Wednesday, May 1, 2013

We Are Our Parents (Children)

by Bill Holmes

 I did something today that reminded me of my Dad. It was just a gesture with my hand, no not an obscene gesture. I realized as soon as I did it that it was one he often made. I've caught myself doing it before but for some reason this time it triggered further reflection that has turned into this blog.

I've noticed many other things I do and say that remind me whose son I am. We can't help but pick up at least a few things from our parents. Most of us live with them for our first 18 or more years. The years when we learn to do all the basic skills like talking, walking, climbing, throwing, running and a million more. We also learn basic beliefs like morals, religion, social, political and fiscal views, not to mention the favorite family routines, traditions, words and sayings. Those are also the years when we absorb things like a sponge. We imitate those around us.  If we are lucky our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins might be around too. That reinforces everything.

There is also the small matter of genetics. Families tend to have similar body types. That influences how we walk, run, throw and jump. Faces, mouths and teeth may be the same which influences how we pronounce words and our tonal quality. Isn't it wonderful how well siblings can harmonize. Not only do their voices blend, they also have the same accents and speech patterns. Listen to the Everly Brothers or Mills Brothers sing for proof. An aside, I went to YouTube to get the above links for the Everly and Mills Brothers. It took about 45 minutes to get back to this blog. It's hard to listen to just one tune by those folks and one thing leads to another.  I would have taken longer but I have a very demanding editor and I had to make deadline.

In my case, some of those influences aren't that strong. Mom was born in New England but spent much of her youth in New Jersey so she had a mixed accent. Neither the pronounced Boston type accent or the harsh accent of the metropolitan New York area. Dad was born and raised in northern New Jersey but his accent wasn't that strong either but it was obvious he didn't grow up in Alabama or Chicago. We moved to Florida when I was six, so I went to school with people who had very different accents from my parents. I have no idea what kind of accent I have. I know it's not a strong northeast or Midwest accent but it's not a deep south drawl or Texas twang. You'll have to ask friends and family. Because of all that, I don't think I talk like my parents but I know I do things like they did. Gestures, facial expressions, sitting positions, phrases and probably other things. I missed out on other big family traditions. By moving 1,000 miles from the rest of the family I didn't have much influence from grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. We didn't go to Aunt Helen's house every Thanksgiving or Nana's house for Christmas.

This would all be horrifying to me when I was 20 or 30, probably at 40, a little less so at 50 and now I don't mind. We would never admit that we did or said anything like our parents when we were growing up. They were old and mostly stupid. They were old fashion and certainly not cool. They couldn't possibly understand what our life was like or what horrendous problems we were dealing with. I didn't want to be anything like my Dad and took every opportunity to reinforce that. Growing up in the 1960's  added to the rebellious leanings but I don't think I really needed much of a push. There was more than a bit of tension during my youth. I couldn't wait to move out of my parents' house.

As long as we are young and single we can continue this charade. We can be self-righteous and smug about our parents values, behavior and old fashion sayings. They are quaint, but completely behind the times. That changes a little when we get into a relationship and either live together or get married. I'm not talking about our living arrangements with our college roommate Bluto, but a more committed and hopefully longer lasting collaboration. That teaches us about compromise and we maybe appreciate some of our parents challenges.

The real change happens when we have children. It's not too bad when the child is an infant although there may be some family traditions carried on. Maybe a pet name for the baby that is common to the clan. Once the kid is a toddler and can understand what we are saying it all changes fast. Here's a question, how long after your first child was born did it take for you repeat a phrase that your parents used? A phrase that you all swore you would never use on your kids. How long did it take for the second and third and fourth and so on “quaint” phrase to slip out? Every family has their cliche phrases and every new generation swears they will never use them. Of course every generation eventually does their part to carry on the family traditions. There are some universal sayings that we've all heard and used. When viewed objectively they may make us cringe but they seemed completely appropriate in the heat of the moment. Many families also have there own little sayings. Probably no more logical but perfect in the right situation.

If we get to live long enough we will see all this happening several times. We may first notice we use a phrase or gesture our parents used. We may notice a familiar behavior in one of our children. So, did they learn it from grandma or from us? If they only see grandma once a year for a few days we probably should look in the mirror. If we live a little longer we will hear our children us a familiar phrase on our grandchildren. Maybe we'll see a familiar look or wink or twinkle by that grandchild that reminds us of our Mom or Grandmother. No one else may notice it, but it's there. When we see it, it brings a smile to our face and maybe a little shake of the head. It feels good. It confirms that the family and gene pool have survived at least another generation or two.

If we pay attention there will be many examples. Ever notice that members of one family holds their fork or pencil the same way or tie their shoes a little differently than another family. Did the kids learn how to tie their shoes like Mom or Dad, a combination or are some kids in Dad's camp and some in Mom's? It's fun to contemplate. Sometimes we don't even notice it.  A long lost aunt may come visit and notice our five year old child does or says something exactly like grandpa. Once pointed out we notice it every time from then on.

The whole point is that we are our parents children and as we get older we become more and more like our parents. I'm not saying we're carbon copies, after all we are a combination of Mom and Dad. We may be totally different in our political leanings. We probably have at least a somewhat different moral compass.
We may have different religious convictions or no religious convictions. Some of my parents beliefs and behavior would be unacceptable today. Not because they were bad people but because times change. My parents were born in 1912 and lived through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and legally enforced segregation. Generations since then have different experiences. Regardless of all those differences, we still carry the family behavior forward. I've said phrases my parents used, I've made a gesture they made, I've reacted to situations the same way they did. I've become more and more like Mom and Dad. Now, that's finally OK. As it turns out, I'm not that much like my father. We had different talents and interests. We did things differently and had different priorities. I probably am more like my Mom but of course there are many differences. She was mostly a housewife and I wasn't. I've had different experiences, lived in a different time and places so we developed different values. Despite those differences, I still make gestures like my Dad and say things my Mom did. If the fork isn't to the left of my plate I put it there. There are many little quirks, some I don't even realize. So, I'm not exactly my Dad or Mom just like my kids are exactly me. We are all different but we damn sure are related. 

Embrace it and watch our children become us. It's been happening for centuries and will continue for a few more despite the younger generation's denial that it will ever happen to them. We start out life as our parents' children and end it as our parents.

I think I'll have a nightcap now or as Dad used to say “just a short nightcap” or “a short one”.  Sometimes it wasn't actually that short but the last drink of the day was always “a short one” regardless of how big or tall it was. Goodnight Dad.


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