Lesson Never Learned

The Stones warned you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you never find what you need.

By Elizabeth Cutright

During the first year of our new lives in a small town, my family and I participated in a local fundraiser for the construction of a community pool.  I don’t remember too many specifics…I’m sure there were bake sales and raffles and door-to-door subscription efforts.  I do have clear memories of the day my cousin, and I participated in a community effort the town christened, “Clean Up Cayucos.”

Resplendent in our work clothes (lots of corduroy and terry cloth…don’t judge, it was the late 70s!), hair in braids and sneakers laced up tight, we jumped in the back of a pickup truck and joined about 100 other townspeople as we drove up and down city streets collected trash and scraps.  I didn’t question how this effort was actually raising money for the new pool, and looking back I am still more than a little confused as to the connection between the two, but I can still clearly hear the chanting voices as we raced up and down those small-town streets.

“Clean up CayUcos…Clean up CayUcos,” over and over again we cried as the trash bags overflowed and we pocketed small treasures collected along the way.

Months later, the community pool was complete and ready for its debut.  As you can imagine, the whole town was caught up in opening day excitement.  Admission would be free!  The forecast called for sunny skies!  There would be free ice cream!

Now, I lived in a slightly remote location at the time.  An easy bike ride to all the action, but still too young to be allowed to venture out on my own and so I was dependent on my parents for transportation.  Starting a new business is never easy, especially when you have little experience.  And so that first summer in our new town, my parents sweated and slaved away at their new venture – a 12 unit motel a block from the ocean and across the highway from the cemetery.  There was little time for elaborate family dinners or long afternoons in the park, or even short car trips to the center of town.

But I wasn’t worried.  My cousins had promised to come pick me up.  At least…that’s how I remember it.

This was during those dark ages before cell phones (or even ubiquitous answering machines), and so, when they failed to show up at 10 am, I had little recourse but to call their home.

No answer.

My mother assured me they’d arrive shortly to whisk me away to the “event of the summer.”

Ten minutes later I called again.  And ten minutes after that.  Then the whining began.  I begged my mother to drop me off, but she was so very sure that they were on their way (our family cultivates tardiness the way some people cultivate award-winning roses), she kept stalling….there was just too much work to be done to prepare for the evening guests.

I called some more.  I swallowed some tears and kept trying, watching desperately as the sun slid past the high noon mark and started its slow, heavy, ponderously inevitable descent.

1 pm…still no-shows, and at this point I could see my mother was worried.  Lunch sat untouched (how could I settle for a tuna sandwich when soft-serve vanilla was calling my name?).  I gritted my teeth and willed myself to be patient.  To have faith.

They would come…they would come….they would come.

I kept repeating that mantra, to the point where it morphed into a command. An invocation. A desperate prayer.

They never came.

Long past despondency.  Long past the tears and the bitter disappointment.  Long past the time the idea of going to the pool even seemed remotely possible, the phone rang.

On the other end, my cousin.  Without preamble, she recounted her blissful day, describing the glory of the free ice cream (she even managed seconds!), reveling in her new bathing suit (a Mickey Mouse one-piece that was heartily and unabashedly admired by all our little pre-teen friends), and happily recounting all the high jinks and tomfoolery.

A glorious time was had by all.

I don’t know how I choked out my response.  Can’t remember if I phrased it as a question or an accusation.  I know I asked why they’d failed to pick me up.

“We thought your mom was going to drop you off.  Why didn’t she?”

And there it was.  A miscommunication that left a little girl reeling with disappointment.  An honest mistake.

The fact that I’m recounting this tale demonstrates how deeply it is etched in my psyche.  I wish I could say I’d learned the lesson, though I’m still not quite sure what that lesson might be.  I understand the need to temper expectation.  I am painfully familiar with the rule of unintended consequences.  And I know sometimes things just can’t be helped.

But I’ve never mastered patience in the face of something I really, really want. I can spend days gripped with anticipation.  I will while away hours daydreaming about what may come to pass.  I will plan and plot and contrive to make it all go my way.

And when…as is sometimes the case…things just can’t be helped, I’m thrown right back to childhood and that little pig-tailed girl who waited all day for a ride to the pool.

Cover photo by Eduardo Merille via Flickr

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