Promises are not written in stone, or even wet cement. They are soft and squishy and easily manipulated into shapes that only slightly resemble the original. When I Googled “promise,” the definition was “make a promise or commitment.” That’s like saying the color blue is “the color blue.” Is that cerulean, robin’s egg blue, navy, cobalt, seafoam, sky blue? Actually, it’s whatever I mean when I use the word “blue” and no one else can be sure until I define it further.
I know a young girl named Alice. When Alice was 12 years old her father promised that he would take her to “The Nutcracker” ballet the week before Christmas. Since her parents were divorced, Alice didn’t see her dad very often, and he rarely phoned her. She bragged to her friends about this “date” with her father. They were going to a grand theater for the event, and she was very excited.
Alice chose a dark green velvet dress, had her mother buy off-white leggings, and planned to wear her black patent shoes. Her school coat was too sensible for such an evening, so she convinced her mother that her green and gold wool stole would be warm enough. A green and gold ribbon cascade held her curly, blonde ponytail in place. Her mother refused to lend her gold earrings, but Alice was lovely when her father came to take her to the musical.
By the time she came home, the promise of a glorious night with the full attention of her father vanished. At the performance her father sat with the woman he was dating and Alice was forced to sit in an entirely different part of the theater with Lucy, the dowdy 15-year-old daughter of her father’s date. Lucy didn’t want to sit with Alice; Alice definitely didn’t want to sit with Lucy.
When Alice was dropped off at home after the performance, she tried very hard to enthusiastically talk about the great event. She loved the mouse in “The Nutcracker” and the costumes were beyond anything she might have imagined, even though she had read about the performance before she left home. In the middle of her description of the performance the tears started, even though she tried very hard to not let them be seen.
Her father had “promised” to take her to the theater. He never told her that others would be going with them. He didn’t tell her she would not be proudly sitting beside him. He didn’t break his promise; he broke her heart.
As the unwed mother visits her OB/GYN after two missed periods, she ruefully recalls her lover’s whisper in the middle of the seduction, “I promise I’ll use protection.”
At a meeting where there are no minutes to approve, everyone recalls when the secretary agreed, “I promise I’ll have the minutes typed within a week.”
When the car chugs over to the side of the highway, the words of the spouse echo, “I promise I’ll fill the gas tank before we leave.”
When a marriage culminates with a meeting of divorce lawyers, the promises of the bride and groom to “love and obey” floated hopelessly, locked out of the room.
“I promise we’ll go to the zoo next weekend.” “I promise to iron that shirt before you leave tomorrow morning.” “I promise to use deodorant if that bothers you so much.” “I promise to call my mom every Sunday afternoon.” “I promise to stock the shelves before the store opens.” “I promise to teach the dog not to chew your underwear.”
Many promises are kept. Many are not. A second Google definition is “promise to undertake or give: I promise you my best effort.” We need a different word for that definition. A “perhaps-promise.” A “promise with variable parameters.” A “promise but don’t get your hopes up.” A “promise that isn’t as good as it sounds?”
Probably most people who makes promises expect to keep them — at least in the way they have defined it in their own minds. I’ve heard it said, “I’ll take that promise with a grain of salt.” I checked with Google on that phrase too. “Etymologist Christine Ammer traces it to Pompey’s discovery, recorded by Pliny in 77 A.D., of an antidote to poison which had to be taken with a small amount of salt to be effective.”
My advice is to liberally sprinkle any promise with a bit of salt.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
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