Who are we to them now?


Another year in the hopper. And what have we learned?

A while back, on Main Street, I ran into a young woman who has been a friend of my oldest daughter since preschool. We were both prowling for Christmas shopping inspiration. The window of opportunity was closing. Good ideas had eluded me. It was a relief to stop for a few minutes to reminisce.

Twenty-six years ago, the kids, including this young woman, swam at Edgartown Great Pond. I remember her sitting at the water’s edge, hugging her knees, giggling. I remember the shows she and my daughter put on for us, often an exhausted and unwilling audience. Together, they wrote nonsensical sketches and performed them standing on ottomans in front of the woodstove in that summer house on Vineyard Sound that we rented for two frigid winters. My daughter sang rock music, her dear friend was a country and western diva.

She is not a little girl anymore. She’s a professional woman, a mother, married and carrying on through relationship turbulence to a steady, reunited state. The giggling is muted. After all, life takes a toll, but good humor, equanimity, even a certain mordant worldliness have survived.

Folks change, but sometimes we miss the the transformations. That’s especially true with children. But, this Christmas, with all four of ours far away and full of their adult lives, change is unmistakable. Parents are often late to the lesson that they actually have two sets of descendants. There are the ones we have in mind when we think of the kids. And then there are, surprising sometimes, the ones who the kids have become.

How to reconcile what they were and what they are? It’s taxing, and I’m reluctant. It can be shattering. We share a meal. I watch carefully and see glimpses of the little ones they were and puzzle over the young men and women they are. Who are these adult visitors?

It works both ways. Speaking of no one you know, of course, Charles Dickens described his creation Pip’s uneasiness as he contemplated his father-like benefactor:

“Words cannot tell what a sense I had of the dreadful mystery that he was to me. When he fell asleep of an evening, with his knotted hands clenching the sides of the easy chair, and his bald head tattooed with the deep wrinkles falling forward on his breast, I would sit and look at him, wondering what he had done, until the impulse was powerful on me to start up and fly from him. I doubt if a ghost could have been more terrible to me.”

Of course, Pip’s father figure, as Dickens conjured him, was a murderer wanted by police, not like you and me, as we are, conventional men and women, familiar parents to these former children. But they puzzle over us, I guess, as we do them. We have we become mysteries to them.

It is a relief that the young ones have gone off on their own. The college bills are done. Moll and I can start living our lives again. That sort of relief.

Or, it can be prideful. That one was an odd little duck as a child. Charming, but a challenge. Now, she’s got a responsible job in a big city. Her sister is the mother of two. Each in her own way is helping make the world, her world, better. The boys, similarly, are well started, even accomplished, though maybe not settled, still searching. Things have worked out the way we planned. Just happenstance really, not effective day to day management, as one might like to think.

It can be troubling, these moments of adjustment. Imagine, she says, Dad, I met Anatole. He’s French and frisky (my word, not hers). He’ll be staying with us.

Or, Dad, I won’t be coming back East this Christmas. It’s hard to get time off. Or, it’s just too much traveling with two kids under four. Or, I’ve got a line on a new, bigger job.

Every step I take along Main Street at Christmas brings me face to face with young men and women who were, and in my enduring memory still seem, kids – driving go-karts, grooming their dolls’ hair, building imaginary villages on the floor of the bathroom, playing field hockey or hockey or basketball or lacrosse. And their parents, who could not stop shaking their heads wonderingly as they shopped with their children, stopped to talk about how the kids are all grown up now.

One dear, chattery mother told me, her head cycling a mile a minute, that her daughter, just back from a graduate program in England, is now arranging a longer stay in the U.K., for another, higher degree. She marveled, and admiringly, threw up her hands in fond resignation.

The question is, must we stunned parents — so wise when the kids were kids, now so yesterday to these young adults we spawned — adapt? Would these mutating offspring be happier with us if we transformed ourselves into hipper, more mobile, less conservative, more cyber-iffic, barely recognizable incarnations of the duds we used to be?

Or do they take satisfaction in our gaping mouths, our bewildered glances, and the head shaking that they provoke in their elders.

With luck, and if they have the iPhones handy, they’ll tweet us an answer.