Let Inga Tell You: Be grateful, or else



As much as I have always loved the holiday season, it was a little trying during my single mom years when the kids were in elementary school. They were off for two full weeks for winter break but if I took that much vacation time, I’d only have a week left for the rest of the year. Those day camps that entertained them during the summer months were few and far between at Christmas. My limited financial resources had already been wiped out by Christmas anyway.

So the kids did what any two thoroughly-bored hyper-excited-about-Christmas, minimally-supervised-by-ennuied-sitter pre-teen boys would do: they fought. Endlessly. They called my office up to 30 times a day ratting each other out.

It really broke my heart that I couldn’t be home during the week before Christmas, which should have been such a fun family time, so I tried to take off as much time as possible in the week after. But then there’d be all the post-holiday letdown complaints. “We have nothing to play with.” (Seriously???) Or: “We have no one to play with. All our friends are in Aspen or Hawaii” (an actual legitimate beef). Worst of all from their perspective, the deadline for the dreaded thank you notes was Dec. 30, after which all privileges evaporated and they were under room arrest. My older son Rory always pushed that deadline to the absolute 11th-hour limit. It was a contest of wills, but fortunately I was bigger.

One winter break, I instituted a system of making the kids pay each other for name calling which was initially so successful that I expanded the fine system to a list of other family rules. Money talks. The one downside is that it turned my younger son Henry into a full-scale narc. I’d come home from work and Henry would have a complete tabulated list of Rory’s transgressions including the number of times each had been committed and a tally of remittance due. (I should have known then that Henry would end up in business school.)

Actually, the whole time Henry would be reading his list, I kept having a déjà vu to the recitations of Catholic confessionals of my youth, which in my case went something like: “Bless me Father, I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession. I have lied once [a lie in itself], had bad thoughts three times [dream on], and been mean to my sister twice [a total whopper].” Now it was: “Guess what, Mother, Rory has sinned. It has been three minutes since his last transgression. He has called me ‘fart face’ twice, hidden Tecmo Bowl once, and sat on my head three times.”

I recently came across a contract that, totally fed up, I required them to sign during winter break in 1989:

We, the undersigned, do hereby agree to the following:

1) We will not call mom’s office more than twice a day and then only if someone has lost more than a quart of blood (think milk carton) or is not breathing (take pulse before dialing).

2) We will not express boredom, ennui, or disappointment at any time until 7 a.m. Jan. 2, 1990.

3) By Dec. 30, we will send polite, enthusiastic and grateful thank you notes to all persons who have sent us gifts. Said thank you notes will contain a minimum of three complete sentences, will specifically mention the gift, and will state at least two things the giftee liked about the gift regardless of whether the giftee liked anything about the gift.

4) Violations of this contract will result in the violator’s Christmas 1990 gift allocation being donated to a needy, and presumably more grateful, child or children.

Signed, this 20th day of December, 1989 (signature not optional)

In the same file as the contract were some photocopies of some of the thank you notes they wrote. Rory’s were always illustrated.

Dear Uncl Peter and ant lucy — thank you for the telescope. I will use it to hit henry with. love, rory. (Draws picture of himself hitting Henry with telescope and adds: ha ha Not really! I think that was supposed to qualify as the required third sentence.)

Dear aunt elizbeth, thank you for the chemistry set. I like it. I am trying to make a pocion to turn henry into a frog. Love rory

Dear grandpa henry, thank you for the dire straits tape. And the pencil sharpener and the jeepers creepers thing. I like the pencil sharpener so I can sharpen henry’s head. (Draws picture of Henry’s head labeled “before” and a pointy head labeled “after.”)

But… to this day, they both write thank you notes. In a timely fashion! Without being locked in their rooms! It’s good to know I wasn’t a total failure.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her by e-mail at