As I grow older it’s become increasingly clear that siblings have selective memories about the past. The second oldest of four children, I have my own unique perspective on our family. Although at times bold and pushy, (“Go catch your own grasshoppers, Mikel!”), I often chose the role of a cautious, if not shy observer. Deeply sensitive, I developed the skill of family negotiator that to this day, reluctantly forces me to play middleman between quibbling siblings.
I was raised in what I suppose was the usual manner for a child born in the late 50’s. My mother sacrificed her education and budding career (music) to stay home and raise babies, while my father worked long hours to establish himself as a physician. We were born in rapid succession, which must have caused an incredible amount of stress for our mother. I know from old photos and movies that Dad often took over the kid duty when he got home, but the crux of child supervision and rearing was thrust upon our young mother.
Some siblings have been known to recall a mother who was cold and distant from her children, but I remember a mom who was very involved and supportive. She taught us to sing before we could walk and read us stacks and stacks of books. Mom made certain we visited the public library weekly and got us our own library cards long before it was in vogue. Both parents were raised on the banks of freshwater lakes; Mom on Conesus Lake and Dad on Lake Ontario. Practically minded, they insisted we learn how to swim and after starting us themselves, enrolled us in swim lessons that kept mom shuttling us to and fro for years. It’s a credit to her dedication to this task that I was (officially) the youngest student not only to attend Senior Lifesaving at Perkin’s Swim Club, but the first ever to pass the water exam on the first try!
My parents spent countless weekends teaching us how to ride bikes, roller skate, ice skate and eventually, to ski. Dad became a neighborhood hero when he built a large wooden frame and flooded it, providing a huge skating rink for scores of bored local children. When that grew routine he packed everyone into the Station Wagon and took us tobogganing. In the summer, dad would join us outside after dinner. He’d plant his backside on the front step and act as official neighborhood referee for countless games of tag, hide and seek, kick the can and red rover. I never saw anyone else’s dad join him, but our Dad would sit listening to the cicadas buzz and whisper hiding suggestions into the ears of giggling little girls until dusk fell and it grew too dark to continue. He always made sure everyone played fairly, Doc’s rules, of course!
We had an in-ground pool, a luxury at that time. From Memorial Day until Labor Day weekend (when the pool was closed) Mom was frequently charged with the responsibility of playing lifeguard for an assortment of neighborhood children and school friends. Asked if we could have someone over to swim, she seldom said no, she just took it all in stride. It wasn’t uncommon to find eight or more kids in the pool at any given time, every day of the week. Eventually mom got smart and started to insist frequent regulars bring a parent to oversee the pool games. And she asked that they bring a snack. Not only was Mom tethered to the role of lifeguard, she was constantly feeding scores of starving kids! It’s easy to forget that Mom had a house, a garden and a busy family to maintain along with the pool parties and countless hours she spent making sure no child drowned on her watch.
As we grew older things changed. Not having children of my own I have to look to friends and family members who’ve raised teenagers to understand the monumental shift in the parent-child relationship. Sullen, rude, distanced, belligerent, self-absorbed and more, times four. Gee, that must have been a lot of fun for my parents. And they had flaws of their own. The thing is, I’ve been around long enough to know now that when the going gets tough I sometimes turn to the wrong things to help me cope. My parents were no different.
My parents made mistakes. Sometimes they said and did things they probably should have censured. The thing about family is that by the time you grow up and leave home you know way too much about the people you lived with. We get to see all the lumps and warts up close. Eighteen or nineteen years go by and it seems like every little nuance is etched in our memory forever. The thought that a child might carry the remembrance of some stupid, offhanded remark or blundering faux pas to their grave scares the living dickens out of me. But it happens more often than not.
I strive to look back at my childhood with openness and clarity. I try to remember that some events have become distorted with telling, time and a recollection that is sketchy at best. I try not to depict my memories with a Pollyanna, Everything-Was-Perfect tone, but I don’t focus on all the mistakes either. My parents were human. They laughed, they cried, they got hurt, they healed, they fell down, they got up … again and again and again. In spite of all their mistakes and dysfunction they managed to raise four good kids, a testimony to their desire to leave this world a better place.
Above: One of the last pictures I took of Tia last fall. Still miss you every day, Tee-toes!