Writing the other day to a daughter, I recalled for her an occasion when my practices — long ago as a new, young parent — came into conflict with the seasoned practices of my own parents. My father and mother were about to deliver their first two grandchildren to me at Woods Hole. It was a drive of about an hour and a half. I asked them to be sure the kids were in seatbelts. My parents were offended. They reminded me, in the plainest possible terms, that they’d had the kids for several days, driven them miles, in fact been driving themselves and me (as a child) for miles and miles, for years and years, and needed no advice or admonitions from me about how to do it safely. The episode may be interpreted in various ways. Among them, that it is not simple to be a parent or a child. The potential for conflict is lifelong and immense.
A woman I know, a sporty little number when she was younger, is a mother now. When things got dicey in the daily parenting skirmish with her folks, she now recalls her mother’s wish that one day my friend should endure a rambunctious daughter of her own, as her just desserts. Her mother is regrettably unavailable these days for advice and counsel. Just when you’ve got to the point where you can say, “Mother, I guess I was kind of a pain,” or “Whew, I never knew what you were up against with me,” just then, there’s no one to say it to.
Parenthood and childhood have their rewards and their miseries, and continuous quality improvement in the discharge of fatherly or motherly responsibilities is usually associated with continuous reassessment of the performance of one’s own parents. As years pass, “In those days, they didn’t know any better” becomes “It’s harder than it looks.” “They had no flexibility, rules were rules, how 1950s is that?” becomes “A few more rules might do some good?”
Son-hood also involves some reappraisal over time. When I was a kid, my mother dressed in her best to take me school shopping. She made me wear a jacket and tie. We would walk two blocks to the bus stop in the August heat, sweating like marathoners. At the bus stop she would notice the annual smudge on my cheek. She dug for the smelly handkerchief in her purse, wet it with her tongue darting out between those bright red lips, and then she’d scrub on me. She wanted me just right.
When he was a teenager, my son would go to school in an oversize sweatshirt and multi-pocketed trousers with the crotch down at his knees. With the help of a GPS, he could not have found his waist. I tried to tune him up. I’d have made him wear a jacket and tie if I could have. I’d have taken a smelly hanky to his horror-stricken face. But kids today are not so pliant. He drew the line. “Dad, this is not the fifties,” he explained. Besides, the fourth of four, he’d seen how the game was played. He knew what he had to put up with and where he might successfully make a stand. I was one of one. I had no training in counter-parenting. I took what came, and lumped it.
During the next three months, parents and children — including almost adult young children home from college, and thoroughly adult, even married, children arriving for a summer stay in the summer place, often with grandchildren in tow — will get together. The assembled multitude may even run to three generations — a concoction of parents, parents, parents, all of whom were, naturally, children, children, children once — seasoned with a second wife or husband now and again, and children from a former marriage, and friends, even boy- or girlfriends, fresh faces or remembered heartthrobs from summers long ago unforgotten. It’s a rich stew.
Two essential points to remember. One is that the point of the parent’s job, from the earliest moment of the relationship, is to push the fledglings out of the nest, bearing in mind that to do so successfully takes a desperately challenging and fortuitous combination of love, discipline, and nurturing. It’s a miracle when it all works out, but miraculously, it often does.
Next, it’s another sort of miracle, a happy one, that they’ve all reconvened. Of course, they may be here mainly for the golf, or the beach, or the sailing, or the Farmer’s Market, but that’s unlikely. More likely they come because things have worked out okay, and the fractiousness of young parent/young child relations has left both sides of the struggle chastened and wiser.
I remember now that as irritating as the seatbelt impasse was to me at the time, and as deeply as my frustrated mother sighed, to let me know how impertinent I had been, we carried on. And years later, when we were together, I knew that although she might at any time reach instinctively for that hanky, she would not brandish it.