Parents are People, Too
Published in News-Gazette
“You know,” I joked with our kids when they were self-absorbed teenagers, “Mom and I had lives before you came along…and no gray hair. Parents are people, too.”
I was reminded of this the other day when I attended the funeral of a longtime family friend, Mrs. W.
She, her husband, and five kids lived two houses down from us in Normal in the 1960s, their children stacked in age matching my brothers and sisters. Dave, a fourth-in-line child like me, was my best buddy. Mrs. W and my mother were close friends in a neighborhood full of stay-at-home moms riding herd on Baby Boomer broods.
Mr. and Mrs. W and family moved out of state around 1970, when I was nine. Although I visited them a few times, and my older sister and I went on a memorable two-week vacation with their family, we gradually lost contact.
“My mom,” said the oldest daughter to my wife, Yolanda, at Mrs. W’s funeral, “never had another friend quite like Mike’s mom. Those were special years for her.”
Special years for “her.” The mom. The parent.
Naturally, we look back at our childhood from a self-centered perspective. For those of us fortunate enough to have two caring parents, their presence was a given, nothing extraordinary. We appreciated and loved them, but we often did not know much about their lives, feelings, ambitions, hopes, and dreams because they were “the parents.”
Mrs. W’s obituary drove this point home to me. Valedictorian of her high school class, tops again in college, she was also a national champion rifle shooter. Yes, a regular Annie Oakley who hit 499 out of 500 targets but was not awarded a varsity letter until 1984 because in the 1940’s her college had no such honor for female shooters.
“If I’d known that as a kid,” I told Yolanda, “I might’ve behaved better around her.”
While raising her children Mrs. W was involved in many community activities, particularly those promoting education, and later in life, she worked as a staff person for a Congressman advocating for her beliefs and doing her civic duty.
She considered parenting, however, her most important calling and the raising of five wonderful children her and Mr. W’s greatest accomplishment.
But, as a child, I was not aware of any of her accomplishments and abilities. She was Dave’s mom. She fed me and tucked me in like I was one of her own when I slept over. She guided us into the basement during tornado warnings, lighting candles as the power went out. I felt as safe in her home as I did my own.
And though there was never any doubt she was in charge, “the parent,” she talked to us as if we were equals.
“Mike,” she said one evening with a heartfelt smile after I held forth at their supper table regaling them about something from that day, “you have a real knack for telling a story. You really do.”
It was one of the first compliments I recall receiving from an adult other than my folks or a family member and I remember it because she addressed me as if she were speaking to an adult, not a kid.
Of course, I was a kid, and one time Mrs. W attempted to explain to me exactly what I’m writing about. I’d had a run in with my mother and was griping about the unfairness of it all, my mother a tyrant of the worst sort.
“You understand,” Mrs. W said in her gentle way, “that your mother could be doing any number of things with her life. She’s a college graduate. An accomplished pianist and singer. She’s president of the PTA. Your mom is a very special person who chose to stay home and raise you and your brothers and sisters because she believes that is the most important thing she can do with her life right now. You do understand that, don’t you Mike?”
“Of course she’s home,” I said, indignant. “She’d never leave us to do other things. She’s our mom. She loves us.”
Seeing she upset my nine-year-old sensibilities with the radical notion that my mother had her own life, Mrs. W quickly responded.
“Oh, honey, of course she does. That’s what I’m saying. She chose you over everything else.”
That’s what good parents do. From the get-go. Mrs. W made that clear to me all those years ago.
But she also helped me understand that parents are people, too.