I wonder if we ever reach a point at which we feel that we have finally made our parents proud, that we have finally gotten enough A’s on our report cards, made enough touchdowns, earned enough certifications, learned enough skills, gotten enough degrees, painted enough masterpieces, won enough statues . . . or is it just a completely hopeless task? For me, I know that it will never be enough. I lost my father before I could redeem myself, and I know that with my mother, I will never quite pass muster.
This is not to say that my parents do/did not love me in their own way. But I remember standing at my father’s casket after almost everyone had left on that terrible night that they call “the viewing” and just keening (a word that my friend Kathleen gave to me years ago) and apologizing for not making him proud. It was an intensely personal moment, and one that I had not planned on, and I wish to god that everyone had left me alone until it had passed, but of course, my mother sent someone over to keep me from making a fool of myself, and so, it was left unresolved because it was an apology that I truly felt that I needed to make. My father never saw me dig myself out of the hole that I had fallen into. After my divorce, I went through a succession of short-lived jobs and he despaired that I would never find myself, but I did. I went back to school. He never had the chance to get to know my second husband, a man who stepped in and really was there for me and my children when we needed someone, a man I really think that my father would have respected and liked. My father never had the chance to see any of this. So much was left unresolved.
My mother, on the other hand, has been around for all of this, and still doesn’t quite know what to make of me. She still believes that I’m the same person I was ten years ago: lost, irresponsible, guided by my twofold grief. That I have changed she is unwilling to acknowledge for it is easier to believe otherwise. And so we have reached an uneasy existence: One in which I try to do my best by her with her many ailments and failing memory, and I promise myself not to be impatient when she makes remarks that could be construed as cutting. This is my only parent, I tell myself. I have no idea how many years I have left with her. She is not outwardly loving, and I remind myself that she is a child of the depression, that perhaps they did not have time to say “I love you” to one another in a family of 12 children, that hugs were probably sparse in a family in which the mother died young, that my own mother did not have a mother after 8, and was sent to live with sisters and so, while she was cared for, perhaps outward signs of affection were not passed out generously.
So I have to be content to know that deep in my heart, I am not a failure. I received many A’s on my report cards. I supervised a newsroom before I was 20. I finished graduate school at 21. I’ve done some pretty cool things in life. But that doesn’t stop the deep-seated insecurity that I carry with me to this day. Was my father proud of me? I hope so. The not knowing is a wound that pierces me. And this brings me to the second part of my entry: the fathers who are alive and have no concept of how they wound their children no matter how old they are.
I have tried to teach my children since an early age that they are all valuable people, yet I sense in each of them insecurities of different sorts: deep personal insecurities in one that come from a sense of abandonment, emotional insecurities in another because of a sense of not understanding the concepts of the give and take of love, and basic social insecurities in another because of a feeling of not understanding society and his place in it. Luckily, these insecurities can be worked on and there is still time for some parental love and understanding to help. Granted, motherly love can only go so far, and it is only a balm, not a curative, but if accepted, it can help. But in spite of it all, the one thing that we all give to each other freely are these three words: I love you. Each and every day. I’d like to think that that helps.
But what about the adults in my life who I see still hoping for recognition from their parents without ever getting close to acknowledgement? How much will it take for some parents to realize that their children are successful adults, living, working, and succeeding in a hard world that is actually not tied to their parents any more. The truly awful reality here is that some parents will not allow for that one moment of pride to slip between the overall facade of disappointment and bless their child with acceptance for being who they have become, choosing instead to hold onto the disappointment, whether that disappointment is leftover from a decade or even two decades ago. These individuals cannot let slip the noose of supposed injustice done to them, some wrong on some slate that has been tallied and memorized by only that person, while everyone else has moved on, happily ignorant through the years, thinking that yes, perhaps the purported love and forgiveness were genuine, not given with an unspoken caveat, i.e., yes, I forgive you, but only if you behave as I would have you behave.
Put that fatted calf back in the freezer. You haven’t lived up to my expectations yet. Well, sure, you’re a successful adult by everyone else’s standards. You’ve put yourself through school? Great! But it wasn’t the school I wanted you to go to. You own a house? Great! But it’s not where I want you to live. You’re married with children? Great! But it’s not to the person I chose for you, and those aren’t really your kids. You’ve expanded your horizons to learn about new ideas and concepts? That’s wonderful, but they aren’t in the approved curriculum. You’ve traveled to far away places and seen new things? My, my how you’ve grown, but was that really the best way to spend your money? You’ve become politically active? Well now, you know we don’t believe in voting for that party in this family. Actually, I don’t know who you are any more. I really think that you need to come home and spend more time with your real family. We have more work to do.
It’s been going on since Mars fought Jupiter. Since Antigone stood up for what she believed in. Those darned kids, always getting into trouble, not following the rules. But seriously, I wonder how many of us have run out of time and let our pride get in the way and not said what we should have said. I swear it will never happen to me again. I will never stand before another coffin and realize that I haven’t said everything that I needed to say, as a child or a parent. Nothing is worth that moment of pain, that realization that that moment is never going to end.