From Lee Woodruff: “What My Mother-in-Law Taught Me”

Spending the summer in Scotland, I think often of my mother-in-law, Clare. She was a funny, woodrufffamily2bfeisty, kind, loving woman, who immigrated to the U. S. from Scotland shortly before my wife was born. She became a second mother to me after my own died too young.  In the seven years since she left us, I still miss Clare greatly. I am reminded of daily of her here, when I hear the Scottish accent and  the familiar expressions she used (most frequently, to me, “Don’t be daft, laddie!”), and visit her home town, Glasgow.

So I am delighted to post this guest blog by the wonderful Lee Woodruff, who writes eloquently about family and many other issues (check out Lee’s blog here). She beautifully sums up the wisdom she learned from her mother-in-law – it’s really a tribute to mothers-in-law everywhere.

What I Learned from My Mother-in-Law, by Lee Woodruff

These are some of the things I know to be true about my mother-in law:

  • She believed without a doubt that her four sons were perfect.  And even if they weren’t, she never said otherwise in public.
  • She taught me to set up the coffee maker in the evening so all you had to do was push a button in the morning.
  • The definition of a 1950’s era lady, she wore her Revlon Moonrise Pink lipstick at all times.  Like most of us, she was never fully satisfied with her hairdo.
  • Her signature saying, “It only takes a minute,” applied as equally to doing four loads of laundry or whipping up a steak dinner, as it did to driving from Detroit to New York to visit her grandchildren.
  • It was her personal philosophy to never say a bad word publically about other people.
  • Homemade chocolate chip cookies were her calling card.  They had verifiable magic powers to change the course of an illness, heal a broken heart, brighten up a new home, refresh a friendship, thank people, wish a Merry Christmas or just simply say “hi.”  To know Frannie Woodruff was to have eaten one of her ultra thin and crispy chocolate chips, the secret of which she liberally shared — extra butter and cake flour.
  • She was an early convert to “transition” glasses, which meant her Jackie-O size  lenses were usually a shade of dark purple, even when indoors.  Although her sons teased her, I now realize it was a clever way to have “eyes in the back of her head.”
  • No matter what she ordered at a restaurant (usually Fettuccine Alfredo), when it came, 90% of the time, before she even tasted it, she remarked that she should have ordered what we did.
  • I’ve tried to imagine all the places she went in the pairs of white and black formal gloves that she gave to my daughters for dress-up, including one elegant opera length kid leather pair smelling faintly of smoke.
  • She knew bank tellers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, hairdressers, T.J. Maxx employees and just about everyone else by their first names.
  • Raising four boys in the 70’s who played every sport imaginable, she inexplicably cooked only one package of frozen corn at dinner, causing them to develop a lifelong habit of eating too fast.
  • She knew the names of every one of our neighbors in all of the cities we ever lived and kept up with some of them—adding them to her Christmas card list– long after we’d moved.
  • She worshipped butter, whole milk, and cream sauces.  Her sister Lynnie bought a framed poster of a stick of butter and Frannie coveted it so much that she dragged Lynn to every Homegoods store in the greater Detroit metro area looking for its duplicate.  In the end—they agreed to share it.
  • She could not have told you what NPR stood for and did not listen to it.
  • She danced the Charleston like she had rubber bands for legs and enthusiastically taught my children how.
  • She was an avid reader of mass-market fiction.  We both shared a secret love of Sidney Sheldon.
  • Bob and I moved to nine places in 25 years of marriage (seven were domestic) and she was physically there for all seven.   In each house she would unfailing set up the kitchen (my version of plunging toilets after an intestinal virus) and unpack boxes with me from dawn until long after the kids went to bed.  I always gave up first.
  • She was such an enthusiastic and regular patron of TJ Maxx and Marshalls that on her 70thbirthday, her local store had a nametag made for her.
  • She never spent a second worrying that she needed to fulfill herself, find her passion or broaden her horizons, and she could not have accurately defined the word “feminist.”  She was 100% happy being a wife, mother and the “World’s Best Grandma,” although she never would have worn the T-shirt out of the house.
  • Never once in my presence was she able to work the TV controller, program the VCR or operate the cable box.  She did, however, have a grasp on the volume button.
  • She set a gold standard, real life example of the word “devotion.”  Watching her move through the world, I learned many important things that go into the secret sauce of being a wife, mother and good girlfriend —  not just in the placid times, but when the going gets choppy.
  • She taught me you could drive a car with your left leg up on the console, a coffee cup balanced on the dashboard and the seat belt alarm circumvented by clever buckling.
  • She was the oldest sister of three girls (like me) and two brothers.  Watching her interact with her siblings was my preview for how that bond would further strengthen, long after the kids are grown and flown.
  • The famous story of Frannie — one Pappagallo shoe on the flank of their black lab as she extruded a long stream of black plastic garbage bag out of the dog’s butt (he had escaped and eaten a neighbor’s garbage AND the bag)  — became an iconic metaphor in our house for some event, issue or what-have-you that just won’t end.
  • Her cornflower blue eyes and signature dark “Dawson” brows and lashes were passed on to her lucky, lucky boys. (Why is it always the boys who get this gene?)
  • She was fortunate enough to die exactly the way she would have wanted — in her own home, in her own bed, surrounded by her devoted husband and her beloved boys, and the repeated assurances (not that she needed them) that she was the most loved, most wonderful Mom in the world.  And she was.

Rest in Peace Frances Dawson Woodruff – 1933 — 2013

Follow Lee Woodruff on Twitter: @LeeMWoodruff

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Lesson for Parenting Adult Children: Be Careful about Giving Advice

One thing we often forget is that parents and children spend the majority of their livesadult children together after the kids become adults! The elders in the Legacy Project had very useful advice for negotiating relationships between parents and their adult children. Two elders share their lessons for negotiating this very important, but sometimes touchy, relationship.

Marv, 83, successfully raised two children. He points out that all the stress of child-rearing doesn’t end when they become adults:

I think to a certain extent your offspring are always children. One always wants one’s children to be happy, and I suppose it’s the most disturbing thing for parents is when they can’t see happiness in their adult children’s lives or their children’s relationships or  in their marriages.You worry about aspects of their interactions with their partners and when you can see that the way they’re interacting is not productive. You worry about your children. When they’re adults, you worry about as much when they’re adults as when they were not adults.

Of course, one outgrowth of this worry is the desire to give advice. Charles recommends that it it possible to advise children, but that the approach must be subtle.

I think giving advice requires great subtlety. Well, your adult children sometimes ask you for advice, and sometimes it becomes clear that they are not looking for advice, they’re simply looking for understanding of their points of view. So I think it’s easy for children to misinterpret your real feelings about them, and feel more pressure than one thinks they should be feeling. It’s up to the parent to be subtle enough that you are able to refrain from expressing your attitudes, so that the child feels intruded upon, or that you are judging.

Renata, 79, focused on accepting adult children as they are:

With our kids now, there’s good feeling, good relationship. You keep your mouth shut. We made out mistakes, we let them make their mistakes. But I don’t give advice unless they really ask for it. . I feel I can say most anything I want, except I would not interfere with them, even though I see something that I think should be done differently, I wouldn’t express it.

I think some parents expect too much of their kids. I think you have to accept what your kids are willing to do for you and not complain because they don’t do more for you. I think you just have to sort of give them freedom to live their lives knowing that they’re there if you need them and they know you’re there if they need you. So I think you have to stand back.

Any advice for getting along with your adult children? What’s worked for you?

Different New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans

Are you tired of New Year’s resolutions lists by now? I am pretty much satiated with blogs and media telling me how to lose weight, start exercising, get rich, etc., in 2014. And I recall reading that only a tiny fraction of New Year’s resolutions are ever acted upon. Is there a better source of wisdom for the new year? I think there is.

I reviewed the data we gathered from more than 1,200 elders in the Legacy Project, who shared their lessons for living for future generations. Based on the surveys and interviews, here are  resolutions in five areas of life that are worth a try. These suggestions from the oldest Americans may serve you better than the typical ones we make (and break) each year.

Work. “Ask yourself: Are you glad to get up in the morning?” When it comes to your job, the elders propose a diagnostic test: How do you feel when you get up on a workday morning? You may be ambivalent about your job and have your ups and downs. But when it comes down to it, how do you feel when you are having that first cup of coffee?

Are you at least in a tolerable mood, looking forward to something about work? If instead you feel dread and foot-dragging, the elders say it may be time for a change. As Albert, 80, put it: “It’s a long day if you don’t like what you’re doing. You better get another job because there’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.”

Marriage. “Let your partner have his or her say.” From marriages lasting 40, 50, 60 or more years, the elders find that deliberately showing your partner that you are listening is a major way to defuse conflict. Natalie, 89, told me: “I learned that when you’re communicating, to really listen to what the other person is saying. When I got married, instead of listening to my husband, I would be thinking what to say in reply, to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.”

April, 70, offered a specific technique: “If we were in some sort of struggle over something we would stop and say: ‘Which one of us is this more important to?’ And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go.”

Child-rearing. “Abandon perfection.” The elders we surveyed raised over 3,000 children, and from that experience they had a clear lesson: Resist the temptation to seek perfection, both in your kids and in your parenting. We logically recognize the futility of creating perfect children, but emotionally we often hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. The elders, in contrast, are the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit that each of their kids experienced difficulty, a period of unhappiness, a wrong turn. They suggest we lighten up regarding our children and assume that failure is inevitable at times. Gertrude, 76, said: “We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way.”

Aging. “Accept it.” Unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter over the past decade, you’ve seen the barrage of advertising for “anti-aging medicine.” There’s a whole subculture of practitioners promising to defeat the aging process. To this the elders say: Forget about it! Instead, they encourage you to accept the aging process and to adapt activities to your changing physical abilities and circumstances. The very active Clayton, 81, noted: “You kind of grow into it. You realize that if you can’t be running this fast, well, you just go slower, but you keep on running. Do what you’re able to do and accept that there might be some limitations.” And don’t waste a penny on “anti-aging” products.

Regrets. “Go easy on yourself.” I recently was asked to do a post for CNN on the topic of how to avoid having regrets later in life. The elders do in fact have some good suggestions on that topic. But there’s another point they make: The goal of living a regret-free life is unrealistic. Their recommendation: Go easy on yourself regarding the mistakes and bad choices you have made. Alice, 85, pointed out: “What I have learned from the mistakes that I’ve made is that you can’t change what’s happened in the past. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. Once a decision is made, you don’t get anywhere by looking back and second-guessing it. As somebody taught me years ago: “if you’ve bought a pair of shoes, don’t look at the shoes in the next store window!”

And a last resolution: don’t forget to seek advice from elders you know. They have practical tips for living a more fulfilling life. Happy New Year!

With Children, It’s All About Time

Many of the elders believe that when it comes to child-rearing, there’s one thing your kids want more than anything else: your time. Paul, 80, when asked about the key to successful child-rearing fully endorsed the idea that time spent together is the most important thing. Ultimately, the lesson came from his daughter:

Pay attention to your kids and read to them and be with them and help them grow up and I don’t think you do that from afar. I always read to my daughter when she was growing up and my parents always read to me. It’s a marvelous way to interact with them because they really appreciate it and they’ll tell you years later. That’s one of the things you do.

 Tragically, Paul’s daughter became ill with cancer in her fifties, and after a long battle, died. She let him know how important the time spent together was:

 The other thing I remember, when my daughter was so ill, she said, “You know, the one thing I always appreciated from you and mom was that you attended my events, my high school games, my band performances, all those kinds of things.” You don’t get that when they’re in their teens. When they get to be about 30, they say that was good, that was good for me to have you there. She was in the marching band and we always went to those things. Well I’ll say this, following a marching band and a football team around – I think that’s what you do with your kids, you have to be with them. They’re a project you have to do. Hopefully you teach them some of the principles you believe in.

The Secrets of Communicating with Adult Children

Many of the elders had one piece of advice about getting along with one’s adult children: Don’t interfere in their lives, and wait for them to come to you for advice. But what when they do ask your opinion, what are some good ways to communicate?

Tom, 82, has warm and supportive relationships with his three middle-aged sons. He recognizes that sometimes one is called upon to give advice to adult children; indeed, they ask for it. A problem, of course, is that parents are naturally invested in their children, and it is difficult for them to step outside of their own needs to objectively evaluate the choices their child must make.

Tom’s advice: Take the “I” out of the conversation:

Yeah, the big advice is always be open minded. Forget the business of ‘I’ centered and put the focus on ‘you’ centered. The son that you’re talking to and who has issues that he wants to discuss and forget the ‘I’, or at least put the I in the background so that at least he understands that he’s getting the benefit of your wisdom. You, who can govern how much ‘I’ to project, can inject information or guidance when it’s appropriate, not to dominate the conversation but to augment what the son wants to say. I think it’s a delicate balance of diplomacy among family members. I’ve not always done well.

Grace, 75, found that her enjoyment of her children increased as they grew older and became adults; it was the “pay-off” for more difficult earlier years.

I think by the time my kids were a little bit older and they were able to accept their parents for who they were, as I was with my mother, then it was great. I have enjoyed my children as adults so much, so, so much, and it’s something no one ever said to me. They always would say when the kids were young, “Oh, these are the wonderful years, these are the best years.” They were lovely years, but there is something just as lovely or more lovely when they are adults and you could talk to them as another human being. To know your children as adults is great.

She shares her thoughts with her kids, but accepts that her advice may be turned aside.

Well, there again, I think – don’t be too critical. In fact, don’t be critical at all. Accept them, accept what they’re doing. But I for example just wrote my daughter giving her some financial advice, and said, “I’m giving this to you with love not with criticism,” because she just does such stupid things financially. So – and she will read it, and maybe she’ll do it and maybe she won’t, but I’m perfectly willing to accept it that way.

"Children Who Break Your Heart": A Reader Asks for Your Advice

At the Legacy Project, we’ve asked over 1200 of the oldest and wisest Americans for their advice about how to solve life’s problems. In this post we ask: How do you deal with children who break your heart? For advice on this topic and much more, see the bestselling book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

In an earlier post, one of the Legacy Project elders shared her mixed feelings about having children. Loraine,89 , talked about accepting both the joy and the pain children can bring. She stated: “If you don’t have children now, when you have them you will have these moments.  When you look at them and your heart – it’s like your heart takes all the pain and all the love for them that you have.”

We just received a comment on that post from one of our readers, who would like your advice:

What about when your children are disappointments? I would like to hear how parents handle situations when their most loved children are cause for a broken heart? Comments please!

We asked some experts for their advice, which you can find here.

Can you help? Does anyone have advice for overcoming the heartbreak children can sometimes cause? Please share your comments!

Accepting Our Mixed Feelings about Children – Loraine’s Lesson

Loraine Bauer, 89, was married at age 15 and had three children before she was twenty.

I was much too young because it meant that I was not a very good mother.  You know you love them and you do the best you can, but I didn’t know about being a mother.  I never even held a baby until I held my first baby.  And contrary to what most people would think, I was not pregnant when I was married.  She wasn’t born until fourteen months after we had this marriage.  But that was much too young, even though I married a good person.  He was to the best of his ability a kind and loving husband and father but we wound up divorced when the kids were still little.

You know they’re beautiful children, beautiful physically.  They have also grown into beautiful people.  And I guess hell, they must have gotten that from somewhere, wouldn’t you think?  I must have done something right.  One thing is that I would design and make beautiful clothes.  And even for my little son. 

And I remember one day – you probably have events that for no particular reason memories that staywith you. Well, maybe you don’t.  Maybe you’re not old enough, I don’t know, to have all that many memories.  But I remember one Saturday afternoon. 

We lived way away from any grocery stores or anything like that.  My husband would hitch up the mule and buggy and drive two miles to pick up the week’s supply of groceries.  And I remember one day he was taking our little son with him who must have been about two years old.  And I had made him this lovely little white shirt and a little pair of short brown pants with suspenders that buttoned over him.  And he was sitting there on the wagon seat beside his father. 

 If you don’t have children, when you have them you will have these moments.  When you look at them and your heart – it’s like your heart takes all the pain and all the love for them that you have because he looked so beautiful sitting there beside Daddy.

A “Magic Bullet” for Fathering? Here’s a Tip from the Elders

Amid the gifts and Father’s Day festivities, an undercurrent of confusion can be detected. As a dad for 30 years, I know that figuring out what constitutes “good fathering” can be something of a challenge. We live in a society of rapidly shifting roles and responsibilities, and many fathers (and mothers, of course) are looking for what makes parenting really “work.”

So what if, out of the enormous muddle of child-rearing advice, there was something close to a “magic bullet?” What if there was one course of action you could take to create life-long, loving relationships with your children, serve as an “early warning system” for problems your kids are having, and lead to positive relationships throughout life?

In our interviews with over 1,200 of the oldest Americans for the book on the Legacy Project, we asked them in detail for their advice about parenting. I think they qualify as experts, given that they have raised a total of nearly 4,000 children. In our hectic and driven society, parents look endlessly for programs, gimmicks and therapies to improve their relationships with children. But what do the elders say?

According to them, there is one key to successful parenting: Spend more time with your children. And if necessary, sacrifice to do it. The elders tell us that there is one great contribution to lifelong closeness for which there is no substitute: Your time.

In their opinion, your kids don’t want your money (or what your money buys) anywhere near as much as they want you. Specifically, they want you, with them. Parents who work double-shifts to keep the family afloat may have no choice. But if you and your spouse work 70-hour weeks to buy consumer goods and take lavish vacations, they say you are misusing your time. Even if it means doing with less, America’s elders tell you that what you will regret at their age is not spending time with your children. And it’s what your children will regret, too.

They also told me that the activity you and your kid engage in is not particularly important: It’s the shared time. In off moments during whatever the activity may be, there’s time to talk, to share confidences, to connect. And in those activities, the miracle of real communication sometimes occurs.

I remember an essay by former treasury secretary Robert Reich about his sons. He used the analogy of a clam to emphasize that to really know our children we need to be there at exactly the right moment. Our kids are often closed up tightly like clamshells, hard on the outside but with a soft and vulnerable interior. Suddenly and unexpectedly, however, they will decide to open up, and if you’re not there, Reich says, “you might as well be on the moon.”

This is why time spent together is so critically important. No scheduling of “quality time” (whatever that is) has you there at the precise moment when Matthew decides to tell you that what is really putting him in such a bad mood is the English teacher who just hates him, or when Allison will reveal that yes, there is this one boy in her Spanish class…

Clayton Greenough, 79, has very close relationships with his son and daughter, both of whom settled nearby as adults. When asked for his lessons for child-rearing, he reflected on the importance of going along with children’s interests, making them shared activities.

Maybe it’s maybe an old fashioned way of speaking, but I feel that it’s pretty important to stick with them. I know when my son was about 12 or so, he was fascinated by anything with an engine on it, even with lawn mowing. Generally I tried to go along with him. With lawn mowing, for instance, I finally said “okay, you can push it” but I stayed with him and worked with him for a while.When he was a sophomore in high school, I started putting up a shed in our back yard. And he had just gotten into a carpenter shop at high school at the time. I had him help me there, and before I knew it, I’d come home from work and he was sitting out there with a tool box waiting to go ahead with some work. And ultimately this led him down a road where he actually saw the need for measuring and things like that, and started to recognize that there is some value to arithmetic and mathematics.

And he eventually wound up being a mechanical designer. Now if I hadn’t been available to him at that time, I’m not sure what course he might have taken. So many of things that he’s doing now were initiated because we spent time together. I think the fact that there was somebody who was there and interested in what he was interested in.

 Interestingly, the elders often highlighted time shared in mundane daily activities and interactions, rather than memorable “special occasions.” Their message is to involve your children routinely in your activities, and this requires your physical presence for large blocks of time.

Larry Handley, 84, described how important such experiences were for his children:

When they get old enough to kind of help you around, you know, let them help doing things or cleaning. Maybe you’re out digging in the garden or something, or whatever, to share in the chores around the house or the yard. Helping either the mother or the father, doing things that are not always that easy or pleasant, but you know, to get it done. So, these are things that you don’t realize but they do come along for their whole life, they can enjoy those things and you can too.

Time spent with children is critical for another reason: It serves as a key “early warning” system for emerging problems. Betsey Glynn, 78, has two children, a son and a daughter. She was able to head off problems in their lives because she was right there with them:

It’s so important, while your kids are growing up, to be with them and support them. Because otherwise you don’t really have a clue what their direction is, what they like and don’t like and what they want to give their time to and what they’re doing with it. This way we not only went to their games or concerts, but we met the other kids on the team or in the band or whatever it was. Otherwise they would have gone off and who knows who they would have associated with?Let me tell you, if your kids have a concert or a game, you should put aside whatever it is — if the house needs fixing up or the laundry needs doing, it’ll wait. It’s more important to devote your time to whatever they’re interested in. Otherwise you’re going to lose them. They’ll become strangers.

So to those of us getting ready to be acknowledged on Father’s Day, America’s elders bring home three key points. First, it’s your time that kids want and they will look back on the hours together with fondness and nostalgia. The elders remember this from their own families — indeed, it is the source of most of their pleasant memories about childhood. Second, what counts the most are shared activities — time spent in hobbies, sports, camping, hunting, and fishing (it’s extraordinary how many older men cherish hunting or fishing trips with their fathers), and in seeking out a new interest together. Third, the elders agree that we should be willing to sacrifice to have that kind of time. If you are going to have kids, they say, it’s worth it to live on less to be able to be with them.