On Day 3 I wrote, “I am throwing off the satanic shhh don’t tell of my middle-class, midwestern Christian childhood.” On Day 4 the question I ask is, “How do I set aside my childhood expectations and love my parents, the people Mom and Dad really are?”
A statement and a question, intersecting and intertwined, thrown off and set aside. My mother would cringe at satanic – a word with scads of shock value. I like to do that. Shock her. Watching my mother apply her lipstick in the rearview mirror of her blue 1968 Ford Galaxy, shhh don’t tell is what I heard. Not specifically in the car, but throughout my childhood. What did we need to keep secret? My parents paid bills on time, valued education, participated in community and in church – just like their middle-class mid-American neighbors. What is it we weren’t supposed to tell?
Today, decades later, the answer still escapes me. No dark childhood memories haunt me, no events dug up would merit a headline in the next issue of Psychology Today. Why shhh don’t tell?
Recently an intimate group of four strangers, including a man whose work I greatly admire, heard me tell my story – the story of me. After listening and responding, the man gave me an intriguing directive: respond with your ability. Not the tired take responsibility, but something that challenged me. Respond with my ability.
I am not expecting my parents to enthusiastically subject themselves to my new quest of discovery, to gather around the kitchen table submitting to impromptu therapy sessions led by an untrained me for my benefit – and in the event my own children are reading this – I want to state for the record that I respect my parents’ right to privacy. Living out that respect is often quite challenging.
There are other challenges.
The human mind itself contains natural barriers to my quest. A single event videotaped is concise and factual. A single event witnessed by three different people within minutes becomes three unique eyewitness accounts. Memories held for decades will be even more divergent. Or worse, a single event held in the heart of the child, may not even register as a memory in the minds of her parents.
There are the hurdles inherent in the aging human body. My father lost his vision to macular degeneration more than a decade ago and his physical ability to hear deteriorates with every passing year. Conversation is difficult, visual cues non-existent. So, how do I unlock this puzzle box?
Like a newbie C.S.I. field agent, I need to look for tiny interconnected clues in the people who are before me today, overlaying these bits with the people I remember as my parents, checking to see what my sisters remember and examining the evidence from every possible angle.
Today Mom and Dad love their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They seem happiest when we gather together for celebrations – holidays and birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, births and baptisms – times I so often find tiresome. Is it because I am not engaging, because I am withholding something myself?
What are my abilities? I can see and hear. I can choose to watch and listen.
I will engage in conversations and ask questions. I will let go of my childish, childhood expectations and choose to see my parents as both mentors and peers. I will not be intimidated. I will not be a bully. I will seek the heartache and joy behind my parents’ words, and respond with encouragement as their stories unfold. I will pray for guidance in our short time together here on earth.