Friday, September 30, 2016

Thinking About Family Traits and Identity

Is it a vacation? Is it work? I just spent two weeks with my parents, at their home in Florida.  How do you feel about spending time with your parents/family? A friend of mine put it nicely when she said, "You love to miss them."

I do love my family. I talk to my mom and dad (still together after 47 years) at least once a week, and enjoy our conversations, for the most part. Recently, someone asked me what we talked about, as they could not imagine having regular conversations with their own parents. Well, to be honest, we talk about a lot of things: Movies we've seen, books we're reading, what other family members or friends are up to, what we think about the latest non-political events (we do not discuss politics, as we do not agree--I think), we question the past and remember things together, and we tell stories about our lives. Sometimes we discuss what we believe in, or how we are struggling. We talk about health: what supplements we are trying out, what works and what doesn't, what hurts and what doesn't, and how to massage a sore neck (being a massage therapist, I often guide my mother to treat my dad's aches and pains, which she is good at, being as intuitive and body-aware as I am.

These trips are a hodge-podge of goals. My parents aren't getting any younger, and I want to spend time with them, especially since I can help my dad's aches with massage, and they are both healthy enough to do things with us, like go on trips, swim, walk, and tell us stories.

I love the stories. I love the swimming and sight-seeing, too, but the stories have always drawn me. As a little girl, I used to beg my parents and grandparents:
"Tell me what it was like when you were little!"
"What did you do, without a television?"
"Where did your family go on vacation?"
"How did you get to school? Did you like your teachers? What were you good at?"
Questions, questions, all day long. And what answers did I get?
"That's ancient history."
"What do you want to know that for?"
"What are you, writing a book?"

Yes. Yes, I am. I am writing a book.

I have been writing this book for over forty years. Most of my sources are gone from this plane, but I still have my parents. Their minds are sharp (well, my mom is pretty rusty at Boggle, but otherwise...) and their bodies sound. I find I learn things in person that just never seem to come across over the phone. I have to prod, I have to dig...Most people don't realize their stories are valid, or interesting, or news to me, apparently, but they are. When we get past the repetition of "remember that time..." I find nuggets of gold - true tales of love and loss, struggle and success - rich with the details only heard from the people that were there. I can read about the past before I came along all I want, but unless someone was there, and tells you, you won't know what the streets smelled like after a hot summer rain, back when there were still horses and carriages roaming the streets of Baltimore. You won't know how it felt to a kid in the 1940s, to sit on top of the radiator after dinner to warm up on a cold evening, and listen to radio programs like The Shadow, and then talk about it the next day with the other kids that listened the night before. You might not learn what it was like to win the car of your dreams in an auction but be unable to retrieve it because you are in the Navy, stuck at sea, and your father won't be bothered to pick it up for you. Or how your mother used to have sleepovers with her grandmother, and lay in bed together cracking jokes and counting toes. These little moments, shared with family, crossing generations, show the charms and humor, the frustrations and flaws, the love and learning of life that we all share.

I have met young people who seem to think that their generation is different from the ones before. That they are more modern, that older people can't understand them, or comprehend how forward their thinking is. They think they are smarter, more informed, better prepared for life and the future. And, in some small ways, maybe each generation is. But, how can you think that the differences are of any consequence? Our grandparents drank, and smoked, and swore. They had premarital sex. Some of our great-grandparents had orgies, or were part of throuples, before the word existed, or posed for pornographic photographs, paintings, or etchings. Many of them stuck their middle fingers in the air at society and expectations, and picked up sticks for adventure and fortune seeking. That's how life works. People are people, with or without smartphones, the internet, cars, the wheel, or fire.

I have always accepted the humanity of my parents and those that came before. Maybe because I grew up so close to my parents and grandparents, and even knew two of my great-grandmothers well, and have sat around the table at Sunday dinner hearing the tales. And my mother, she never lied to me (not even about Santa Claus) or hid from my questions. She always treated me as an adult, and spoke to me as such. She always answered my questions as best she could, complexity relative to my age and comprehension. I am grateful for that, to this day. Most of the adults in my life took time to teach me things, talk to me, and answer my questions, to some extent.

And yet...I still have unanswered questions. I will continue to ask them, as soon as I can figure out what they are. I have found that the secret to getting the answers you need is to find the right questions to ask. That is the hardest part. It's not enough to say, "tell me how it was." You have to prod, poke, and provoke the stories. Especially to find the ones that haven't seen the light of day in decades; the ones that aren't rehearsed, or censored. Those are the good ones. Those are the ones in which you can find yourself.

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