There is an old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain that goes something like this: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Whether Twain actually said or wrote this is much disputed, but its meaning is fairly clear. The more life experience we acquire, the more evident our parents’ wisdom becomes.
As I approach 60 circuits around the sun myself, I appreciate some of the practices my parents engaged in which I regarded as bizarre or even stupid as a youth. A couple of examples: (1) Mom and dad were extremely solicitous of, and generous to, their elders. I noticed, for instance, that my father spoke to his aunts, uncles, parents and the older people who attended our church with a completely different and gentler/respectful tone of voice than he did to anyone else. I found this odd, even nonsensical, as an adolescent. I understand it better now and hope that someday soon my children will “get it” as well. (2) We attended every funeral and wedding we could. “But I hardly even know the family,” I would protest at the prospect of sitting in a hard church pew during a funeral. “Why should I go? Those folks don’t know me from Adam,” I often whined. “Because,” my mother would reply, “you need to begin to appreciate that life is short and fleeting, and someday someone there will appreciate that we made the effort to honor their loved one or to support them through this very sad time in their lives.” (3) Clifford and Doris were children of the Great Depression, and they were dirt poor in the first decade or so of their marriage. Indeed, finances were a concern through much of my childhood as well – a full 25 years into their union (which, incidentally, will hit the 70 year mark in about three weeks). Therefore, they knew how to stretch and save money and imparted at least a trace of understanding of the difference between a “need” and a “want.” On family trips, we almost never stayed in a motel and ate brown-bag meals (peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches and apples, typically) in the car. I wore hand-me-downs from my SISTERS, for crying out loud. This was a useful education, though I may never forgive them for subjecting me to the penny-pinching induced torture of Carnation brand powdered milk.
There are other observations that Krista and I have made in recent days, eureka moments that take us both back to the stodgy (or so we thought) behavior of our parents. These are less lofty insights, I suppose, but worthwhile revelations nonetheless. Now I “get” why they occasionally perched their glasses half-way down the bridge of their nose, for example, and why they groaned every time they got out of bed or out of a chair. I appreciate my father’s tendency during a certain stage of his life to use a restroom just because it was “handy.” “I might as well go,” he’d say, “Just in case.” I understand why my mother stared with disgust and perhaps a little anxiety at an item on the floor which needed to be picked up. I now know that she was thinking three thoughts: (a) How am I going to get down there? (b) If I make it down there, will I be able to get back up? (c) While I’m down there, is there anything else I should attend to because Lord knows I ain’t going down again any time soon.
A few days ago, Krista noted another scrap of insight we both should have apprehended earlier in life. “You know, Tim,” she said to me, “when I was younger I never understood why my mom always wore pants with elastic bands. I thought, ‘what’s up with that? Those pants are so un-cool.’ But she was definitely on to something. Oh, man, I totally get it now!”
“Yeah,” I agreed as I tapped my ever expanding, middle-aged mid-section. “Elastic rules!”