While I was still enjoying my youth, I would watch my mother apply her crimson lipstick and long for her cool, collected wisdom. In my naivete, I saw adulthood as a fast world with boundless freedom, where you didn’t cry when you fell down anymore and where you had all of the answers. As a vulnerable child, you are dependent on your parents. I assumed that once you entered seniority, your role was only to give protection, and not be in need of it. Boy, was I wrong.
As I have tasted the first moments of my young adulthood, I found that while there is sincere beauty in seeing life unfold before you, aging also has moments of honest pain. Over the last two years, I’ve had my heart broken, faith tested and mind rattled. The most difficult part of adulthood for me, however, has been seeing my parents not just as fearless protectors, but as human beings who had an entire life before me, individuals with difficult childhoods and people who needed my love as much as I needed theirs.
This realization came this summer, as my father and I spoke to one another on a perfect Lake Erie summer evening. That night, he let me into a his childhood heart, a world that I feel honored to now understand. As a kid, I idolized my Dad to no end (and still do). As a girl, I would dream of the man my Dad was before I knew him: the youngest kid in a huge Irish family in Pennsylvania; the goofy undergraduate student at Mercyhurst College, where he fell in love with my beautiful ballerina mother; and the cool graduate art student living in Brooklyn, New York City in the 1980s, slam dancing to the Talking Heads and hanging out at Studio 54. Out of all of these personas, I always forgot to honor the most troubling facet of my Dad’s past, maybe because I didn’t want to think of my Dad in such a vulnerable way. I failed to see my Dad as the 10-year-old who had just lost his mother to surgery complications, the grieving youngest of five standing at the end of a receiving line of his mother’s wake in a starchy blue suit. I failed to see him as a young boy coping with the addition of a step-mother from Ireland, a woman with good intentions but significant cultural barriers. I failed to see him as the baby of the family, watching his older brothers and sisters crumbling from confusion and grief at the changing fabric of their family. I failed to see him as a man who never stopped missing his mother and as an adult who still needs protection from the daughter he lives to protect. That night, as I spoke to him, I saw not only my father, but a boy dealing with the weight of loss far before anyone should. The complexity of life as I knew it deepened, then.
This past weekend, I was home for my Mom’s birthday. Unlike my Dad, I thought that I was more cognizant of my beautiful mother’s tricky past. I knew that she was the oldest of five kids in a poor Cleveland Irish family, that her parents had an enigmatically fractured relationship and despite these things, she gracefully paid for every cent of college by herself, studying education and putting every ounce of herself into the wellbeing of her students. My mother is the toughest and kindest woman I know. I had always seen my mother as a scrappy but poised survivor. The personas of my mother that swirled in my head included the dean’s list student who was a rebel rouser after the school bell tolled; the young activist who silkscreened protest t-shirts in with my aunt as I cooed in the bassinet; and the woman whose stern disapproval would scare me more than my father’s ever would. In short, my mother wasn’t the type that was unwaveringly feminine, soft spoken and pearl-donning. Although her features were graceful, due to countless years atop a pointe shoe, my mother was strong in her convictions and tough as nails. When my mother lets her guard down, and returns to a time before she was the protector of all, it scares me.
On her birthday, I didn’t see the unyielding woman that I’ve always known, but a young girl faced with another birthday of disappointments. My mom sat on the phone, the shrieks of my increasingly more senile grandmother blaring through the receiver. In her eyes, I saw sadness and child-like weakness. As she hung up the phone, she looked at me and in a moment of rare vulnerability. As she choked back tears, she explained that her mother hadn’t wished her happy birthday in years, although she was fully aware of its existence. I didn’t see my mom then, but the young girl trying to lead an entire family of brothers and sisters; a disappointed daughter who went about childhood longing for a bit more maternal love; and a young mother who had confusing parental examples when she brought me into the world. All I could do in that moment was what she would for me; hold her hand and tell her I loved her.
Although there are days when I secretly wish that my parents still went out their way to shield me from the ugly truths of their pasts and the inevitable secrets of any family, I am thankful for their honesty and trust in my maturity. With each year, I bear a bit more of my family’s pain on my shoulders. Luckily, I am happy to lighten their load.