Now, my parents are just shadows of what they used to be. They are both in their sixties and this year was the first time I ever saw them as old and I, consequently, felt older too.
Let’s start with my mother. She is a bowl of faded rose petals. Like those left over from weddings. She is a silver bowl. Hair polished bright and eyes blue and watery. She is paper thin now. Her skin laced with tiny blue veins across little clumps of snow white hands. She is shorter, too. Not the tall and robust mother of my childhood with flaming red hair and a passion to match. Oh, the passion is still there but now she has mellowed a little and is much more tolerant of herself and others. She used to think she had to be perfect. A perfect woman, wife, mother with a perfect body, husband, house, and children. Now, she says those things don’t concern her as they once did. She is free now. Free to be herself and to express her opinions to anyone and everyone who will listen. She says she will run for public office one day. She is my friend now and I am glad to have her as a friend at last. She is the glue which holds our family together. The civilizing element to our private country.
My father looks to her for all his emotional and physical needs. He is confined to bed now and has been for six years. Slowly but steadily his bones began to break apart. His doctor told me the discs that hold his back erect are thinner than pencils. My father, my once physical tower of masculine strength who was always running and playing tennis and dancing. He and my mother used to go to dance contests all the time. I still have the bedspread they won for doing the jitterbug when I was 8 years old. When I go to visit, my father sits for awhile in the rocking chair in his room. I hold his once powerful hand and it shakes by itself.
My parents. I finally get to know them as human beings with distinct and unique ways of looking at the world and I am losing them to time and sickness and death. When I look in the mirror, I see my mother’s eyes and my father’s melancholy expression.
Jean A. Yarbrough
As a child, I grew up watching my parents bicker constantly. I have vivid memories of the time my father went into a temper tantrum and slugged my mother. It was two days before she gathered up the courage to speak again. At the age of six, my father kicked me, and broke my leg over some superficial incident involving putting away toys.
Though physical abuse was clearly present, what really hurt the most was having to listen to hours of screaming and name-calling in the name of love. I got to where I simply quit listening to my mother and fought with my brother instead.
At the age of 14, I finally exploded. The anger had been building for years, and it finally came out all at once: I poured boiling water over my dad’s face, and hit my mom over the head with wooden croquet mallet! I was taken to a mental hospital where I remained for four months.
Fourteen years have passed since that fateful October morning. I have grown tremendously since then, and three years ago experienced a profound spiritual awakening. I have had roommates, and lived alone, yet now I find myself again living with my parents.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in my spiritual path has been working things out with my parents. It is time for me to take total responsibility for my actions, including the decision I made to choose the man and woman I did to become my parents. My parents, I have discovered, are my spiritual teachers. It is they who have gotten me in touch with parts of me I would rather not accept. My father pointed me to the impulsive, irrational part, and my mother showed me the superficial, gullible side.
I no longer desire substitute parents. I do not want a guru to take my father’s place, nor do I want to marry a carbon copy of my mother. I do not want to rebel against my parents’ program nor do I wish to accept it. It is time for me to accept the mother and father: after all, they lie within my own consciousness, and when I forgive them for their actions, then and only then can I forgive myself.
All this time, I have been trying to change my parents, but the real work is changing myself. All this time, I have been angry at my parents, but the real work is to replace that anger with the unconditional love so necessary for any true healing in the family.
North Hollywood, California
One of my earliest recollections of Dad is seeing him balanced on a wooden extension ladder 25 feet in the air painting the house. It was a chore Dad hated, but in those days you painted every other year, like it or not. He was about my present age, a young husband with two sons and an infant daughter.
Mother scrubbed the brown paint droppings out of our hair with turpentine. She would sit outside in the sun reading Book-of-the-Month Club tomes, escaping the cancer that killed her at 32, two weeks after I entered third grade. That September I had a terrible bout of poison ivy and still identify the vacuous disbelief of the time with extreme itching. Eventually, I got over the poison ivy.
Dad painted the house twice in the two years between then and when he remarried.
Dad was a handsome man, and his sudden availability produced a parade of women eager to move into that glossy-brown house. My brother and I favored a blonde knockout named Rita who melted our unmothered hearts.
Instead, I came home from the baseball field on a hot Saturday in May to find three short, chubby boys in cowboy hats and boots hunched over chocolate cake at our kitchen table.
Their mom, Gertrude, was cooking a barbeque in the back yard. Overweight in her red shorts, and constantly pushing back a thick tangle of dyed red hair with both hands, Gertrude was clearly out of her league if she had thoughts of marrying Dad. I put her in his doing-a-friend-a-favor category.
Dad and Gert were married in June.
Her children were delighted; she found us far less accepting. I itched worse than ever, resenting Gert’s presumption of being mother and wife in that house, resenting those three boys with the dimpled hands of fat kids who couldn’t even throw a baseball, resenting my room becoming a dormitory. It didn’t matter to me that Gert’s husband had died suddenly of a mysterious “Syndrome of Gloom” (the precognition of one’s own death), or that she nearly died of pneumonia trying to support the three boys. These things did seem to matter a great deal to Dad.
With six children now and a failing parking garage business in New York City, he bought a small red truck from one of his tenants and began supplementing the garage with local hauling. Dad knew little about trucking, but he was not afraid to work and he knew his way around the city.
That sweltering, fume-filled summer in New York, Gert’s oldest son and I had a taste of the bone-tiring profession of trucking. Dad and the two of us moved an entire factory from mid-town Manhattan to the Bronx, Gert’s boy and me riding on the loaded tailgate of the little truck making sure the machines stayed tied in behind the criss-crossing ropes. It was funny to hear the short, round kid shouting to Dad, “Take it easy on them turns, Howie!”
At night, Gert presided over boarding house suppers. We went to Jones Beach on the weekends loaded with baskets of fried chicken and big jugs of Kool-Aid. And when we started school in the fall, our lunchbags were heavy with sandwiches put together with assembly-line efficiency the night before.
She would “steal” a little money each week from what Dad gave her, and we experienced the wondrous Wintergarden and Schubert theatres, Town Hall, and sat spellbound by “The Ten Commandments” in the Grand Lowes.
The years hurried by. Gert slimmed down, blossomed into middle age and, at 41, surprised us, including Dad, with child number seven. I was a freshman in high school.
Dad’s little red truck became a fleet of six or seven bigger ones bearing the promise “Safe, Fast, Dependable.” He kept that promise by leaving for work every morning at five, until his heart attack and stroke two years ago. He had seen five of us through college by then, and the youngest was a sophomore at Princeton.
For the first time in his life, Dad was flattened, dependent. Mom clearly heard God shouting, “That’s enough work already, Howie!” and she fashioned a positive down-shifting of the aging trucker’s gears, unburdening responsibilities in a way that never allowed him to feel docile and helpless. As a result, we saw a loving sweetness come over him that he had never expressed so openly before.
Writing this, I realize that parents never stop providing for a child. When the necessities of feeding and clothing end, lifelong lessons continue taking shape. At ten years old and for many years after, I was too angry at the world to accept love or understand the enormous inward reserve that enabled Gert to cope with life’s raw deals. Thank God Dad recognized that capacity.
They are living in Florida now, enjoying an active life. News is that Dad has recovered enough from his stroke to drive a car, but with no thoughts, Mom assures us, of climbing back into a truck.
My parents, when I was a child, were very unhappy. Now they are divorced — they got divorced ten years ago when I was in college — and now they are very happy. Both are very independent folk, and living together forced them to compromise to get along, to assume unnatural, twisted shapes, which made each miserable.
My mother was an intellectual woman who mainly just wanted to read and paint. She never wanted children and didn’t speak to my father for three months when she learned she was pregnant with me. Caring for my sister and myself was a great burden for her, an unasked-for burden, made more difficult by the fact that my dad was a research scientist hardly ever at home.
My mother loved nature and birds and quiet and solitude. She also always hated cold weather. Now she lives in a west Texas town by herself and goes bird watching all the time. She is financially independent, thanks to the generosity of my father, since he paid her alimony — even though we kids were raised — up until this year when he retired. My mother doesn’t have to work.
My father was a heavy drinker when I was a child, and when he drank he could be very mean, saying cruel, cutting words I remember to this day. His second wife only allows him one martini a day. Whenever he gets drunk, which isn’t often, she laughs at him instead of taking in any pain. Although retired, he is still devoted to scientific research, and continues writing in the study he built in the basement.
I get along much better with my parents now that they are divorced. My sister was crushed when they split up. She was still with them and in high school. It colored her attitude toward love for years. I said, “Hallelujah! At last!” I only wished they had gotten divorced a lot sooner and saved me some pain. As a kid I always was afraid to bring friends home because of the tensions between my parents.
My parents can now be more themselves and so they like themselves better and are easier to get along with, but all is not perfect between the generations. Vietnam, dope, the hippie trip — all these things have created great gaps between their belief systems and mine. Writing this, I suddenly realize I have never forgiven my father for driving me to the Selective Service processing office in 1967 during the Vietnam war. I’ve never told him that, if they had drafted me, I already had made arrangements to leave for Canada.
He is still caught in the “then,” as far as my perception goes. I will mail him this; I will let my father grow up. You have to do that — let your parents “go,” let them escape the rigid roles of father and mother. As you become a parent yourself you quickly forgive them their faults because you now know the “other side,” how difficult parents is. I think there are grand natural cycles here working. I look forward in a way to the day my parents are old and perhaps with me and in my care.
When I was 30 and visiting my parents’ house my father came home from his club quite late and quite drunk. I was upstairs undressing for bed myself when he called out “Vi — ki!” Snapping to attention — years of childhood training — I answered, “Yes, Sir.”
“Get down, heah.”
In his “den,” he leaned back in his electric recliner, beer in hand. Not even the TV is on, I noted silently. Looking me straight in the eye he said, “All your life, you’ve done just as you damn well pleased.”
Immediately jumping even further on the defensive, I answered, “I’ve been pretty happy.”
“Yep,” he nodded, more to himself than me, “you’ve done exactly what you’ve wanted and never cared what anyone thought or said.” Wrong again, Daddy.
Cold silence from my spot on the ottoman.
“Well,” he stretched forward, leaned on one knee and eyeballed me again. (He never looks me in the eye.) “I just wanted you to know I love you and admire the hell out of you for it.”
So today I’m 35 and things between us just are. The impact of my father’s statement crumpled my defenses, my sense of trying to be something — I wasn’t sure what, only that I was quite it.
Sometimes we play the same old games, push the same old buttons and I wonder why, but I accept it better because somewhere true love and acceptance (for isn’t that true love?) lives. Within us. Between us. All.
Mountain Grove, Missouri
Some time ago my mother thought a padded cell would be a good place for me to hang out for a while until I could clean up my act. My father, during this same time, thought that driving me approximately 3,000 miles away from home and dropping me in an empty apartment to fight off a large population of high schoolers, whom I supposedly knew how to teach, would be a good idea. My parents fought about what to do with me “then.” My father won. I hated both of my parents for a long time after that. I hated myself too because I hadn’t chosen either of the two choices I was offered. I just wanted to be me, even if it meant running away from me.
After I hated my parents for a while, I began learning how to forgive them. I was amazed to see how they began to turn human as I began to get better at forgiving. They lost their monstrous looks and hateful, prying, questioning sulks, and became human, warm, sensitive, and even loving sometimes, with human frailties and faults. Sometimes my mother still asks me questions to test my sanity. My father still likes to let me know that it is important to have a steady paying job with a weekly paycheck to pay the bills.
The important thing about my parents is that they always try to do the right thing because they love me. When my parents give me a hard time about something I say or do, I know that they will let it pass eventually as long as I can think of just one thing to say to them that they’d like to hear. Telling them that I love them seems to help a little.
Lauderdale Lakes, Florida
My parents’ friend, Joe Gottchauk, took a picture of them soon after they were married. (My father was just a little older than I am now, my mother younger than my sister.) They’re sitting on a couch in a room with just one light, looking together at a book. Their heads are turned down, but you can see my father’s sensitive sailor’s face and my mother’s shy farmgirl face. My mother’s hair is long and loose, as I’ve never seen it in my life, and there is about the photograph a strong feeling of romantic love.
The picture is different from the other pictures in my parents’ photograph album — it’s much larger and more at ease. (My father likes to line people up in front of monuments.) It’s also different from what I’ve seen of my parents’ life — my father serious and indrawn, almost bitter, my mother strident and cheery, avoiding the world by attacking it. I never saw my father kiss my mother with pleasure. Were they really in love in that photograph, I used to wonder, or was it just a trick of lighting?
Since my sister and I left, things have changed a bit with them — they’ve noticed each other again. My father admits to himself (if to no one else) that he needs her. My mother’s experienced him not just as Her Man, but as a kind man. I think they even talk to each other, when no one’s looking.
After 34 years, love doesn’t mean anything, my mother says.
They may not like each other, or even love each other, but they’ve survived each other. In one sense, this has made them free.
New York, New York
Somewhere back there in the dim and misty memories of early childhood I romped on my parents’ bed one Sunday morning. They slept in separate beds, which is part of their way but a notion I never understood. I can only remember this romp once, which seems odd. Perhaps it didn’t really happen. Yet the memory has formed within me a feeling of what is a family. I want to see this entire planet become aware of itself as a family. That romp on a Sunday morning is part of the delight and good spirits I want to see shared by us all in some way.
My father took me camping a couple of times when I was young. I learned more about camping and being in the natural world during those few outings than all my time in the Boy Scouts. I wandered on my own, reading mystical literature about the wonders and beauties of nature. My father was without peer or fault then.
Since those times, seemingly so long ago, I have seen my parents differently. They have been ogres, hopelessly ignorant and lost souls, helpers and hinderers. In the past few years we have discovered that we are friends, a truly helpful and delightful change in our relationship. To the best of my knowledge, we still aren’t going to agree on what’s to be done or how to do it. Yet, somehow, I have come to look up to them again.
I do not know what it was like to live in that town when they were my parents and I was a child. I get small clues, but they are quite incomplete. As I learn what it is to be a parent myself, and how long it takes to learn to be supportive of children and friends, I find that I am returning to a respect of my parents. I wonder if I’ll be able to do as well at being a human being as they did in my child’s view. Perhaps the child’s view is not so incomplete or lacking in perspective after all.