By Kathy Peck-Nestell
How do I fit my arms around something as all encompassing as “attitude”?
Well, being the kind of person I am, I started by looking up the word “attitude.” The definitions I liked best were:
“a settled way of thinking or feeling typically reflected in a person’s behavior”
“a predisposition or tendency to respond positively or negatively to people, ideas or situations”
Being that I was on my I-Pad, I then googled “attitude” and started reading. As I read and meshed the words on the screen with my own approach to life, I was reminded that this all- encompassing thing called “attitude” is really quite simple. Your own definition of attitude determines how you react to everything that happens to you and, consequently, dictates how successful you will be in every aspect of your life.
I don’t know exactly how I came to have the attitude I have, but I suspect it had a lot to do with my dad, a handful of teachers who thought I could do anything, my sister and brother and, in her own way, my mom.
I think every child grows up in an act and re-act kind of way. By that I mean kids have choices. They can either imitate the behavior of their role models or they can react to that behavior. Those who do it right can turn out pretty damn good. Those who haven’t decided by adulthood, need to start today.
There were many things that I reacted to with my mom and dad. They didn’t have jobs that brought in steady income. I do. Never a day went by without my mom nagging my dad. I don’t. Other than Lola, Burla and Pauline, her bowling buddies from early adulthood, Mom didn’t have girlfriends. I do and do and do.
But my parents gave me something far more important. They made me believe that I could do anything I wanted then made me earn it. [Please note that this is with the exception of overcoming my fear of snakes. All animals should have legs. What was God thinking?]
I grew up in the small town of Snohomish, Washington during an era when dogs ran free and kids threw their inner tubes on the back of their bikes to float down the river all day. I started working when I was in 4th grade. I had to pack my own lunch and catch the berry bus at around 6:00 in the morning with my twin friends, Kathy and Karen, to earn money for school clothes. In those days there were no hybrid berries. When strawberry season ended, raspberry season started. Even in those days I competed with the other kids to be the fastest berry picker in the field. This was difficult, because Danny Parker was there and his dad, one of my favorite teachers, was a hard ass row boss. I’m sure Danny felt it more than me and that’s why he was a good picker. Then there were the McKay kids . . . tough competition for the twins and me.
When I got old enough for parents to trust me with their children, I graduated to babysitting. I also flipped burgers; made pizzas; spun cotton candy at the Washington State Fair; went with my brother, Jeff –who I refer to as “Beav” due to his habit of chewing his wooden crib as a baby– to the woods to peel cascara bark which we then sold to the local pharmacist; and, finally worked on the line at the local cannery where I got to pick rotten berries, twigs and, to my dismay, an occasional small snake off the line. [No one likes snakes in their jam.] I remember meeting “lifers” at the cannery and wondering if their parents ever made them feel like they could do other things. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point in my life, I did know that I wanted something other people referred to as a “career.” I wanted to go to college. I wanted to graduate from college. I wanted to be successful at a job other people respected.
I also had chores around the house. My favorite chore was cleaning Dad’s garage and arranging his hammers. Dad was a “body man” in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In those days a “body man” was someone who straightened cars by welding, pounding and using various other tools I can’t name. I would sweep up all the welding shavings; gather all Dad’s odd shaped hammers and arrange them fashionably on a very large table he had made out of scrap iron. I always felt good that I was helping Dad. I also think that this may have been the origins of my love for decorating.
By the time I graduated from college, I had added a host of other jobs to my repertoire . . . I took lecture notes at my beloved WSU [Let me take this opportunity to say that it is highly annoying that my school mascot has become associated with prowling older women. At my age, I can no longer say I’m a cougar for fear of being misunderstood. I have had to train myself to say “I graduated from WSU.” This is not nearly as fun sounding as saying “I’m a Cougar.”]; serving cocktails to inebriated people while dressed in “hot pants” only slightly longer than the dreaded volley ball garb that my daughter, Courtney, had to wear while playing for Sprague High School; and flagging with my friend, Paul, on a Snohomish County road crew with a lot of men who spit chewing tobacco on my boots.
All of the jobs I had in my childhood profoundly shaped my attitude. I met good people and learned to never think of myself as better than anyone else. I also learned to tip well. I developed discipline. I had to get myself to and from work on time while juggling school and a host of other commitments. I learned that other people respect you when you do your job well, no matter what the job is.
By the time I was 16 years old, I understood the only way I was going to get ahead in life was by starting at the bottom rung of the ladder. I wasn’t afraid to do that because I’d been doing it for years. My parents never rescued me from experiencing what I needed to experience. Even after I graduated from law school I didn’t think that I deserved to start anywhere but the bottom. When I accepted my first job as an attorney at an employer’s association I was making only $200/month more than my secretary. But I liked the job and was happy to have the opportunity to show that I was worth more. It was a door opener. Having an open door is all that anyone should expect.
My parents knew I worked hard. They were Depression babies. Dad was a farm boy from Iowa. I do know all the words to “Sioux City Sue.” Swap my horse and dog for you? I also know the words to all the military songs for the army, navy, marines and airforce because I grew up in a family that had a deep respect for veterans. I have tried to pass this along to my children, Seth and Courtney. In the summer of 2000 we visited Normandy. Seth and I are famous for making up acronyms to remember things. While there we made up “Six pigs can be really dirty.” (Six-Squadron/pigs-Platoon/can-Company/be-Battalion/really- Regiment/dirty-Division) If I were queen, all school children would be required to learn all the military songs and memorize this acronym. Dad had seen family members lose their farms. To my knowledge he never buried any money in a tin can, but he was known to stick a few bills in crevices here and there. He also had a lifelong suspicion of banks. But Dad’s family always had healthy food and a decent place to live. Mom’s family was not so lucky.
Grandpa and Grandma Sigurdson emigrated from Northern Iceland through Canada and finally settled in the Snohomish valley. During this journey they had 12 children. After their house burned down in Canada they were forced to give up two of their children to families who could afford to feed them. I will never forget my Aunt Vickie telling us a story about getting a new dress. It was the only new dress she ever got in childhood and she, Christina and Violet were lined up for families to come pick one, then another. Vickie was the oldest and wasn’t selected. We found Violet about five years ago, but never found Christina.
Mom used to talk about the other kids in Central Elementary being jealous of the cheese sandwiches she had in her lunch box. It wasn’t cheese. It was lard.
When Mom was 16 years old she and her friend Gladys ran away from home. They ran all the way to Seattle, which was only about 40 miles away. When they found her, Mom went to live with my Aunt Vickie as a ward of the court. Aunt Vickie made her learn to cook and pushed her to do things she’d never done before.
Mom was also impacted by her visits with her Uncle Ted and Aunts, Lena and Haether. I thought they were pretty old then, but they were only about as old as I am now, so I think I just thought they were old. Aunt Lena and Aunt Haether were cultured. They had tidy homes with overstuffed chairs, nice teeth and wore cologne. Uncle Ted tried to help Mom understand that she could do big things, like be an airline stewardess –a glamorous job in those days, but Mom never stretched her wings. Mom didn’t have a career other than for a short period in the ‘60s after Dad hurt his back and had to give up being a “bumper man” for real estate. Mom followed Dad into that profession and both of them became real estate brokers until Boeing fell. Mom was very smart, but she wasn’t willing to fail. Consequently, she never grew.
The failure of Dad’s bumper business had a very negative impact on Mom. She had a nervous breakdown shortly after this happened and had to be institutionalized for a month. My sister was left to cook, clean and take care of Dad as a sophomore in high school. My brother and I were shipped off to live with Aunt Vickie. Beav was only a third grader. We passed the time by checking out imaginary “hobo” camps along the railroad tracks by Aunt Vickie’s house and learning to snatch eggs from her hens. I don’t think Mom ever fully recovered, much less rebounded from this experience. In the ‘60s psychological disorders were considered shameful and were hidden by families. Mom returned home; life went on as usual and nobody talked about the elephant in the kitchen. From that point on, Mom settled into her own comfort zone, which consisted of living within the confines of her extended family.
Because Mom retreated into her own world, she tended to be naïve about anything happening outside her world. This actually became one of her delightful traits. My son told a story at Mom’s funeral about his attempt to get her to send emails to him while he was attending Willamette University. Since he hadn’t received any emails from her, he checked to see whether she was using the right email address. Mom insisted that she was using the right address and repeated it to him, Seth.Peck@hotmale.com. There is another hilarious story about scrotums that I probably don’t need to go into.
Mom’s failure to try did, however, have a profound impact on my sister, brother and me. We all reacted by going to the top of our chosen professions with a “brick by brick” kind of determination. I can remember how disappointed I was when I was voted “most ambitious” as a high school senior. The year before, and the year before that and going back forever, the winner of that prize was called “most likely to succeed.” I didn’t just want to be ambitious. I wanted to be most likely to succeed. I was a whole lot happier at my 20 year reunion when I was voted “least changed.”
I think Mom was impacted significantly by her childhood poverty. She associated people who had manners with people who had money and wanted her children to at least have what she could give them, -manners. She even made Jan and I walk with books on our head. I’m pretty sure that’s why I wear high heels all the time and still put lipstick and mascara on before I go to the grocery store. I will never forget the night I heard the sewing machine and got up to find my sister, Jan, sewing me a dress to wear to the Snohomish High School Christmas assembly the next day. I had to make a presentation before the student body that only required reading a short verse from the Bible. [Yes, in those days that was done in public schools.] I was terrified . . . even though it wasn’t a passage with old, hard-to-pronounce words there were over 1200 kids in our high school. The dress helped me a lot. Jan was always filling in the gaps Mom couldn’t fill.
During my childhood there were no lard sandwiches, only a wish for a little more. I did grow up in a house where it was a treat to have soda pop, chips and dip when you were watching Bonanza –especially dip made of sour cream and dried onion mix. Attitude is considering chips and onion dip to be a treat.
Dad was a role model for me in very important ways. Whatever he did he did well. I still have pictures of the ‘57 Oldsmobile that he transformed from something resembling a very large metal accordion to a sleek, smooth monster of a car. That car was so big that Dad would fit a board between the cushion and the back of the front seat to make a bed to use when we left for summer vacations on the Washington coast. Jan, Beav and I would all fit into the backseat bed. It didn’t matter that the projects Dad did weren’t of earth shattering importance or even important outside of the confines of our immediate family. All that mattered is that when he did something he did it well.
The other thing about Dad is that he didn’t give up when he was faced with an obstacle. For Dad, obstacles often consisted of “We don’t have that and we need it.” Since he was a product of the Depression, he would make it. There was nothing he couldn’t build, repair or figure out how to do. Well, there was one exception, anything electrical. Mom was afraid Dad would electrocute himself. This fear grew after Grandma Grace paid for him to go to a stop smoking class that involved electrical shocks and got mad when he went back to smoking and wasted the money. Dad didn’t like to waste money, so he rigged up his own follow-up shock treatment until Mom found out and put a stop to it. Dad could, however, work on metal, wood, textiles, plaster frames. By my teenage years he had started making new things, -like wine and jewelry. We had a wonderful 14-foot wooden boat that we used in the Puget Sound area, around Camano and Whidbey Islands for years. One of my favorite “Dad’s ingenuity” memories is when he decided that the Cline family was going to have the freshest damn crab that anyone on the planet had ever tasted. He rigged up a floating metal contraption with burning charcoal and a pot of boiling water floating on a rope behind out boat. That day we did have the freshest crab on the planet. Dad believed in using what you had to make your life as full as possible. To him, people were responsible for their own happiness, no matter what life threw at you.
The last thing about Dad is that he liked people, all kinds of people. He saw the good in everyone. Mom used to get so mad at him for taking an hour to buy two items at the grocery store only a half a mile away. I knew what he was doing, so did Jan and Beav. He was talking to “Brownie” who worked in the Produce Department or anyone else he could corner, probably while sampling grapes or some type of nut. My son, Seth, and I picked up Dad’s gift of gab.
I saw those qualities in Dad and embraced them. They have become part of my attitude. I will always be thankful to my wonderful Dad, “St. John” for what he passed to me. Not everyone can have a St. John, but we can always try to be one.
I have always followed a very simple principle in life. I have passed it on to my children and intend to help pass it on to my two beautiful baby granddaughters, Baby Eli and soon-to-be-born Baby Dirks and all the wonderful grandchildren I inherited when I married my wonderful husband, Tom. Every time you meet someone or do something, you leave an impression and that impression becomes your reputation. As far as obstacles, there have been some pivotal moments in my life when I felt like giving up. During my first year in law school I was so lonely and miserable that I used to go into a building at the undergraduate school and bawl. When I moved from working for an employer’s association to a law firm, I hated billing by the hour. It was so expensive for clients it bothered me. I wanted to go back to that comfortable place where I could crank out good work without making clients pay much for it. I remember having a conversation with my then mother-in-law, Betty, who set me straight in her own wonderfully kind way. There is no bailing in this family. Bawling is fine, but not bailing. Since then I’ve faced complex work projects where I had no idea what I was doing and wondered “How in the hell am I going to do this?” Each time I didn’t give up. Each time I grew as a person. Each time I reflect on those pivotal moments, I’m so thankful that I didn’t give up.
There is nothing quite like the joy of doing something you didn’t think you could do or doing something that you were afraid to do. People who don’t try don’t get to experience the joy of accomplishment. It’s okay to fail. That happens to all of us. It’s how we grow. I’ve had my share of failures. I remember one in particular when I wrongly accused someone of engaging in unethical conduct based on a business record. When I discovered I was wrong, I was haunted. I couldn’t sleep. I had made the wrong conclusion and negatively affected someone’s life. The next day I made a very public retraction. I confessed that I had reached the wrong conclusion, explained why and apologized. It felt good to me and was well received. All of us have tragedies in our lives and things we do well and not so well. When people are gathered at our funerals, they will remember not those failures, tragedies and mistakes, but how we reacted to them.
I thank my parents who died within four months of each other in 2009 for teaching me that when I fall off a horse I need to get right back on and do it all while balancing a book on my head. That is my attitude.
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