time. Better to sound a bit meek, discouraged, even negative. Like, who me? This puny little novel? Wealth, fame, massive book signings? I don’t want to tempt the dark forces. Maybe my grandmother was on to something.
    I think “considering what you had to work with” is a statement Pearl Buck would be proud of.


    1. I think that particular comment came from my grandmother’s being torn between wanting to be kind and needing to be honest. She simply couldn’t say those flowers were lovely.

      “As well as can be expected” is a useful phrase. It’s a good preventative against being disappointed when the other shoe does drop. And, as you say, we don’t want to get above ourselves. Keep yourself a little depressed–or pretend to be, which amounts to the same thing–and you won’t have so far to fall. Pride goeth before destruction, we don’t wish to invite that. Women have to be especially careful about that kind of thing.

      How’s the writing going? Oh, all right….I guess….


  3. How interesting. My parents were married in San Antonio in October 1942, immediately following my father’s commissioning ceremony as a Lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps. A wedding was scheduled every fifteen minutes all afternoon in the base chapel. Both mothers were present, but no other family. I’m willing to be that your parents married in similar circumstances.

    My dad is still around, counting down the days until he turns 90. He paid me the ultimate compliment by ordering a copy of my book to send to a friend. Now and then he writes a story himself, and they are always remarkable, so perhaps the gift was there and I didn’t know it.

    Mine didn’t directly give me words, and we had a pile of secrets, but they did give me an appreciation of process, learning, innovation, creativity, and sticking with things until we get them right. Although my original “practice” was fabric arts, the switch to language arts was an easy one.


    1. My parents married October 24, 1942. Mother was living in San Antonio at the time. My father was on his last leave before shipping out to the East Coast. They drove to their almost adjacent hometowns, got a license, asked a friend of her mother’s to accompany them, and were married at the home of the Baptist preacher in San Marcos. The next day, Sunday, they returned to her mother’s house in San Antonio. On Monday, back at work at Fort Sam Houston, Mother typed up a form for change of name and put it in her boss’s in-basket. A few minutes later he called her in and said, Miss Barrow, what is this? She told him she’d married. The next question was, Well, how long have you known him? She allayed his fear that she had made a hasty marriage to some soldier just passing through: Six years. Next question: Where is he? At home, to leave for California at the end of the week. Order: Miss Barrow, go home. She did, he went back to California, discovered his group had already left, caught up with them a couple of states over, and rode a flatcar, guarding armored vehicles, all the way to Pennsylvania.

      You’re fortunate to still have your father, and to have him writing. I have only oral history, dependent on my memory. I haven’t pushed myself as I should to get it down on paper.


      1. I know nothing about the circumstances of my parents’ wedding. I have a photo, but nothing more. I asked for details–was told “What does it matter? It was too long ago”. Nothing could pry the details out of my mother, and my dad would just sit and shake his head. Your stories both touch my heart.


  4. What a fun of memories has been unlocked, Kathy! I come from a family of exhibitionists who log on religiously each day to read about themselves. My mother sat in a restaurant recently offering a loud critique on a post which was, she intoned, fundamentally flawed in one key aspect: it didn’t include herself or her grandchildren. It’s a public life we lead:-)


    1. It’s good to know what’s expected of you, and what makes your readers happy. And with a family of exhibitionists, you’ll never run out of material. I’d never thought about it, but the term exhibitionist fits certain people in my family. My maternal grandmother and her sisters, Southern belles who never left the house without wearing their hats, but were otherwise completely unpredictable. The grandchildren, of course, were supposed to be more restrained.


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