“We can’t have nice things.” It was a joke we shared, my husband and I, when the kids were little, that presence of anything in our home more valuable than a piece of newspaper guaranteed its destruction. The crystal lamp the new kitten knocked over long before we even had children, the shredded pages of the art and photography coffee table books, a mismatched collection of broken dishes, the collection of treasured VHS and cassette tapes that the toddler daughter found and gleefully unwound— the list goes on and on.
Now, with a household comprised of nearly grown children and the third generation of family pets still making their assorted messes, we laugh about it. We can’t remember how it started: was it something one of our mothers said? Or maybe a line from a movie? Its derivation would be interesting in a scholarly sense, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. It has allowed us through the years to maintain a certain equanimity about life and its inevitable mishaps. The value of any particular item can never match the life and joy of the family and friends we love.
All of this to say, I wonder about the values we hold and how they have been shaped. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, we were taught to value material items—the Polo shirts, designer jeans and purses— the label said it all. Most families had a family room and a separate living room, a place reserved for guests and filled with items meant to impress. The “nice” furniture, my grandmother always called it. Going out to dinner or to church on Sunday required “nice” clothes. We were expected to get not just a job, but a “nice” job—impressive, well-paying, prestigious.
My children haven’t been raised to be nice, at least not in the traditional sense. When they were little, all the toys and crayons and Play-Doh lived out in the open, the walls covered with their drawings and Lego sculptures left out on the floor where they had been created. I don’t remember deliberately making that choice, but somehow it worked. The idea of “nice” things faded into a joke, a way to inject humor into the uncontrolled world of raising three small people.
But rather than using “nice” things to impress, maybe it was more about showing respect. When my grandmother pulled out the china at the holidays or made us dress for dinner, maybe it wasn’t about flaunting the value of her dishes or clothing at all, but instead a way of acknowledging the importance of the people sharing the meal. And in that way, I can agree. Maybe we do need nice after all.
With the state of our world, now, more than ever, we need to focus on nice. Not on things, not on the acquisition of things or how they affect others. But if my grandmother had it right, being nice is about finding a way to show respect for others. And that is certainly something we all need right now.
Our children have grown up in a world that needs them to be nice. I still have the chipped crystal lamp and our cat naps in a cardboard box castle in the living room, and I’m ok with that, because I know now that nice resonates with new meaning. Respect and kindness to others is the only way to move forward, and as our kids grow up and go out and find their way, I hope that they will find ways to make it a nicer place for all of us.
Maybe it’s not so bad to be nice.
Catherine Gentry is a writer living in Houston, Texas. She retired from practicing law to raise her three nearly grown children, and her writing has been featured online at Literary Mama, Grown & Flown, the “Voices” section of the Princeton Alumni magazine, and in the Houston Chronicle, as well as on her blog, “Words Count” https://catherinewordscount.wordpress.com/featured-writing/