Why I keep a journal

We are always, slowly and almost imperceptibly, losing our parents. Sometimes we glimpse our loss as it happens, like some ultra-low frequency sound wave that we can just barely sense when the conditions are perfect. Other times and inevitably, our loss is devastating and final. When our parents are around, we can talk to them and learn, perhaps, a bit more about them. At some point, however, we have only the remnants of their lives from which we can try to piece together a fuller picture, if we choose. Olivia Judson’s poignant series of posts on working through her parents home after their death reminds us of the many ways our parents are familiar strangers.

In her recent post, To Read or Not to Read, Judson relates her hesitation and then her decision to read her mother’s journals. Through the snippets and fragments she read there Judson learned something of her mother’s loves and pains, her compromises and sacrifices, and her successes. She learned things that her mother didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t share while she was alive.

Various journals collect the fragments from my life.

Various journals collect the fragments from my life.

For years I have sporadically recorded bits of my life in journals—e.g., there’s one from the late 80s when I was alone in a foreign country, vaguely unhappy but not lonely; there’s one from that euphoric first year of marriage to The Mother; there’s one filled with longing and desire from that first summer The Mother and I had to spend apart; there’s one from last spring when I had to go on an extended research trip. Now and then I stumble across some half-filled journal in a box, lying discarded amid other detritus.[1] When I thumb through them, a single sentence transports me back to a moment I had long forgotten. Immediately, the passions, the anger, the wonder, the sights, the lingering smells and tastes, all come flooding back. The raw emotions often surprise me. The sharpest edges of these experiences have now been dulled by the passage of time and buried by the accretion of life’s sediment. But those experiences remain formative. For better and for worse those experiences have made me the son and husband and father I am today.

I can’t say why I started recording shards of my life. There is no coherence to these journals, no over-arching theme links them, no conscious effort to record particular phases. Instead, they are fragmentary even within the limited scope of a single journal—a week-long trip to Paris fills more than 60 pages, but without apparent rhyme or reason I skipped some pages, notes are out of order, days that I recall vividly now merited no comment then. Whatever the reasons, I now have a growing collection of verbal snapshots, postcards without the pictures written to nobody in particular about a life in which I seemed to have played a central role.

These postcards from my life will one day offer #1 and #2 unguarded and unfiltered glimpses into a person they knew and yet didn’t know. They will, if they choose, learn something about me and come to understand me better. Looking back now, I am glad I have jotted down these moments and saved these journals not for me but for them. I will always be a familiar stranger, but perhaps, if they choose to read these journals, I will become a little less strange and a little more familiar.

  1. I have not bothered to gather them into a single place. Each time I find one, I think: “I should put all these together.” Just last week, when I found two in a box, I dug through some other junk to find a few more. Now, at least, a half dozen or so are in one place.  ↩


We Become our Parents

This morning we woke to another 3" or so of snow. As I was dressing to go shovel the drive, #2 called from her bed:

When will I get to help shovel the driveway?

She has asked every snow this winter. I have, in the interest of efficiency, put her off—a 6-year-old rarely speeds up the process. This morning, however, I didn’t have a good reason not to let her “help.” “So on with the boots, back out in the snow” the two of us trudged.

I shoveled to the garage, moved some tools, climbed over some others, until I found and could retrieve her little red snow shovel. She stood by the side door watching excitedly.

As I climbed over my Havahart trap and reached back for her shovel, I realized that she was watching me the same way I had watched my dad climb over his tools to extract my shovel or rake or whatever when I was her age. I remembered how excited I had been when he would let me “help” work on something, the yard, the car, the house, whatever. As I turned to hand #2 her shovel and started explaining that we would get her started with the front walk, I heard my father voice saying similar things to 6-year-old me: “Let’s get you started on the side yard” or whatever. My father always spent a few minutes helping me get started, minutes he could have been spent actually doing whatever task was at hand. So too, this morning, I spent a few minutes helping #2 get the hang of it. When I left her to the walk while I started on the drive, she told me not to shovel it all because she wanted to do some. So I promised to leave a section for her to finish, just as my father had always left a section of whatever for me to finish.

As an adult I now realize how much longer projects took when I “helped,” at least for a number of years. I also suspect that my dad knew two important things. First, although initially projects took longer because I “helped,” he knew that at some point I would be able help him. Then projects would be easier and quicker. Second, he felt that time spent with me was worth whatever extra time and effort it added to a project. He always welcomed and encouraged my “help,” even when I must have slowed work. I can recall countless mornings, afternoons, and days working on various projects. We had fun. We chatted. We got to spend time together. I am thankful every day for his having spent the time with me.[1]

Sure, #2 and I spent an hour or so shoveling the walk and the drive, a task that would have taken me less that 30 minutes, but it was worth it. One day, she will make projects quicker and easier. But that’s just icing on the cake. The important thing is we got to spend some time together, just the two of us. We had fun. We chatted. We spent the morning together shoveling snow. As a parent, I am thankful to have the chance to spend time with #2 and rejoice in her wanting to spend time with me.

In the hectic, annoyance-filled, over-scheduled days of our adult lives, it’s easy to forget how little things, like shoveling snow, can be so enjoyable. And as Harry Chapin pointed out years ago, it’s easy to forget that our progeny are going to become us one day.

  1. I have many similar memories of my mom, though in very different contexts and doing very different things. Here I focus on my dad because I am, well, a dad, and because #2 and I were outside this morning, where my dad and I worked together most often.  ↩

Loosing our Parents

As a child I thought I knew my parents well. As an adult, I often wish I knew more about my parents. I lament all the experiences and memories that my parents lost when their parents died. I worry that I will want to know more about my parents when it’s too late, when I can no longer pick up the phone and call them. And I wonder what #1 and #2 will want to know about me.

We are always losing our parents. Sometimes those losses are devastating. Sometimes those losses are quotidian.

Kimberley Alyssa Kok’s morning with my father is a poignant reminder to me to spend time with #1 and #2. In particular, her realization that in some small but important way she has lost a part of her father:

Kimberly Alyssa Kok doesn’t understand her father’s dialect as he orders soya milk.

What do we lose when we don’t understand the people closest to us?

I’m Sorry (redux)

Being a good father, for me, is inextricably bound up with being a considerate, responsible adult. That means, taking credit and accepting responsibility for my actions.[1] Coincidentally, on the radio just now:

There comes a time in every man’s life when he’s got to
Look over his misdemeanors, misgivings, misfortunes and
Miss Whatever her name is ha ha
I’m sorry I’m sorry
Yeah and say you’re sorry, so I say, I’m sorry.

Just as it’s important to apologize to the progeny, it is equally important to apologize to The Mother, honestly and without qualification. No making excuses. No justifying actions. No explaining intent. So, taking my cue from the Hothouse Flowers:

I am sorry for frustrating you last night.
I needlessly and unhelpfully complicated the situation and misunderstood what you were trying to accomplish. I should have shut up and stayed out of the way.
I’m sorry.

  1. That saying about the pavement on the road to Hell applies here—intentions are irrelevant, especially when I’ve offended somebody.  ↩

The Difference Between With and For

Two recent episodes prompted me to think about how parents can confuse doing something for children and doing something with children.

Episode 1:
#1, #2, and I were playing UNO at the local bagel shop. A couple tables over a mother sat across from a father and young daughter. At one point, the mother said: “What do you mean? I do all sorts of things for you.” She then cataloged the many things she does for the daughter: takes her to school and playdates, makes her lunch, takes her to the mall, ….

I don’t know what prompted this response, but I’m going to go out a on limb here and say the daughter accused the mother of not playing with her or not spending enough time with her or not doing enough something with her. Whatever the charge, I think many of us can sympathize with the mother’s reply. Some version of this scene occurs regularly.

Episode 2:
On a whim one recent afternoon #1, #2, and I made gingerbread cookies. Out of the blue yesterday, #1 hugged me and said: “Thanks for making cookies with us.”

In our harried, chaotic, over-scheduled adult worlds it is easy to equate doing for children and doing with them. Taking a child to a “playdate”[1] is, after all, doing something together. So too is taking a child shopping at the mall. But making cookies with children is, I think, qualitatively different. Just as playing with them is, whether sliding down a slide together or kicking a ball or playing hide-and-seek or coloring or whatever.

We have all suffered accusations of not spending enough time with them. We often defend ourselves, entirely justifiably from our adult perspective, e.g., Arguing with a six-year-old. In defending ourselves, however, we lose sight of an important difference between doing things with our children and doing things for them. Our children, by contrast, make a clear distinction between doing something for them and doing something with them.

Children would rather we did things with them.

  1. A term I don’t like and a social encounter that I find awkward at best: The Dreaded “Playdate”  ↩