It’s easy for adults to look back and find fault with their parents; it’s been in vogue ever since Freud, I suppose. In some ways it’s healthy for a person to evaluate his upbringing to see which aspects of it he wishes to pass on to his own children, which ways of parenting he’d like to emulate.
In my case, I’ve done a lot of mental review of my childhood; part of this arises from the fact that I can’t help it–I have a really good memory, and scenes from childhood often come back unbidden. Part comes from my attempts at figuring out what the heck happened in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the things that defined the “givens” of my world were assaulted by unseen forces reaching all the way into our family and grabbing hold of my oldest sister–the sister who taught me to read before I went to school, who introduced me to Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare, and who left my world to reside in a very strange and incomprehensible universe.
While there have been times when I wondered if there might have been something my parents could have done differently, something that might have changed the outcome for my sister, I never felt that what transpired was their fault. The chaos of the era was so all-encompassing, so pervasive, I have to believe that an entire generation of parents was taken completely by surprise; they were absolutely unprepared for what happened. In this column I wish to give you a glimpse of my parents by sharing some of the many gifts they gave me during my childhood.
My father worked at numerous jobs during my lifetime. He repaired appliances, sold furniture, worked as a broadcast engineer at various local television stations, sold products door-to-door, and owned his own business as a house painter. In all of these jobs he was known for being hard-working and reliable; for awhile, he worked the night shift as a broadcast engineer and sold Amway during the day.
During this time he cared for my little sister during the half of the day she was not in preschool or kindergarten. As a painter he was known for his meticulous work, his care of his clients’ furniture and belongings, his promptness, and his gracious manner with his clients–things one doesn’t always find in contract workers. Some jobs were more difficult than others (he was not a natural salesman for example), and some were very stressful, but he was not a complainer.
The same was true of my mother, who only worked outside the home after I entered the first grade. Her secretarial work at GM was very demanding, and because she was away from home all day, she got up very early to make lunches for my three sisters, my dad, and me, then prepared dinner after getting home; she often worked at the sewing machine making clothes after dinner. I honestly don’t know how she did all that she did. During the Christmas season, one end of our kitchen table would be covered with things she was in the process of baking, and the other with Christmas cards, stamps, and addresses; she wrote a personal note by hand in each one of them. If she complained about any of this, I don’t remember it.
We attended church every Sunday, and I never doubted the sincerity of my parents’ faith. Each morning, after giving thanks for the food prepared by my mother (she made something different each morning for breakfast, which we all ate together at the table), my father would read to us from a devotional book. We often prayed for people we knew who were facing difficulties or illness, and every morning my mother would be up early, reading her Bible and praying. My father taught an adult Sunday School class for many years, and was dearly loved and respected by the members of his class. Even as teenagers, my sister and I would sit in my parents’ room before bed, telling them our worries and concerns, and asking them to pray for us. Their faith has always been at the forefront of their lives.
As I mentioned, my mother prepared breakfast each morning, and we never ate the same thing two days in a row. We ate breakfast and dinner as a family every day; there is nothing quite the same as that kind of consistency, and nothing like sharing a meal together to make you aware of what’s going on in the lives of your family members.
Our meals were not always pleasant–there were times when there was a great deal of tension, and times when uncomfortable things were addressed. At other times we discussed current events, planned vacations, discussed upcoming tests and school activities, and joked together. We grew to know each others’ likes and dislikes, and shared both our difficulties and our successes. At a time when daily life often seems very fragmented, I am grateful for having experienced this gift of family mealtimes.
I spent many hours with my mother before I began attending school. I watched her care for our home, ironing, doing laundry, vacuuming, and preparing meals, usually singing or humming as she worked. She always kept our home clean and orderly, taught us to do chores, insisted we make our beds when we got up, and never left the kitchen in a mess.
She never yelled at us, and was always very patient to show us how to measure brown sugar or sweep the floor carefully, to quiz us for tests or just listen to our troubles. When I was little, my mother and I often ate lunch together on the floor at the front door, enjoying the warm sunshine through the glass, and I remember waking up from my nap to find her watching the Loretta Young show or I Love Lucy as she ironed.
My father took the time to play games with us, both board games and outdoor games like badminton, croquet, or Frisbee, and he made a swingset and teeter-totter for us in the back yard. He was the one who would take us out on the spur of the moment for ice cream, or to a movie. We often had cookouts, either in the back yard or at a local park, and once in awhile we would all go swimming at a public pool; he taught me to swim and to dive, and it was a really big treat every now and then to swim late into the evening, as it began to grow dark. I have lovely memories of sitting in his lap as he read me stories, fun and frosty memories of being pulled behind him on the sled, and one special memory of being taken on a “tour” of Carlsbad Caverns by looking at slides he showed me and my sister while sitting under the kitchen table with a blanket draped over it (for the appropriate cave-like effect.)
Every summer my parents took us on family vacations. We would all contribute to the decision of where we would go that year, whether camping in a national park, visiting relatives in Indiana, touring the nation’s capitol, or going to Disneyland. One year we traveled up the California coast on Highway 1, got to play in the surf of both the southern and northern parts of the state, and saw the big Redwood trees. We went to the Tournament of Roses Parade one year, and experienced an earthquake. We were staying in a grand old house in Galveston TX the year we watched Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon, and we were somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota when my dad pulled the car to the side of the road in order to listen to Richard Nixon’s resignation on the radio. We saw the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone; we encountered bears up close and personal at least three times, swam in icy streams and hot springs, toured Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Monticello and the White House, and stood at the edge of Lover’s Leap. We always drove, rarely stayed in motels, and nearly always cooked our own meals outdoors. When I was little, I sometimes prayed that I could live my life over again, just so I could relive the vacations.
The last gift I’ll mention is the gift of music. When I was very young, my mother noticed me picking out tunes on the piano and asked if I’d like to take lessons. I said I would, and enjoyed piano lessons until I was about 12, when I figured I’d taken them long enough; I was tired of practicing, and expected that Jr. High School would bring more interesting activities. At that point, my mother mentioned the possibility of taking lessons from a University professor, but said I would have to audition for him to see if he would accept me as a student. I couldn’t turn down the challenge. I was accepted after the try-out, and a whole new world of music opened up to me. My teacher introduced me to some of the greatest music ever written, entered me in numerous contests, and I discovered a love of practicing simply for the joy of working through the music.
My parents had to endure hours of listening to me practice, pay for all those lessons, get me to and from the lessons, and often travel with me to contests. These lessons and competitions led to scholarships and eventually a degree in piano performance. While this might easily have been considered a “useless” degree, my parents supported me in pursuing it. I laid my playing aside to devote myself to my family, and then to teaching school. Even though I never became a professional performer, and even though I’ve lost some of the facility I once had, I still have access to that beauty–because of my parents’ investment, I can read and play some of the world’s most beautiful and beloved music.
My parents are typical of their generation–hard-working, honest, full of goodwill and integrity. Neither attended college, and neither aspired to great wealth or any kind of notoriety. As loving parents, they gave us everything they had–love of God, love of learning, devotion to family, commitment to responsibility, patriotism, good humor, and a solid marriage. They gave us advice when we asked, but never butted in. They lived life as it came, the good times and the difficult times, without complaining. They made me want to be like them, to follow in their footsteps and have a family of my own. I am the person I am because of the life and the gifts given to me by these two people. There is no way I can ever thank them adequately, but the things they gave me have been passed on to my own five children and, I imagine, will be passed on to theirs. Thank you, Mother and Daddy, for everything! I love you.