jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Best Worst Gift Ever

I got it. The absolute best worst gift one could ever hope for on her birthday.


When I opened the box I immediately burst into tears, no pre-game chokey voice here. There was my Aveda Rosemary Mint shampoo and conditioner, the exact shade of Burt’s Bees lip balm I love but which I never buy because I can never remember which shade I love, Godiva truffles and polka dot sleep socks. Who knows you like that? Your childhood besty does, that’s who.

And at the bottom of the box were all the letters I’d sent her throughout the years, most of them from our years apart in college, me in New Haven, CT, and her in Millersville, PA, over half a life-time ago.

The best gift ever.

After receiving the bins of letters from my mother’s first four years of marriage earlier this year, I’d been contemplating how very little I know about myself in my late teens and early twenties. And here I was, writ large, all loopy script on the backs of History of Art notes and goofy Hallmark cards. My besty had revived a piece of me long gone.


My besty and I
March 1992

So that night I sat up late, and I read.

And do you know what? There’s a reason I got rid of those college journals.

I don’t like that me. I like absolutely nothing about the girl who moons over boys, who makes jokes about how little she tries in a German language class that she should be acing (but is whiffing), who actually said to a boyfriend, “Why would you want to study abroad in China when you could stay here in New Haven with me?” Oh my.

I don’t like the girl who can’t stand to go to bed at a regular hour because she’s desperately afraid she’s going to miss something EXCITING but then literally falls asleep in the middle of taking an exam. I mean, she’s funny sometimes, but I don’t like her. There’s not much to admire there.

How was it that I was a girl floating through college without considering that my feet too had weight, that who I would become mattered in the world? Why didn’t I see that I could change the future, that I was an investment in myself?

I prided myself in never missing a class, in joining lots of things. But what I mostly didn’t do, was show up, heart and soul. The world was my oyster; there was every sort of speaker, class, and professor available for ME. The Dalai Lama came to campus, you feeling me? But there I was… tentative me; self-conscious me; a me who was knocked flat off her feet at the slightest breeze, because she chose not to stand, feet firmly rooted. I was a goalie, damn it. I should have known better.

The worst gift ever, right? So I put the letters down and wandered off to bed as my Tuesday birthday ticked into Wednesday. And I’ll tell you that the next day it took quite a few eight minute miles to chase that ghostly girl away, away.

I thought about the best worst gift as I bundled the kids out the door, as I drove and ran, as I rehashed with my Mama-runner besty the shameful idiocy of youth wasted on the young. And as I waited in the carpool line to pick up my son, I flipped from NPR to whatever was playing to clear my brain and find a little inspiration.

I don’t know where I’m going

But, I sure know where I’ve been

Hanging on the promises

In songs of yesterday

An’ I’ve made up my mind,

I ain’t wasting no more time

But, here I go again

I kid you not. Whitesnake. Who even knew you could still find them randomly playing on FM radio?

Tho’ I keep searching for an answer,

I never seem to find what I’m looking for

I sat and thought. I thought about why these letters had gotten me so down. And then I wondered how that girl could have graduated and become someone entirely different.

And it came to me. I remembered my senior year of college, when I quit field hockey and declared myself an art major, I took a writing class called Daily Themes where I wrote every single day, I focused on time with my friends in a way I hadn’t before. I dabbled in dating here and there, but mostly I was single.

What I realized is that it took those throw-away years of not picturing what I could and would grow into besides someone else’s wife, to eventually graduate and become my own person, a person who guided teenage girls in their own search for themselves, who spent evenings alone working through paintings, who read voraciously, researched lesson plans, learned to teach, run marathons, hike in the wilderness for weeks, eventually to find true love and build a family.

It took that horrible, foolish me then to grow into me now. And I forgave her. I wanted to reach back and grab her shoulders and say, “You will become someone, something solid and filled with the world. Start today. Choose your path. You are so much more than you think you are.”


Jennie, 1989
The girl I was.

When I returned home to finally write it all down,  I opened up the best worst gift box and picked up a couple more envelopes. I found a letter written on the back of notes from Myth and Symbol in Indian Art. And amazingly some of it came back to me. Ashokan pillars, Rajput and Rajasthani art, the Great Stupa of Sanchi, and most of all darsan.

Darsan is a complicated ethereal sort of thing that loosely means “sight”, seeing and being seen. There was a religious transformation that occurred not just when the worshipers saw these Hindu deities, but also when the eyes of the statues saw them. When this sight occurred,  from worshiper to deity and back, a mutual affection transpired, an inner knowing. And thus, the artisans creating these sacred entities would paint the eyes last.

Seeing myself and being seen for who I really was at the core, that was the most important thing, and it came last.

Hit it, Whitesnake…

An’ I’ve made up my mind

I ain’t wasting no more time.

10 comments on “The Best Worst Gift Ever

  1. Margie S
    March 5, 2014

    Be kind to yourself – be as gracious as you are to your family, friends and bloggers. That person helped you become the person you are today. I like your final message, YOLO!

    • jgroeber
      March 9, 2014

      You only live once. (I’m such a blogging neophyte I had to look that up in the Urban Dictionary… now that gives 43 a bad name!) But it’s true. And the person I was is still part of me. And I was always in there, too.

  2. Anna Spanos
    March 5, 2014

    Maybe I’m just saying this because I live in a bubble of art school alumni, but I think we ALL went through a transformation like the one you write about here, and I think we’re all in many ways just humiliated and ashamed of those people we used to be. When I think back to the way I viewed myself and the ways I let other people view me back in high school and the beginning of college, I just wish I could go back through time and scream – You’re worth so much more than this!
    I think this may be why I gravitated toward working in higher ed – I get to deal with kids right as they’re on that cusp of figuring it out, and hopefully give them a little boost to get them over the edge to a new understanding of themselves.
    Sadly, it took me more than my senior year of college to find my place, and I spent most of my twenties just screwing around, lost and directionless. I sometimes wonder what my life would look like now if I hadn’t had such a late start, but I’ve finally decided that it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I DID manage to figure it out eventually, and I’m so thankful that I did. Not everyone is so lucky.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Thank you for this amazing comment.
      I do think that’s one of the reasons I loved being a high school teacher. high school kids don’t learn all that much specifically, but they do learn ways of seeing the world, each other and themselves at that age. That’s definite. Thinking maybe I helped someone get one step closer to a realization of their won potential, that’s pretty amazing stuff.
      And I have totally looked back and wondered where I’d be now if I’d figured it all out earlier. But maybe there’s just no easy shortcut. At least not for some of us. 😉

  3. rcinc
    March 6, 2014

    No regrets (says the girl with more than a few regrets). But, it is what it is, and it made us who we are. Now, some of those things don’t need to be known by our children, but all of them are a collection of who we have become. And, without all of those mistakes, would we be who we are today? I try to believe that I learned something or grew somehow from all of the crazy things I’ve done. Some were stupid (I think your bestie would agree) but all were/are part of me. Thanks as always for a wonderful insightful post.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      What a wonderful comment. Pretty much no regrets, you’re right. Or otherwise, how in the world would we have gotten here?
      And really, I can’t imagine you doing a single regrettable thing anyway. 😉

  4. Winding road
    March 14, 2014

    What an awesome gift!!! I look back at the young me and think the whole “wish I knew then what I know now” thought process until I remember it is all a process and that young me had to be and feel all of those insecurities to be where I am now. Love that Whitesnake came on…great tune 😉

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      I read this lovely blog today from a 20 year-old college student that was written so much better than anything I could have written at 20, but it totally sent me right back. Maybe we all just need to be that age, with those doubts. I am so glad to have those letters now though. One friend said, “At least you’ll be able to empathize with your daughters better.” And that’s so true.
      And who doesn’t love a little Whitesnake?! Ha! Thanks for reading!

  5. Tandi
    April 19, 2014

    Hi again. I feel like I’m blog stalking you, but each time I read one of your posts, it strikes such a chord in me that I need to tell you about it. Perhaps because I am around your age, and the themes of memory and identity are things I’ve been thinking about so myself of late. Recently I’ve realized how little confidence I had when I was young, and what I could have done if only I’d believed in myself more. I find that sad, but perhaps it was all part of becoming the woman I am today, this person I’ve become and this life I live. I find that comforting.

    • jgroeber
      April 20, 2014

      Ha! I’ve never had a troll or a stalker. As far as stalkers go, you seem pretty awesome. And I think you totally hit it in the end. We needed to be those messy girls in order to grow into these strong women. But I do wonder if I can help my daughters get there in a kinder, gentler, faster way. Because if I witness them being the mess I was… it’ll break my spirit all over again!

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2014 by in Memory, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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