Monday, October 10, 2011

Do you really know your parents?

‎"I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, established-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives..."
~~ Jack Kerouac

This post was inspired by a simple question a friend asked me the other night ... "Can you tell me a story about your parents?"

We are always telling stories about ourselves and about our kids, but our parents are often just sort of "there" - taken for granted in the background. Of course, there are the "Argh, my parents!" stories that people often tell, detailing where their moms and/or dads are driving them crazy. But, when is the last time you told someone a story about how cool and amazing your parents are?

Maybe part of the reason such stories are rare is that you have, by definition, only known your parents since they became parents.

As far as you have experienced, they have "always" been the ones trying to keep you safe. Working long hours at "boring" jobs to keep you clothed and fed. Giving you so much that is underappreciated, and then being remembered for the things they had to tell you you couldn't have. Of course, you are much more fascinating and awesome than they've ever been, right?

Not so fast. Have you ever actually dug into that? Ever actually looked behind their "parent persona" to find out who else they are, or have been? Most importantly, who were they before you came along (probably changing everything for them)? What dreams did they have that they gave up to be the best parent they knew how to be instead. Did they want to travel the world? Did they plan to be a rock star. Did they settle for less than they could have had or been, to give you everything that you have now?

Why don't we ask to hear those stories? Could it be that we want our parents to be boring and straightforward and simple, so we can feel more daring and interesting and complex in comparison?

There are stories we don't tell our children while they are young, because they are perhaps best to not know. But now that you are "all grown up", wouldn't it be cool to get to know your parents as "real people"? If you are having trouble wrapping your head around what I mean, ask yourself this instead, "Wouldn't it be great if my kids could someday know me as the multi-dimensional person who I really am, instead of just as the role that I play in their lives?"

If you really want to give your mother or father an important, memorable, loving gift on Mother's Day or Father's Day, how about asking them to spend several hours with you, telling you who they are, what they want their life to mean, what dreams they had and what dreams they still have? And then really listen. REALLY LISTEN. Not through any filters that you already have, but as though you are meeting them for the first time (because, in a sense, you almost certainly are).

I have been blessed with amazing parents, and do not take for granted how fortunate I am in that sense. Still, my knowing of them is almost entirely in relation to me and my siblings. I know them as parents, much more than as people. Yet, he snippets I do know are actually pretty cool...

I know that my Dad skipped a couple of grades and went to the University of Western Ontario at 16 years old. I know that he broke his leg when he was twelve sliding into home plate in the Ontario Baseball Championships. I know that he is one of the funniest people I have ever met, even though most people have never seen that side of him. I know that he has been friends with some super famous people and yet never makes a big deal about it.

I know that my Mom went to the University of New Brunswick where she sang with Ann Murray. I know that Mom went through a rebellious phase in her teens and caused my grandparents some sleepless nights. And I am no longer even a bit surprised when someone tells me of yet another of her extraordinary acts of generosity for which she wants no credit or repayment.

Some day my parents will be gone - yours may already be. I can picture myself at their funerals, with strangers and friends alike telling me wonderful stories that I never knew. My discovering myriad aspects of my parents that I never celebrated with them while they were alive. This is a scenario that I still have the ability to rewrite.  I want to be able to laugh and cry along with familiar stories about these beautiful people who I TRULY knew, at least as well as anyone else in the world!

I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day (in Canada), and am giving enormous thanks for my parents - and also for my friend who asked a simple question that has opened up a whole new world of love and appreciation and celebration for me.


Three quick, relevant links ...

1. "Big Fish" - an amazing movie about discovering that your parents ARE much more interesting than you ever believed. I had the good fortune of being stranded in Vaughan in a blizzard, while driving with my sister to my grandfather's funeral. We took refuge in a theatre and watched this film. Incredibly fitting, as he was so much like the father in this movie that it was hard to believe this was just a coincidence.

2. Harry Chapin's classic song, "Cat's In The Cradle". Every young parent listens to this song as a cautionary tale reminding us to spend time with our children. But listen today to the second half, and hear your parents who tried so hard to do right by you, for all the challenges and shortcomings that life affords. And consider that you don't have to be that son/daughter who doesn't have time for them. No matter how much you do for them, it will rarely ever compare to the love that they gave you.

3. "I Love You Forever" ... a reading of Robert Munsch's beautiful book about a mother's unconditional love for her son and that son's love for his mother :)