Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Becoming my parents

Photo from

There was an interesting interview on On Point yesterday about people in their thirties and forties realizing that, unlike the independent and unique adults they thought they were, they're actually becoming their parents. The interviewee was James Wood, whose article "Becoming Them: Our Parents, Our Selves" appears in the January 21 issue of The New Yorker. I went and read that essay today and was really moved by it.

Growing up as an only child, I spent most of my childhood idolizing my parents. They were my first and only world for a while. My calm, patient, lovely mother and my handsome, industrious, and outgoing father. It would not be so bad if I was more like them. Sure, I went through some teenage rebellion when I felt my parents were impossibly old-fashioned: my mother warning me against trips to New York City though she traveled alone to Sweden when she was just a girl, and likely rode the subway when she was growing up in Brooklyn; my father disapproving of the short skirts I wore when I was in my early twenties, when my mother had worn skirts of the same length when she was a young woman and he hadn't seemed to mind.

As I got older I also saw shortcomings in my parents that I didn't see when I was younger. As I was realizing what a self-centered little brat I was around them (and still am, at times) when I was growing up, I also saw my mother's irrational fear of traveling alone, something that she wouldn't have given a thought to when she was younger. I saw how my father was taken in by outside appearances, and how when he described a woman--any woman--he would almost always mention her looks. Meanwhile when asked about someone or when telling a story about a new acquaintance, I immediately mentioned their age or what I guessed was their age. I didn't realize I was doing this (and likely my father doesn't, either) until my husband pointed it out to me. How odd, I thought. For years I felt indirectly judged by my father's assessment of people's looks, but here I was doing almost the exact same thing!

I have those wow, I'm becoming them moments more now. When I'm entertaining a guest, even a good friend, I try to outdo myself with the presentation--I overbuy imported cheeses and berries and make a signature cocktail for a crowd of two or at most four people. When a friend of mine came over for tea recently, it was supposed to be a little catch-up time over a cup of tea and maybe some store-bought cookies. Instead I took it as an opportunity to throw a tea party, going as far as to look up ideas on Pinterest for tea sandwiches and table settings and appropriate fruit spreads. This is not unlike what my mother does when she has guests over and what her book group used to admire in her when it was her turn to host meetings. She wanted her guests to feel special--even, or especially, if they were good friends. It wasn't necessarily about impressing people, but treating them with kindness. The amount and quality of food I like to purchase is really a nod to my father, who, on Christmas Eve of this past year, waited on line for 3 1/2 hours outside of Villabate in Brooklyn to get us pounds of fresh cookies and cannolis from the famed bakery. It made the dinner my parents hosted extra-special.

Wood writes in his essay about how in becoming our parents we're also mourning our inevitable loss of them. I have tried to fathom a world that doesn't include my parents' physical presence. I have been lucky to have them in my life for 39 years now. But I also get superstitous about such luck because the longer I have them, the more attached I feel. This might be because I don't have any children of my own, but from reading accounts of other people who do have children, the fear of being orphaned is no different. It's a universal dread.

Wood tells how his father used to like to listen to Beethoven's sonatas on Sundays. He finds himself doing the same thing when he's middle-aged, and he finds it comforting. But when Wood discovers that his now elderly father doesn't listen to classical music on Sundays anymore because of a broken CD player he hasn't replaced, Wood writes, "This idea of him is an old memory of mine, and thus a picture of a younger man's habits--he is the middle-aged father of my childhood, not the rather different old man whom I don't see often enough because I live three-thousand miles away, a man who doesn't care too much whether he listens to music or not. So, even as I become him, he becomes someone else."

I see my husband experiencing some of these moments when he thinks of his own parents, who are twenty years older than mine. But I've been noticing differences, too, in my sixty-ish parents.

When I was visiting them last December without my husband, we had a spontaneous and distressing (to me) talk about what would happen when they die. They wanted me to know that they both preferred cremation, and that they would like their ashes to be scattered over my mother's brother and sister-in-law's horse farm in Jonkoping, Sweden. As much as I had allowed myself to imagine the specifics of their funerals, I had hoped they would ask for side-by-side burial plots so at least when they were gone I could have a visiting place that I could decorate with flowers and mementos of their lives. When they said they wanted their ashes scattered over Lalleryd, I started to cry. I had no problem with my Swedish relatives or their farm--they're good people and it's a beautiful setting. But this was not how the narrative was supposed to go. I grew up with them in New Jersey, a short drive to the Jersey Shore. That is where I wanted to scatter their ashes--over the dunes in Avon-By-The-Sea where we visited as a family and where we walked the boardwalk, my mother taking picture after picture of seagulls and cement benches painted aqua, and the pavilion with windows on all sides. I assumed they felt the same as I did about staying close to where they had spent their years raising me. Again I was displaying the arrogance of children believing they are the center of their parents' universe. It had not occurred to me that they might have other ideas.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy worked its own schism in my plan for my parents' final resting place. Sandy came along and hit and lifted up and slammed down Avon's boardwalk and sand and the white-washed pavilion of my memory. I had convinced my parents to let me spread some of their ashes in the Atlantic Ocean. What I could not do was keep them frozen in time, the same parents I had known and idolized when I was growing up. I had moved on, without fully realizing that they (and my hometown) would too.