Hello from Kraków,
Forty-seven years ago today, I became an uncle. I wax 16 years old and working two summer jobs. I was staying at my grandmother’s house for the summer, and while I was trying to be responsible, I still had a lot to learn. During that hot July, my older brother and his wife of only 7 months, who were now living in Lawrence, Kansas, would become parents to a baby boy. It was not the life or the place probably either of them imagined residing, but this unexpected move toward parenting had changed their college plans and the world of being a family, of parenting, was now their reality. My brother was a member of an up-and-coming Chicago/BS&T band that had made quite a name for themselves throughout the Midwest and their booking company was located in Lawrence. My sister-in-law, who was exceptionally talented in her own right, had left her New Jersey (across the River from NYC) life to attend college in NW Iowa, I am pretty sure this was not what either she or her family expected as she pursued a music degree. While she and I have spoken, and I know her moving away to college was sort of in here DNA, I am still not sure how she ended up finding Morningside College.
That was a transforming summer for me. It taught me about frailty because during the trip my parents would take to visit their new grandchild, my father would suffer a heart attack. This was before the days of bypass or catheterization, and not realizing the extend of his cardiac episode, my father would drive himself home from Lawrence to Sioux City, a distance of exactly 300 miles. Not an exceedingly long drive, but it was if you had just had a heart attack. I was not home as noted because I was working two jobs and I had to be at the bakery before 6:00 a.m. and I was not yet really driving that much and I did not have a car. In addition, I worked a second job in the evening from 5:00 p.m. until midnight and I worked 6 days a week. Therefore, it was logistically easier to stay at my grandmother’s who owned the bakery, and she was kind enough to let me borrow a work car if needed. I did, however, that summer buy my first car. It was a 1964 Impala and I purchased it for a whoppin’ $175.00. My grandmother also put me on her company insurance, so that saved me a lot of money. I was aware that my parents had gone to Kansas to visit the new parents, but I was not aware of what occurred during their visit. I would not learn that my father returned to be placed in Intensive Care until my uncle, my father’s oldest brother-in-law, would call and tell my grandmother what had happened. Suffice it to say that was overwhelming to me beyond words.
During the next weeks and months, I would eventually move back home, though not until after my senior year had begun and for some time I was driving across town in order to attend the school in the area I was supposedly living. I would move back from my grandmother’s home to my own at the request of my father, more like to plea, to come home. It was a tense and difficult time, but I did as he asked and suffered the consequences and wrath of my mother, who unabashedly told me she did not give a damn where I was or where I would come or go. It was an uncomfortable time in the house in Riverside. That would contribute mightily to my deciding to join the Marines upon graduation. While I was in the Communications School at MCRD in San Diego that fall (1973), my niece would be born. I still remember getting a phone call that she had arrived. In spite of my brother passing away a few years later, after there was a third child, I have been fortunate enough to be in contact and involved in the lives of these three for almost 50 years now. That is incredible that all of this was happening almost a half century ago. What is more incredible to me (and perhaps more of a blessing than a curse) is that I never had my own children. Through the years, I have vacillated between being sad about that and wondering if God knew better than I. I have had people say to me that I would have been a good parent and I have certainly had a rather long line of what I call my surrogate sons and daughters, but when it all comes down to it, they have their own families. At the end of the day, I go home and I am there by myself. Again, the feelings about that are as varied as the events that can occur within a week, month or even year. Perhaps some of what overwhelmed me a week ago was this sense of missing out, but then feeling afraid that I would have been a failure at parenting. Certainly, I have learned more even in the surrogate-parenting than I ever imagined possible. I have learned that allowing a person to be their own person is not always an easy thing to do. To allow them to make mistakes and not impose your values or standards on them is another thing that is difficult.
I would imagine some of that is because I have not been with them from the beginning and as noted they have their own values, traditions, expectations, and things that were formed before they were around me. I sometimes imagine what I have done with some is sort of like begin a foster parent. In addition, I have learned, for better or worse, that I have incredibly high expectations, and perhaps ones that are not entirely realistic. I have learned that I am more set in my ways about how I like things and what I believe should happen than I sometimes realize. What has caused these emotions about the lack of being a parent to surface again? Certainly having my house full for the better part of the past academic year had the parenting thing happening to some extent., but these emotions have seemed to be exponentially closer to the surface since I have been here in Europe. The strange thing is that I have never really found little children that charming. I know that sounds terrible or rather callous, at best, but it seems that the individuals that have pulled at my proverbial heart strings of late are small children, like 3-6 years old. That is an entirely new occurrence for me. I have always had a sort of soft spot for middle school age, and I am not sure that has changed, but this recent appreciation for young post-toddler, but not yet 8-10 year olds has me a bit flummoxed. I have found myself asking parents if I may take a picture of their sons and daughters, and some of them I have posted. As I try to figure out this new aspect of appreciation, there are perhaps two things to which I can attribute its coming out of nowhere. I have a former student, whose wedding I was actually the officiant. She and her husband have a four year old that I have watched grow from infancy. She (the daughter) and I have this sort of grandfatherly relationship and whenever I am blessed to be around them, she loves to have me put her on my shoulders or she loves to sit by me in the restaurant, and her mother says when they go by the Starbucks we often meet at, the question of whether they will see me is immediately being asked. I think what this amazing little person and her mother have helped me do is to not be afraid that I had no way to appropriately relate to them. There is a second little one that is the daughter of a colleague and his wife. She is so smart that it is frightening. She remembers everything and she is like a sponge that soaks up everything that happens and can process it. It must be that mathematician DNA. The other reason I think there is a change is these little ones have a sort of grace and purity that gives me a sense of hope. They have not been spoiled by our stupidity yet. They are little human sponges, whose curiosity and hopefulness provides me that same sense. As I watch the love between that child and their parents, which goes both ways, I am reminded of the goodness that I believe all of us have.
It is that goodness that provides me a sense of wistfulness also. I wonder what I might have been like had I been able to be a parent and grow to see that person eventually grow, have their own children and move into that next stage. I remember the joy my father had when those nephews and nieces, who are at the outset of this post, would come to the house. He was so happy to see them and spend time with them. I have noted in other blog posts that my grandmother was accused by my adoptive mother of spoiling me, and that was not something that my adopted mother either appreciated or had a propensity for doing (as my recent post noted). I do not believe my grandmother spoiled me as I reconsider what she did. I think she wanted to make my life easier because of my mother, but she also believed in hard work and treating others with respect and decency. The worst thing she could have said to me was “I am disappointed in you.” I know that I disappointed her as I struggled to make sense of my world after returning from the service. She would not live much longer, but I had not idea that our time would be cut short so soon after my return. I think she wished she had been my sister’s and my parent for the remainder of her life when she and my grandfather first brought us to lived at 4547 as her sister always called it. I have noted in previous blogs, that was the house where I felt safe; it was the house in which I felt loved. It was the house in which I believed I mattered. It seems to me that is what parents do. They make their children feel safe and loved. They allow their children to learn both by success and failure, but love them just the same. They support their exploration of becoming individuals, but also provide a foundation upon which decisions (both good and bad) can be made. I think perhaps the hardest part of being a parent must be allowing a son or daughter to make a mistake, knowing it is going to happen. It seems that the one of the most difficult things must be allowing each person to be their own person. I think that is something my adopted father tried to do, allow me to figure it out. The picture above is of him in his uniform during the Second World War. The thing so typical of him in this picture is his smile.
There are some people I have watched parent and they epitomize what I believe being a good parent must be. The first couple was my first host family when I was on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team. They have two children who have taken entirely different paths in life, but they love them both and support them. They take the time to visit them, which is no small task when one of them lives in Europe. The second couple have blessed me by allowing me such entre into their lives. They lived next door to me when I taught in Wisconsin and they have three amazing sons and daughter, who again are very different, but an interesting combination of both parents, which I believe to be normal. I think what impresses me most about them is they have supported and allowed each of them to follow their own paths, which are quite diverse. They again support and demonstrate that support and love in so many ways. I have told them before, and I will note it here; they give me a sense of hope because they are such incredibly good and faithful people, to their family, their faith family, and their community. I am so blessed to be allowed into their lives, and they have taught be such amazing board games to play too. Quite the bonus. It is ironic that they also introduced me to Lydia and she became a surrogate parent to me or I became the child she never had. Over the past month or six weeks I have had to step back again, considering this life and it has been both cathartic and instructive. Being a parent is consuming; it makes you both stronger and incredibly frail, it seems, simultaneously. It is so hard to walk a line between giving support and instruction, and yet making sure to not control. Sometimes, I think I missed out on so much, and to some degree, to use the words of Martin Luther, “this is most certainly true.” Sometimes, I realize I am able to offer more as the surrogate and I might even be listened to in ways the biological parent will not. What is most apparent to me as I write this is parenting in any form is both inspirational and humbling. I am conflicted by the fact that I did not experience this and what I feel I might have missed, but at the same time, I am blessed that I have other opportunities to make some difference in the lives of many more. I think the most difficult part of me is finding a balance between the two worlds when it comes to my own emotions and reflections. I am reminded of the song by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Father and Son is an amazing song and it is here for your listening and pondering that relationship of parent and offspring.
Thank you again to all of you who take the time to read what I write, be it once or regularly.