My parents were not effusive people.
When #1 Son was little, I gave my mother a copy of “Grandmother Remembers,” a sort of reverse baby book in which grandparents (there is a grandfather version, too) can write about their lives and their children’s lives in a book for their grandchildren. My mother put it aside, not feeling inspired to work on it, and it sat on a shelf for several years. But in the fall of 1992, after a cancer recurrence, and with a knowledge of her own impending death that had not come from doctors or been discussed with anyone else in the family, she began to work on that book. She didn’t like the way some of the pages looked, so she went out and bought a fresh copy to be the “final” edition, working through some of the writing as a draft in the original copy.
On the page that describes “My Child’s Teenage Years,” one item had been left blank. It asked her to fill in the following:
“I was very proud that ______________________.”
She was ill, and we all knew it, by the time I caught up with the work she was doing on the book, and I had spent a weekend helping her sort through old photographs as she tried to choose just the right ones for the book.
That’s when I saw the blank page. It hurt to see it, because I feared she had never felt that way about me. She certainly had never indicated pride in anything I had done. I grew up feeling my brother’s prowess in sports was valued and my interest in music and drama was not. I have to say Mother was always right there to sew a costume, but she never expressed any particular enthusiasm about the plays or the concerts or my participation in them.
Somehow we entered a conversation about the blank page. I think I said, “I notice you didn’t have trouble answering the one about household duties (“Household duties were nil, except you would help occasionally.“); wasn’t there anything I did that made you feel proud of me?”
And my mother said, “I never even thought of saying I was proud of you, because I thought saying that might give you a swelled head. But I was always amazed that you could get up in front of people and sing and act. I could never do that.”
She was protecting me from thinking too much of myself, in her mind, by never giving me any affirmation at all.
After she died, I opened the book and found what she had written about me.
“I was very proud that (Songbird) could sing beautifully as a child and wrote a play her senior year in high school that won an award.“
Daddy was not much more expressive in his commentary. He prodded me along the way when he thought I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. (I gave him lots of opportunities.) He was absolutely, rock-solidly present when there was trouble. When I was on the verge of washing out of college after breaking up with High School Boyfriend, I figured he would never let me go off to England for the College of Knowledge in Virginia’s Summer Program at Cambridge. I guess I thought I deserved some sort of punishment, and I expected the Wrath of Khan when he saw my grades.
I’m sure he wasn’t pleased. Lord knows, I wouldn’t be. But he put me on that plane at Dulles, because he believed getting away and having a fresh start at figuring out who I was would be the best way to spend that summer of 1981.
Many years later, after my mother had died, Daddy came to spend Thanksgiving with us. I had just started seminary. The whole weekend was full of conversation about how much I loved going to school now, and although I didn’t have many grades yet, it looked like I was going to do well.
When I took him to the airport, we said goodbye on the sidewalk as he got his bag out of the car. I stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and as we pulled apart he said gruffly, “I’m proud of you.”