Friday, February 1, 2013

A Penny for My Thoughts

My parent's great-great granddaughter Penny was born on what would have been my father's 95th birthday. Even though I officiated at the marriage of Penny's parents, having these relatives in my life still feels like I'm pulling one over. Penny's grandma, my sister's daughter by birth, was adopted and raised by another family. It seems like when my sister relinquished her parental rights, my own right to connect would be naturally negated. Nevertheless, except for my own boys, no one else in my life offers me that ineffable sensation of blood, family and history. It is good that my sister's failings, at least to some extent, are forgiven and clearly, I am not held as party to them. I don't know if I'd be capable of the same generosity myself.

My niece, seven years younger than I, was an early breeder. She has taken to being a grandma beautifully and is ultra sensitive about being useful and not a nuisance. I too look forward to being the perfect grandma but not for at least a decade. To insure this I recorded every episode of sex columnist Dan Savage's MTV show Savage U on the DVR and commanded the sprats to watch it. Without me in the room. In fact, tiny Rhodes College in Memphis looked so friendly and beautiful during Savage's visit to the campus, Spuds actually applied there for admission, based mainly on what he'd seen on the show. In writing his essay about why he is interested in attending Rhodes he was reluctant to mention the sex show. “Mom, they'll think I'm a perv.” I went into my long spiel that there's nothing shameful about seeking out information about sex. He capitulated only when I pointed out that any other reason he could come up with for a smart West Coast kid to take interest in a relatively obscure southern college would sound like the bullshit it was. He did omit that he was forced to watch the show by his mother.

Even though I'm hoping to postpone the grandma gig for a while, there is something salient about being a great-great aunt. My 56th birthday approaches. I have followed for years the Michael Apted series of documentaries that began in 1963 as 7Up. Apted has filmed the same dozen British kids every seven years. All were born the same year as I was, 1957 and like me, they are now far from being kids. I have eagerly waited for a new installment every seven years and the subjects now feel like friends. The most recent film has been criticized as banal. There have been no dramatic life turns. No addiction. No reinvention. But who knows what 62Up will bring? Actually, I loved the recent chapter. A thread of contentment ran through the interviews. This may have been perceived as banal but I found it incredibly satisfying. Usually when I see people my own age I am shocked by how old they look and seem and am therefore thunderstruck by how compromised my self-awareness must be. The 56Up crowd looked great though and uniformly seem to have slipped into the same comfort zone in which I find myself when I take a minute to look at the big picture. Also, reassuring was when the age 56 footage is juxtaposed with the earlier footage you can see the child still in the man or woman. Even to my own overcritical eye, none of the participants seemed old. So maybe I don't either.

Spuds is asked to present a paper at his tiny charter school's open house. When Himself realizes that there will be other readers in addition to Spuds he whines in a stage whisper “How many of these are we going to have to sit through?” Spuds' very brainy paper compares the film The Matrix with Plato's Allegory of the Cave. We'd both read the paper before but are pleased to be reminded of how good it is and that it demonstrates clearly that the writer is ready for college. The work of the other readers is less stellar. Spuds' teacher compassionately dismisses us after we have endured a few. We have hashed over the advantages and disadvantages of Spuds' school a million times. I can't imagine any other public school where he would get the support he needed to churn out such a sophisticated essay. He's worked at his own pace, mainly independently. His progress in foreign language, through no fault of his own, has been abysmal but he has made huge strides in his areas of personal interest in the other liberal arts. Unfortunately, the Murphy Brothers were among perhaps only half a dozen college bound graduates. The principal in fact mentioned to Spuds that the accreditation committee recommended that the school begin to better emphasize application to four year colleges. He added that one of the parents was furious at this, saying that college was unnecessary and that the school was arrogant to encourage students to continue their education beyond high school. Based on the papers read at open house it is sadly clear that most of Spuds' classmates will require extensive remediation towards college readiness.

After open house I strategically find a restaurant that has a vast offering of beer. I'm embarrassed to say that the subject of college is still not worn out. It seems that no matter what, this is where every conversation we have with Spuds seems to end up. We manage to get in a little banter about movies and music. I torment Spuds by telling him how much I love the bubble gum hip hop group Gym Class Heroes. He rolls his eyes and makes the international gesture for puke. I tell him that one of the perquisites of being 56 is that there is no shame attached to liking Gym Class Heroes. When Himself has finished his brew I take advantage of the public setting, tall beer and the presence of our son to announce some imminent social engagements that were planned months ago. It is better to keep Himself on a need to know basis. Two or three days notice prevents excessive brooding but affords enough time for a bit of psychic preparation. The proximity to my birthday also insures a modicum of better sportsmanship.

I could be wildly off base but it seems to me that my kids will have an easier go of reaching a place of equanimity than I've had. My parents in many ways set the stage for my life to be better than theirs but often their selfishness and cluelessness eclipsed the love I knew they had for me. It took me many years to figure things out for myself. I'm sure I've messed up my own kids in some ways but it seems to me that both are more at ease in their own skin than I was at their age. I look at myself in terms of the parenting I had. It was a rocky road but I turned out OK, to some extent because of my parents and despite them, Ultimately though I see the person I am now as having very little to do with them at all. More than a product of two conflicted parents, I see myself mainly as my own creation. Of course, I probably give my parents short shrift when I assess myself as pretty much a free agent. When I look at my own kids' strengths, attributes, and good looks, naturally I take full credit.

The arrival of tiny Penny reminds me that I'm in the grandparent demographic. I moan and groan and fret about things I didn't expect a few decades ago I'd still be fretting about, but overall, like the participants in 56Up, I find this a pretty chill time of life. I leave the office most days at three and work from home while making dinner, eating a bowl of popcorn and watching Judge Judy. I exercise just about every day and once I get my butt out of bed, it's a pleasant experience. I don't write as much as I'd like but I write some. I eat more than I should but not as much as I could. Although there are occasional flare-ups Himself and I, for the most part, have retired what is essentially the same argument we've been having for twenty-five years. We do the cold shoulder thing once in a while but we both feel deeply and permanently loved, no matter what. Given where we both started out, this might be both of our greatest life accomplishment. I do worry incessantly about the kids but some of that is tied into the ancient sensation I've never been able to tamp down of being such a pathetic loser that inevitably everything I cherish will be lost to me. Seeing the kids truly become more competent, mature individuals lets me focus a bit less on their constant jeopardy and my own inherent sense of doom. Penny heralds the next generation. My kids might contribute too but even if they choose not to procreate, they are, as smart, funny, and compassionate people, my assurance that at least one facet of my life will bring good and lasting effect on the universe. Take that doom!
Shabbat Shalom


FionnchĂș said...

Yes, "56 Up" inspires thoughts of mortality. Critics appeared bored by the mid-life humdrum instead of crises and credited or blamed them being Brits. They assumed Yanks would be off imitating "Sons of Anarchy" or getting facelifts like "Real Housewives"; I wonder as one pitched ethnically/ culturally in between the royal realm and this smoggy sprawl if it's not rather down to acceptance for imperials vs. resistance by colonials.

Of course, as you eloquently express, acceptance as Apted's film affirms offers its own rewards. Critics again sneered at the wattles, waists, and wrinkles displayed--as if any can resist the effects of what they blamed on National Health, demon drink, bad dentistry, and inertia whether class-based or regime-imposed. And, I wonder if your alternative p-o-v is better: to stop worrying so much, and to let progeny progress named Penny, Spuds, or Elder Brother. It's worked more or less for millennia, apparently. xxx me.

My own Damn Blog said...

I. Love. This.

Rosemary said...

This is a moving passage Layne. I will make time tomorrow to see 56 Up. I love all you say about your parents and you summed up for me too my own confused feelings about my own parents, and what they gave me. I often thought of them both as clueless and self-focused too. I believe that Great Depression/World War 2 generation was burdened with damage and luggage that was hard to dismiss. When I see how involved you two are with your great kids and how involved my own sister and brother were with theirs and contrast that with our parents who literally skipped every single recital and school event we ever were in, it is pretty amazing. Like you I knew they loved as much as they were capable. I think both my folks were forced to grow up too fast and therefore really could not relate to children, teens, young adults.