Sometimes it takes more than the distance of one generation for us to realize the good our parents did.
As young parents, we learned very quickly about the importance of making sure our daughters had their basic needs addressed. Food, love, shelter and encouragement were sufficient. We understood our responsibility to drive them to various lessons and play dates; and we oversaw their homework.
I know “if I could do it all over again,” I would spend more one-on-one time with each of them. With our guidance and that of many others, they have grown into caring parents who place their children first and everything else follows that value.
During a recent visit from our youngest grandson — who is at the age when he wants to be independent, but is not really ready; who answers questions with a “yes” or “no” and becomes annoyed if we ask for further detail; who can turn a well-meaning comment into an opportunity for debate, I realized how typical and normal his behavior is as he works to create his own space in this vast and complex world. I wondered how my father survived my brother and me, and my two sisters.
A number of very positive memories of my father flashed through my mind as Shirley and I talked about our time with Jake. Facetiously, I told Shirley it cost more money to feed this growing football linebacker than it did to fly him to our winter hideaway. That opened a window to my past and a keener awareness of what my father did for me and my brother as we went through (slowly) our surly teen years.
Years ago on a weekend home from graduate school, I saw my brother’s rude and disrespectful interchange with my father. I turned to Poppa and asked, “Why do you take that from him?” And my father responded, “I survived you! I’ll survive him, too!” In less than a second, I was knocked off my princely throne and became a mere mortal.
When I began dating at about age 14, my girlfriend lived at least 30 minutes away. My father would drive me to her house, then drop us at the movies, go home and await my call for him to pick us up. We would climb into the back seat and Poppa would chauffeur us to her home, all the while trying not to look in the rear view mirror.
Gas may have been less than 25 cents a gallon then, but my father’s evening was committed to making sure my date went as smoothly as possible. And after we would drop my girlfriend off, I climbed back in the front seat and rode silently home with my father. I know he would ask about the movie and the sandwich we had before the show, and probably said: “Did you have a good time; how was the movie?” And I eloquently answered “yes” and “good.” The next 20 minutes was silence, except for a somewhat mumbled “thank you” as I exited the car and went to my room.
My friends tell me their grandchildren also answer most questions with “yes, no, uh-huh, maybe, OK and sure.” So we have learned to ask questions that can be answered with this extensive vocabulary, and we delight in those rare times when sentences, paragraphs and full but short conversations emerge.
I often tell Shirley, “Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. If he or she were that unhappy with you, he wouldn’t come to visit or offer one-syllable responses.” She smiles knowingly — because she knows I’m wrestling with the same questions.
I applaud all parents, grandparents and other adults who day after day choose to engage with adolescents. They need to know they can test the limits and expand their borders. And sometimes, when you least expect it, they want to hear “NO.” “No” often means “I do hear you and I do love you.”
Jake is very deep into my heart. When he laughs, his world and mine are as close to perfect as it gets.
Dr. Albert M. Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Traverse City. He is a public speaker and author of “Soul Sounds: Reflections on Life,” available at www.soulsoundsbook.com. Contact him through the Record-Eagle, 120 W. Front, Traverse City, MI 49684.