The ‘Libby’ lessons

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Feature

Libby has been on my mind a lot this week. Those of you who are long-time readers of my columns will recognize the name. Libby is “my stolen daughter,” a name I gave her when she was just a little bit of a thing, a bouncy blonde bundle of talkative energy. Almost 30 years ago, it wasn’t quite so politically incorrect or confusing to call her that. Nor was it anything but funny to introduce her mother, Meg, as “the mother of my daughter.”

Libby and her brother, J, grew up next door to us with her parents, John and Meg. We knew them before we moved into the neighborhood because we shared a day care and a community club, but the deep friendships came when we all became neighbors.

I had two boys, and I missed the “girl” experience, so I wanted to share in the Libby world, and Meg let me tag along. Over the years that included such unique “girl” things like prom dresses and cheerleader tryouts (one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life), Homecoming courts, Dogwood Deb presentations, engagements and weddings. It also included experiences such as a frantic drive to a bird rescuer in Oak Ridge with a towel full of baby birds whose mother had fallen victim to one of my cats and cookie-baking where there was seldom enough dough left to bake.

I called her my daughter until it just got too complicated. When life added a husband and children, Aunt Sherri worked better. When I talk about her to others now, I most often say, “Libby is my God daughter.”

And that she is. I am so conscious of what a special gift from God it is to have the Retingers in my life. The reasons are so many and now include seven incredible children — four from Libby and Chris and three from J and Larryn — that I get to spoil as Aunt Sherri. And in this, Libby’s birthday month, I find myself realizing probably the most important thing that she taught me: how to be a mother-in-law.

When I tell you that our family is skewed male, I’m not kidding. I have one brother, who has one son. Neville has one sister, who has two sons. Those three nephews have a total of four sons. Bows and hair braids just didn’t figure into my parenting and “aunting” world, except for Libby.

From Libby, I learned about girls. I learned the differences in temperament and attitude, the nuances and clues that help a mom navigate through the complicated, emotional mind and feelings of females — especially teenagers and young adults. I learned about mean girls and the venom behind their smiles, “Eddie Haskell” type girls and their clueless parents and sweet, giving, best-friend girls and their true hearts. And I watched her and the family deal with them all.

I also learned to share. In the active parenting days, Neville and I had very little competition for our time and time with our children. My mother was retired and would come to Knoxville easily, and Neville’s parents were in town. It was a small family unit, and even the holidays just seemed to work out. We set plans in motion, and everybody just showed up.

So it was sharing time with Libby and her real family all those years that taught me the importance of respecting each person’s family ties and family traditions. When I was blessed with two daughters-in-law and now with three grandsons, sharing wasn’t a foreign concept. I understand how important it is to be clear about what would make you happy and then to be flexible with what young parents find to be their most valuable and most difficult gift: Time.

Yes, if I could gobble up every minute of free time my children and grandchildren have, I would make like a starving turkey. But the only winner, and it would be a temporary win, would be me. Certainly not the grandchildren who are blessed to have so many people who love them and certainly not their stressed parents who try to keep everyone happy.

Having Libby in my life has enriched it in so many ways that I could write books about this remarkable young woman. Today, however, I am grateful for those backdoor lessons that were unintentionally taught and learned.


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