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Thought Spot: Better Than We Can Imagine

December 1st, 2011

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

                                            — Eleanor Roosevelt

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

                                            — Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


I’m seven years old and I’m sitting on the stairs watching the departure below.

My grandmother is here to babysit while my parents go out for the evening.

As usual on these occasions, my brothers and sisters and I were given an early supper, changed into our pajamas and sent upstairs to our rooms with that most impossible of childhood encouragements – “play quietly.” I slip away from the soon-to-be boisterous board game, my red velveteen slippers padding softly onto the stairway. 

Five steps down to where the risers curve toward the second floor. With my forehead pressed against the wooden coolness of the banister, each hand gripping a railing, I settle onto the step to observe my parents. Especially my mother. 

 Most days she is dressed like other mothers in sensible skirts and sensible blouses and sensible shoes.  Dressed up for an evening out, she is transformed.

With her wavy jet-black hair and milky skin she could have been the model for Snow White. I am awestruck by her aurora borealis necklace, the swish of her dress wafting Chanel Number 5 up the stairway, the luxurious click of her satiny high heels on the hardwood floor. 

After they leave I sneak into my parent’s bedroom to my mother’s closet. I take in the scent of Chanel and survey what I think of as my mother’s princess clothes, so different from the ones she wears at home or to parent-teacher meetings at school. The aquamarine silk dress one of my uncles had made for her in Hong Kong. The russet mouton fur that was her 21st birthday present. A coat worthy of Snow White herself: a long, graceful sweep of black velvet lined with muted gold silk. 

As quietly as I can, I drag the chair from the writing desk over to the closet and with my new-found height  I lift the velvet coat off its padded hanger and drape it over my seersucker pajamas. Cautiously, I hold my breath as I open the jewelry box and find my favorite necklace – a string of intricately carved oblong ivory beads. They were a gift from my father before my parents were married, when my father was assigned to Trinidad.  I do not know where Trinidad is, but the name conjures up an exotic place with people I imagine wearing favorite clothes and beads like my mother’s.  

Not long ago I came home at dusk to find one of my sister’s favorite things sitting on the front steps. It was a package wrapped in brown paper – and yes, tied with a string. Even if I hadn’t recognized the perfectly symmetrical script on the address label, I would have known who sent it. 

Like Shakespeare’s mastery of the play within a play, my sister’s signature mailing is the box within a box, with instructions crisp as frost. I release the brown paper from its tape confines on the kitchen table to uncover a shoebox. A star-shaped post-it note is affixed to it, like a note to Alice on a cake or bottle in Wonderland. This one reads: The good news is, it’s not a pair of shoes.

Nestled between meticulously crushed tissue paper is a small box lined with fluffy cotton, and in the cotton a necklace that even now gives off a distant hint of Chanel Number 5. For a moment I am seven years old again, enveloped in rich folds of black velvet, the word Trinidad as delicious as chocolate on my tongue.

 The ivory beads. My sister has found them, string frayed and clasp broken, in the recesses of my mother’s hope chest. They are now interspersed with gold spacers and restrung with a modern clasp. The beads are back, reinvented and reinterpreted. My sister has made them even better than I remember, better than I had imagined they could be. 

Like us, in Rotary. We also are in the process of reinventing ourselves, of adding to and letting go, creating space for what enables Rotary to serve its purpose into the future. 

I don’t know if the past was as I remember or imagined it as a child. I don’t actually know if the velvet coat I coveted was as sumptuous as it seemed at the time. I do know that my mother’s great grandchildren will see these beads differently from the seven-year-old who carefully fingered them decades ago. And that exotic places like Trinidad or Malawi, as well as the outskirts or inner cores of our own communities, have needs that Rotary can serve even better than we can imagine. 

Opening ourselves to reinvention can breathe new life into our clubs, our communities and our commitment to service above self. It also takes us into unknown territory. We can risk becoming spectators sitting on the stairs. Or we can reinvent ourselves, embracing the unknowns that come with it, and step out into our future.


PDG Elizabeth