|My parents, circa 1954|
They were in their 40s when they adopted me, which doesn't seem like a big deal in today's world of assisted fertility and later starts to families, but in 1963, my parents were old enough to be any of my peers' grandparents.
But this isn't about me, but about them, and about how relationships shift between children and parents. Okay, maybe it is a little about me, since I'm seeing this change on two fronts: with my father and with my own children.
My father is 91. While he has physical health problems, his mind is sharp and he is living alone in an apartment with a very supportive community around him. My father is not a formally educated man beyond his high school diploma. He enlisted in the Navy during the second World War and served as a sonar operator on a series of ocean-going tugs. After the war, he went into sales with his brother, and then started a small family business.
I remember him as both impatient and driven (in business) and patient and loving (at home), but always a man of few words and rarely expressed emotion. Which is why it's all the more surprising to me to have witnessed his transformation over the past several years into a meditative, thoughtful communicator.
We have always been able to talk about anything, but our conversations were usually more one way - my dad offering advice or giving his opinions about politics or world events. We didn't usually talk about feelings. He certainly never verbalized regrets.
Now, I'm a grown up in my own right, with emerging adult children (18 and 20 years old) of my own. My relationship with my father has changed in subtle and not so subtle ways. We talk as equals now, with my father confiding his fears and regrets and asking me about mine.
It's a powerful place to be in - to see your father as fully human. As a person, not just as a role.
Some of the stories he told me on my recent visit were ones I knew from previous tellings. I do not regret hearing these family stories over and over. They are my inheritance and I treasure them. But some of what he told me in very frank conversations, shook my understanding of who my parents were, not so much as parents, but as people and in relation to one another.
My father told me how much he regretted never being able to make my mother happy. Not with the home he bought her, not with bringing me to that home as an infant when she couldn't have a second child, not when his business began to do well and he was able to travel to Europe with her to all the places she had dreamed about visiting.
And I think his regret always tinged his life with sadness. I could see it in his eyes when he confessed that he often wondered if she had married the wrong man.
I was at turns uncomfortable and grateful by his trust in me. The fact that he could talk about this with clarity and with insight moved me to tears. I told him that none of their unhappiness spilled over into my own childhood perceptions of them, and that I always felt loved and cherished. And I also told him that he had no cause for recrimination or blame. You cannot make another person happy. You can only invite them to share in your happiness.
That my mother could not, was a terrible waste, but was not my father's fault. If he has taught me nothing else, it's that I am responsible for my own life and my own happiness.
I hope that as my own children shift into adulthood, that they have absorbed some of those generational lessons. Certainly they have grown with a model of a relationship that works in my marriage with their father. One based on love, affection, and mutual respect. I think my parents had the respect, but not so much the affection and much of my father's love for her was not reciprocated.
It's a complicated thing, this shifting relationships from parent and child to two adults. I hope I am navigating it in a way that honors both my father and my own children.