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Life Arts

GOING AWAY PRESENTS ; "Nobody wakes up suddenly bald. You rise for years with hair on your pillow and pay no attention

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"A woman puts her arm in a sweater,"- said my elderly aunt, "and out comes her mother's hand." At some point, in each of our lives, we begin to observe in our own behavior a trait of our parents. Whether it is a gesture, an inflection, or a habit, these mannerisms and attitudes were handed to us, often without our knowing, and usually carried unopened for years. I call them going away presents.

There has been much thinking on whether we inherit or snatch these presents from our parents. In fact, we do both. Certainly, a great deal that passes for growing up is only another term for socially sophisticated mimicry. But while we are chimps drinking tea in flowered hats, we are also biological cul-de-sacs with eons of accumulated flotsam gathered at our curbs.

Nobody wakes up suddenly bald. You rise for years with hair on your pillow and pay no attention. The idea that we will all appear in some shadow role as our parents is something we probably saw in our parents and even in their play with their parents. And ignored.

We have a tremendous capacity to ignore or deny information which interferes with how we want to be seen by ourselves. The idea, for any of us, when we are young that we are going to be old, let alone our parents, is a thought which would necessitate youth's reframing of itself. And it won't. We can't picture ourselves as our parents.

Nevertheless, like the African frogs who slumber in dry river beds through years of drought, when the life showers of parenting, emotional distress, or middle-age begin to rain on us, our gifts begin to stir. We are unexpecting witnesses to who and what swims to the surface.

My father was a man of much love and few words. When we rode together in a car, we would sit next to each other for hours, and he would say almost nothing. In that quiet we shared, I felt his deepest presence. Several years back I noticed I had been driving with my son for a prolonged period and had said nothing. I am not a man of few words, and I heard my father in that journey of silence.

I tag my closing phone conversation with my daughter by telling her to drive safely. I put the phone down and see my wife standing, staring at me. "You sounded just like your mother,"- she says. "Well,"- I say, upset at being visualized in a skirt, "sometimes you sound just like your mother."- I feel a need to strike back in order to give myself some fighting room. A chance to think about things. My wife's comment isn't negative, it's an observation. I love my mother. I think she's a great woman. But I'd just as soon be me. And I am. It's just that parents get under our skin. Which is their right I suppose, since they gave it to us.

We're proud of our parents but know them too well. We see the whole show. Or more of the show than most. We've seen them in a wide range or roles. Seen them blow a few parts. Do comedy. And play the hero. Accuse someone of being their like their parents, and the question is in what role? Doing Hamlet, Groucho, or Frankenstein? The truth is that we are all thespians who have studied under masters trying to master life. Trying.

Parents sometimes lose their children in a crowd. And children are sometimes wise to lose aspects of their parents. I just as soon my children take the best and leave the rest. We are all burdened with our selves. There are parts of me I have spent my life trying to set down.

Not to be lost in this intergenerational gift-fest is the realization that not all of this is negative. Otherwise how did we get to be such great people? While the giving is sly the presents are not all without value. There are "white elephants"- and diamonds. The mix is curious and the number can often fill a trunk. We get the good and the "yuuch."-

When we are young we swear this will never happen to us. And then one day we notice that we swear like our parents. Or don't swear because they swore. You see how hard it is to get off this bus.

What we get and who we get it from is not always a choice. We can decide to be patient like our mother and discover the anger of our father. We can hope for our father's humor and receive our mothers narrowness. Mix into this confusion, the chance that we will get their attitudes on each other and on gender in general, and the pot begins to boil. We have all been served bowls of Parent Soup.

So, the next time you pass a mirror and see your parents remember that what you see isn't only yours. All of us, in some ways, will be shared by others. Some of these people will know us. While with others, their children and their children's children may never know us. Life is a gift from God, and all of us pass the presents along.

 

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is one of North America's most respected and beloved poet-philosophers. He is the international best selling author of 20 books translated into 18 languages including the famed Jacob the Baker series and a source of strength to millions around the (more...)
 

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