At eighty-one my mother still enjoys combing out the snarls in my hair. She smiles, shakes the brush in my face, and tells me to sit still, and I squirm on the hard plastic seat of the toilet, just as I did when I was three. When I grow up, I want to be just like my mother, and my father, the two persons in my life I had once ignored, and absorbed.
When I was a small child, perhaps around the age of three, I became acutely aware that I was not independent but needed my parents. When I was hungry, cold, or tired, I cried to my mother. When I fell down, needed help with my homework, or had my feelings hurt by one of the neighborhood bullies, I cried to whichever parent was available. By the time I was a teenager, I needed rides, or the keys to the car, and money. All these physical,and material things, I needed my parents to get for me, until I finally grew up, and could get them for myself. It was not until I became a parent myself that I understandably gained a different perspective. As a child, I did not consider education anything more than something I had to do to please my parents to get more of what I wanted, nor did I give much thought to religion, other than how to skip church without my parents finding out. As a parent, I saw education as a necessary tool of survival, and I sought to instill a desire to learn in my children instead of posing a threat of punishment if I failed to go to school, or church, or some other social program that they sought to put me in. I altered the parenting plan based upon my past revulsion with the way that I was raised, and adjusted it with the assistance of my limited life experience at the time. However, at times, I still used the staunch discipline methods handed down from my parents. Years of yelling, nagging, and spanking had left its impact upon me. I yelled at my daughters until their faces wrinkled up, and tears exploded out of their eyes like water balloons. I chided, and belittled them in front of each other, and sometimes their friends when I thought they did something insanely stupid, like whining at the supper table, killing a spider that sat in the corner of the living room window with a rock, or riding their bike in the street towards oncoming traffic, thinking it would prevent them from doing it again, and forgetting that this same kind of parenting did little to alter my own disposition. I saw religion as some deep seated tradition that had been imposed upon the generations as a way of controlling the masses. God will punish you if hit your bother without provocation, or you will go to hell if you don’t go to church. I wanted more from my children. I was going to be a better parent. I wanted them to embrace the religious tenets without imposing the fear, and nagging. Like my parents before me, I wanted them to be prepared when they set off from home to make their own way in the world, and raised their own children–but I wanted to do it differently. I wanted to inspire them, and then they grew up, had children of their own. It was only then I realized that their was more to being a parent than merely providing the basic necessities of life. I began to recall how my own mother sang to me whenever I was afraid of the dark, how she constantly spoke of God and the sacrifices of the saints, and other stories in the bible, or she made comments at the dinner table, giving her opinion about the current events unfolding on television, and in the print news media. Viet Nam was a terrible mess, we shouldn’t be there, or why can’t we all just get along, black people should be able to use our bathrooms, after all, they were people too; women should be paid equally for doing the same work as men, it was only fair. These principles oozed from my mother’s mouth as she spouted on about the injustices she saw. They imbedded into me, and my other siblings, who appeared to have grown up believing in equality of the sexes, and races, and to be tolerant of other persons views, including gays, and even those who vehemently oppose them. All of them go to church, albeit not all of them catholic, but still subscribed to Christian values. By her example, we all learned how to get along with others who were different, and those who did not subscribe to our way of thinking.
Her mother was a poor, uneducated, Irish immigrant. Nana came over on a ship with her two older brothers from Ireland when she was twelve. She worked as a chambermaid later in life. She cared for an ailing, alcoholic husband, who left her a railroad worker’s widow by the age of thirty-two, and she raised her five children pretty much on her own. Being a staunch Irish Catholic, every child had to go to church wearing their freshly-starched, Sunday-best clothes, and spit shined Floresheim shoes. Being poor did not mean being dirty. Nana scrimped and saved, cleaned and sewed, and taught her children to do the same. she made meals out of scraps that most people would have thrown out, and made it taste like a meal at the Ritz. I remember my mother did most of the heavy cleaning in our house, none of her seven children were required to join the battle against dirt, but on occasion she enlisted our support to vacuum, or wash floors, when her stomach grew too heavy with the next child waiting to come into this world, or when she was sick. And there was one time when she had the varicose veins stripped out of her legs, my father hired a maid to come in to help her, but let the maid go, when he came home to check on my mother one day, and found the maid sitting at the table with her legs up and my mother serving her hot tea.
My father was a work-a-holic. He grew up on a farm in rural Vermont in the years just before WWII. His mother was a French-Canadian immigrant. She had to fight for her education. Her father did not believe in educating women. It would be a waste of money where they would get married, become pregnant, and stay home raising the children. My Meme had wake up at four every day, do her chores, then hook up the horses to the wagon or sleigh, and drive her two brothers to school. Once she wiped the horses down and put them into the barn nearby, she could stand in the back of the classroom with two other girls, each holding a slate to write the lessons on, while the boys sat in their seats getting their education. During the war my grandmother managed to keep her children clothed, fed, and sheltered. At fourteen, my father was the only male left on the farm to do the heavy chores, and Grammy leaned heavily upon him.
“You never worked a day in your life. You lazy bum. You don’t know what its like to really have to work.” My father’s lines to me every time I used to complain about chores. It would be winter, my hands have been outside working in the wet, and cold. The Knuckles would be so raw that they would crack open and bleed when I made a fist. I swore that when I became a parent I would never fall trap to these kinds of deriding statements. So what do you think I did to my own children? I yelled like he did, belittled them at times, whenever they whined about how tough life is, but the one thing I did not do, at least after I caught myself doing it to my first child, was to slap her on her bottom so hard it left a mark; and of course I never used anything other than my voice to correct them thereafter.
My children did not have to lay in bed on their stomach or sides because their parent had used a leather belt, holding them up in the air with one hand while he smacked their bare bottom, usually until raised red welts popped up, and sometimes bled. My mother would sneak into my room after with a cold wash cloth and clean my wounds. I would shout out how much I hated him, and then cry harder because I really didn’t, I wanted his love, and respect. I wanted him to be proud of me, and I was ashamed that I did not meet his expectations. My mother would hush me,and tell me that I deserved it because I had talked back to him, or done something wrong, and that he loved me, and it hurt him to have to punish me, but it was for my own good. I cried harder, but then quieted when I realized how much it hurt her to see me in pain. Its how I learned to keep it inside, ball up the white heat that burned from beneath my breast and pushed acids from my stomach up into my throat. I tightened my stomach, and the muscles of my throat so hard I would choke up whenever I was near my father. I had my first ulcer when I was thirteen. My father used to tease me at the supper table: “It’s not what you eat, it’s what’s eatin’ you.” I’d crack a smile, and pretend he didn’t hurt me when he said that. He didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, which he usually did. He had meant to toughen me up, make me able to survive in the world without him looking out for me–in case he wasn’t there someday.
It is no wonder parenting is viewed as an anarchism and often criticized when people only consider what their parents said as obsolete without realizing all that experience that went into saying it. His world, the only reference he had to prepare his children to live in was a hard place. You had to be tough enough to make it in case your father walked away when he was still your only hero. It took several years after I had left his home and been on my own even to be able to talk to him without choking on the emotion that lay beneath the surface. And nearly my lifetime before I had realized that he was choking too. He was a good provider and as my mother often had to assure me growing up, he loved us, he just doesn’t know how to show it. I cried at his funeral. It was only after he died, that I realized that parenting was more than spanking, shouting, locking some recalcitrant child up in her room. It was living for them, and dying–all in the same breath some unspoken tenet: I want you to be better than I ever was.
I have raised three daughters. One of my daughters complains that I had abandoned her, I did not do much with her while spending most of my time with her older sisters because they were athletes, and outgoing and she was not. Another one of my daughters confided recently that she felt isolated growing up and could not confide in me because she feared me. I yelled a lot, pushed my agenda on them to do what I wanted them to do. I made them work hard to become world class athletes. she says that she hardly speaks to her sisters—they are close–but had nothing to talk about, doesn’t know what to say, and only speaks to me on holidays or once in a while which could be several months, while some of her colleagues at work hear from their mother every day. My other daughter complains that I am self centered–everything was about me, what I wanted, implying that I controlled them. The whole world they lived in appeared to center around me. I made them do what I wanted them to do and they had no say in it. She reminds me often that I cannot take credit for their suffering, or their mistakes, anymore than I can take credit for their accomplishments. One graduated from West point, the other FIT and is still a high ranking military officer, and the third poor abandoned daughter is teaching for a living. She raises her own children a boy and a girl as strictly–perhaps more strictly-than I had with her. When my children complain that they are thirty something and have no friends, feel isolated, abandoned, have no friends, or social skills, and are unable to socialize with other females, I feel regret, sorrow, and remorse. I though I had been a spectacular parent, I never struck them once, never made them bleed, only gave them encouragement, and thought I was doing the right thing–and I thought I would have their vote of support once they got old enough to appreciate it. When each tells me their complaint, I wait until I am alone, and I cry. These are times that being a parent sucks.
I was nine-teen when Jen was born. I had only my parents as an example, and they had theirs’– when they were around. I did the best that I could and learned as I went. Kind of on the job training. Then I wondered, when does it stop? Do parents become obsolete after children leave the house, grow up, become a certain age, receive their gold clusters, or have their own children? When do parents become obsolete? NEVER! I didn’t resign, I’m still a parent–but with different responsibilities. My lessons are taught differently.
Parenting was never the words we used, but our actions–like do as I say, not as I do. It was always the do, that mattered. Without realizing it our parents influenced our lives by the way they lived. Their true feelings, and messages to were telegraphed to their children by the manner that they displayed their love, and direction. After beating me with his belt my father would always go into his own bedroom and close the door, and wouldn’t resurface again until the next day. My mother told me years later that he used to go in there pull the covers of his bed down, slide in and curl up in a ball with his face away from her so that she could not see his tears. He didn’t beat me because he wanted to hurt me, his intent was to make me a better person. This may not be the best parenting, in fact I condemn striking a child at all for any reason even to this day, however, I can forgive him because he meant well. I had to weather some very difficult time in my life, and know that but for some of the toughness he instilled into me, I would not have made it through, although wished he’d found a better alternative to hitting me–which I believe he could have, had he had knowledge that it was the way he lived, worked, and played that I adopted as my own. He worked hard all of his life, was honest, truthful and forthright. Even when it was to his detriment he admitted when he was wrong, and accepted his responsibility. I lived under these principles, and hope that I have instilled them in my own children. I became a workaholic like him, except that I purposely made time for my children–perhaps as I now hear them complain–to a fault. I would go right from work and to a soccer filed. or ballet class or softball match, track meet, bowling alley, and whatever my children were enrolled in–admittedly that I had put them in.
They may not have noticed, but they too have adopted the principles of my father, and mother, and me, and essentially their grand-parents and great-grand-parents. They are hardworking, honest and loving people–who because of the evolution of parenting, at least in this family, their children will inherit some of these if not all traits, and hopefully improve on them. As a parent still its my responsibility to continue to improve, learn from my mistakes as I had from those of my parents, and offer my advice, counsel and love in a new way. Parents do not become obsolete, they just forget sometimes that they are parents. I hope that like my own father and mother, that when my children remember me that they remember the way I had lived more than the yelling, and that I never gave up on them–I always remained their parent, there when they needed me, only differently. Be well, love your children, be their parent and Do.