Imagine, if you will, an artist painting a masterpiece, adding a line here, a dab of color there – the outlines and textures and depth of a portrait emerging over many years. Now imagine, after about fifteen years of tireless, painstaking work, the artist sits back to admire the masterpiece only to be disturbed by the fact that the eyes of their subject appear to be rolling skyward, the upper lip is curled ever-so-slightly in a look of disdain, and the middle finger of one hand appears to be extended. The artist leans forward, squinting in dismay, and cries, “I do believe my greatest work of art is flipping me off! I didn’t paint it that way! Where, oh where, did I go wrong?”
My son is not yet a teenager, but I already dread the age when the little boy that I tickle and snuggle and smooch will grow up and suddenly not want to be seen in the same room with me and will rebel against the life we’ve created. There will likely be some doors slammed. Maybe a loud announcement that I’m “totally ruining his life.”
It’s the typical teenage refrain, “It’s not fair! You guys just don’t get it!” Really, it should be the other way around, with the parents saying, “No, YOU just don’t get it!”
In honor of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I just wanted to say to my mom and dad…
I get it now.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think of my mom and dad as real people with real identities other than “Mom” and “Dad”. They were the big people who knew everything and loved and took care of me. Then I become a teenager and realized they weren’t really that big, and they didn’t really know everything. They made mistakes. They were human. In the wisdom and enlightenment of my teens, I decided that I would do everything differently.
It’s true – my path HAS been different from the path my parents chose. My parents married young and had six children over the span of twelve years. Me? I went to college straight out of high school, found a job, and moved out on my own. I eventually went back to school for my Master’s and changed careers before meeting my husband in my thirties.
Now I have a child, much later in life than my parents did, and it has given me a level of understanding of my mother and father that I may never have reached had I not become a parent myself. I understand the love, of course, but more importantly I understand the sacrifice.
Growing up, we were a working class family. My mother gave up her career as a nurse to stay home with us while our father worked at the local factory making jet engines. There was enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table but not much left over for anything else. No trips to Disneyland, or a cabin in the mountains, or a beach house. Our clothes were often hand-me-downs, mismatched in comical ways, judging by family photos (or maybe that WAS the style at the time?). Food was carefully rationed to make it go farther – no second helpings until you had a slice of bread and butter, cereal and milk were measured before pouring into the breakfast bowl, and sandwiches were always ONE slice of cheese and ONE slice of lunchmeat. (I still deconstruct deli sandwiches. Seriously, you can build five sandwiches with the amount of stuff they put in one sandwich.)
Despite the size of our family, we lived in a small house that had once been an old barn. The creepy cement basement was home to salamanders and snakes, and bats sometimes took up residence in the attic. We didn’t have the latest electronics (which isn’t saying much when you’re talking about the late 70’s, early 80’s). The giant television encased in a wooden frame looked expensive, but the tube had blown in it years before and it actually served as a stand for a second TV. This other TV was smaller, with rabbit-ear antennas adorned with tin-foil bow ties for better reception. A wooden spoon was always kept handy for those times when the picture would turn a greenish tint and start to roll – sometimes all it needed was a good whack on the side with the spoon for the picture to pop back on the screen. While watching the “green TV”, we squished onto a couch that had boards underneath the cushions to help with its sagging infrastructure. A garishly bright, multi-colored afghan covered juice stains and places where the stuffing was showing through the couch cushions.
As a teenager, I felt embarrassed that we didn’t have nicer looking things and felt I had been cheated of the cool things some of my friends had experienced. I would look back on my childhood and see all the sacrifices I had made. Woe is me! No Disneyland! How terrible that I didn’t have lots of fancy outfits, or gourmet meals, or live in a big, beautiful farmhouse with luxurious furniture. Think of all the awesome TV shows I had missed because of that stupid green-tinted TV and lack of cable. Man, it was SO NOT FAIR!
But now? Now I see all the sacrifices my PARENTS made.
In choosing to raise us the way they did, they gave up all those things too. No trips to far-off places for them. They wore the same outfits year after year, no matter the changes in fashion. Their idea of “eating out” was occasionally ordering pizza or Chinese food. And I’m pretty sure that a renovated barn was not their idea of a dream home either.
They didn’t focus on all of those things. What they did focus on was raising us – keeping a roof over our heads, clothes on our bodies, and food in our mouths. They dedicated their time to painting each of their little masterpieces by teaching us kindness and compassion, shaping our behavior with rules and structure, and instilling in us a sense of right and wrong. Inadvertently, they also gave us the ability to see what’s really important in life and to recognize the difference between “wanting” and “needing”.
Ironically, after pledging in my teenage years to do everything different from my parents, I now look to my childhood and my parents for guidance in raising my son. My teenage self would be surprised at the way I now almost idealize some of those childhood memories. It didn’t matter what we were eating; we ate dinner together every night. That creepy basement made a perfect “haunted house” and a fantastic hideout for “cops and robbers” games with my siblings. And our clothes? The TV? The couch? They’re all just things, material items that served their purposes. We may have WANTED nicer things, but we really didn’t NEED them.
By circumstance, my husband and I find ourselves living paycheck to paycheck on a single income. We both still have flip phones. We cancelled cable, and we do not have a plasma or flat-screen TV (much to my husband’s dismay). Our couch (no joke!) has a board supporting the cushions and throw-blankets covering the stains and holes. My husband deserves a medal for driving a car with no AC and old-fashioned hand-crank windows. No vacations, gourmet meals, or trendy clothes. But, really – the things we have perform their functions…and they are very much appreciated. After all, there are so many people in the world with so much less.
So now I hope my parents can look upon their “work of art” and see that the hands are respectfully folded, the mouth has relaxed into a bittersweet smile, and the eyes have softened with age, wisdom, and love. Our focus, just like my parent’s focus so many years ago, is on raising our child to be a happy, healthy person, who tries to do what’s “right”, gives his best effort in all he does, and treats others with kindness. You know…the important stuff.