I See My Parents As They Were, Who They Are, and I’m Still Okay
Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities — John Mellencamp
I asked my son if he wanted to go to Chicago to visit family for Christmas this year. With the time spent in the home during the pandemic, a small family gathering seemed a nice way to close out the year. He hit me with the truth.
“No way! Do you remember what happened the last time we went to Chicago for Christmas? We drove all day in that storm, and our presents weren’t at Grandma’s, we just got a note from Santa saying they were at home. It was horrible, Dad. No. Not going.”
He was almost in tears. He’s eight. The memory in question was three years ago. The trauma of that day has not left him. (In the grand scheme, it may not seem too traumatic, but his feelings matter) He doesn’t remember what he got for Christmas last year, what we did last week or the myriad laughs and smiles from the last twenty-four hours. It seems the trauma sticks with us. For a pocket of life, as we navigate the world, this trauma resurfaces when we’re not ready.
I can hear him twenty-five years from now recounting this story to his son or daughter when the holidays roll around when asked why they don’t travel for Christmas. He’ll be close to the age I was when we made that decision, and my fear is I’ll be judged on a level I’m not prepared for, as an equal. As an adult. I’m afraid of the realizations he’ll make as he ages and looks back on me, my behavior, my decisions, at ages he will then occupy.
For a large part of childhood, the decisions we make seem more consequential than they are. It’s years before we understand how much the decisions of our parents shape our formative years. Little fights, disappointments, and untoward encounters seem huge at the time. Time passes. We age. We look back. One day we realize who our parents are, and who they were. It’s only then that we are truly free.
I refer to this time as our middle passage-the point in time where you are the age of your parents when they made those decisions. You see them for the first time as people, peers, and deeply flawed. It’s a tough pill to swallow. From that point on, wisdom begins to grow.
Whether you have children or not, the time comes for all of us. This moment where we look at our parents and we become Neo seeing the Matrix of our childhood, our parents, our relationships, and the subtext that eluded us through all those years.
Until adulthood. Until we’re there. In moments. Struggling with ourselves, our lives, our relationships and the world. And you take pause. You look back at your parents when they were your younger parents, and it clicks; they were people doing the best they could with what they had. Just like you.
I remember after my parent’s divorce I stayed with Dad. Mom left and it was just us. He worked as a mason and I was in second or third grade. For a spell of two years that I lived with him, my memories are a smear of similar days with spatters of color, good and bad. I remember our Tetris battles and his love of old movies. I remember his cooking and his post-workout protein shakes that he’d pour into a rocks glass and he’d demolish the blender full.
I also remember the fights. The crying frustrations colliding between two men thirty-three years apart striving to make sense of their pain. One of us looking to the other for the lead that never came. And now, as I write this, the same age as my father was then, I understand. And I’m okay with it.
As a father of a boy who was the age of me, then, our collisions, my son and mine are reminiscent of two people struggling to hold space in the world. I looked at my father as flawed, lost, struggling, and distinctly human. Some of that has abated. Some has not. I feel his disappointment in himself as I do in myself at times. It’s taken thirty years to empathize with a man adrift somewhere in my personal history. I see him not as my dad, but as a dad, with a son, doing the best he could with what he had.
I remember when I became cognizant of our equality as men. My son had been born, and I was in the room with my wife in this blurry cacophony of emotion. I remember when my son was handed to me. In his hospital blanket. Flush. So small. I turned to the window looking out to the hills and cried as I whispered promises of protection and love and hope. Sometimes I struggle to remember those promises as I too am human.
After talking to my parents on the phone I found myself feeling different toward them. Like I was talking to familiar strangers. We hadn’t been close personally in my adult years. The chasm is now greater. I had become a parent, and for some reason, that absolved me of the role of a child. I could feel them fading out of focus as my world grew ever smaller as I trained my eyes on my sleeping wife and newborn son.
I haven’t stopped loving my parents, wanting their support, or desiring time with them. What changed was how I viewed them and how I stopped caring about how they viewed me. They no longer held sway. The older I got, the more I understood them as adults, the less sway they held. Or hold. I’m not better than them. I just understand their shit now that I have my own.
From that moment, I continued to delve into the minutiae of my childhood and more specifically, decisions, actions, and eras of parenthood I experienced as a child. I have questions. I have questioned it. I’ve dissected moments. Most of the time I’m empathetic to the struggle of my parents. There are times when I understand and forgive less because of the success of my own marriage, the love I have for my wife, and what this has enabled us to do as parents. Not in spite of them. Perhaps, because of them.
I do see them now. When I’m around them I don’t know how I feel about them. I love them. I accept them. But, there’s more unresolved emotion. This may be less of an indictment of them and more of an indictment of myself. The older I get the more I learn. I apply context to my past for no good use.
The older I get, I find myself holding them to an unrealistic and idealistic standard, the way I did when I was young and didn’t know better. Now, I know better. I expect less. And still, the pain I feel when slighted by my parents is because as a husband and father, I know what little effort it truly takes to invest in the people you truly love.
I also have an immense sense of appreciation for my parents despite their flaws and misgivings. When I think about what I have access to in parenting my children, I’m aghast they made it work. I’m grateful for their efforts in spite of themselves and honoring their responsibilities as parents. I understand what it means to want your life and sacrifice for someone else’s. I understand their shit because I have my own.
I wonder how things changed for them as they grew into the middle passage and saw their parents for who they were. I too grew older and looked at my grandparents differently. I stifled my opinions when my parents would glorify their folks because I simply didn’t see them that way. As a grandchild, the distillation of two generations into my wisdom is suffocating. Because, to some degree, things I experienced as a child, my parents my not have known it was due to their childhood. The trauma is spiritually genetic.
And I could be wrong. About all of it. My perception could be so convoluted that perhaps my perceived wisdom is ignorant bliss.
This has born in me a new fear. This experience I’ve had with my parents is not unique. Rather, it is the ubiquitous experience of aging and the wisdom that comes with sight. My children will one day come of age. I will see it in their eyes. Hear in their voices when I call. I’ll know I’ve been laid bare. They will see me as I am. I can only hope when they do and look back on who I was, they will see me as a man of effort, love, and commitment.
I can see it in my father when he looks at me. The shared secret. He knows I know. The balance of power has shifted. I can hear it in my mother’s tone when I make a decision she doesn’t approve of. The balance has shifted. Love will always be there. But the margin of safety ebbs and flows like some amoebic emotional hunger eating and digesting and waiting for that next gathering.
I don’t want to spend my life as an older parent making up for my shortcomings as a younger parent. I don’t want to carry the shame of a stressful life as a reason for not being present. I want my children to be able to say, “I love my dad. He was always there.” This is the pressure of exiting the middle passage. Someday my kids will see right through me. My mission is to make sure I have nothing to hide.
No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just… — John Mellencamp