Thursday, March 22, 2018


So, back to the priorities: family. Much more than any possession or accomplishment, this is the one thing that will survive me, the most important and eventually lasting heritage of my fleeting presence here on earth. I have three children, now no longer children (always curious that we don't have a word for grown children in the English language!) but people advancing from youth to, ahem, middle age. My two sons are well into their fifties, my daughter already in her mid-forties. I take pride in knowing that they are all good people, concerned for their fellow human beings and for the well-being of the planet. In the years that remain for me to live, I would want to do what I can to remain in touch with them, to assure them of my love, and to support them in any way I can.

Which is not easy with my sons, since they live geographically at such a great remove--Jason, the younger, in Iowa; Matthew even farther off, in England. For many years I struggled internally with unfinished business with them: our family split up when they were five and seven years old, and they returned with their mother from California to Iowa, where they grew up. Remaining in California myself, and eking out a living, those early years, on an assistant professor's salary, I was unable to see them more than once a year while they were growing up. It took me many years of difficult, sometimes repressed emotions to come to terms with that separation and the feelings of guilt and sadness it evoked. To say that those feelings are completely resolved, even at this time of my life, would be to ignore a very fundamental truth. However, having come to understand something of the psychological process of projection, I know they are my own to make my peace with. It's not my job to teach my sons anything; they already learned long ago what they need to know to lead worthwhile lives--and most of it, I must say, they learned not from me but from their mother. The need to stay in touch, to love and support, is greater on my part than theirs. Knowing in my heart that I will never arrive at completion, I also know that it's important for me to persist with this inner work.

As for my daughter, Sarah, she lives close by. The single mom of a six-year old boy and responsible for a full-time job, she has chosen a demanding path--one that leaves her little time and energy for other than the most immediate calls on her resources. With her, I am able to be of more hands-on, practical support than with my sons: having three other grandchildren living far off in England, Ellie and I are thrilled to have a grandson living within a fifteen-minute drive, and for this reason we are blessed with the ability to be active grandparents. The best thing I can do for my daughter is to relieve some small part of the stress she experiences in her life and--with Ellie--I do it gladly. Little Luka usually spends one night a week with us, sometimes more; and even more frequently we pick him up from school and bring him home with us for homework, play and dinner.

This, then, is another priority, and an important one. It is one of the deepest of all pleasures to be a grandfather, particularly when I can be a real presence in Luka's life. Whether or not I live long enough for him to remember me in his later life--and I myself have memories from the age of six--I can be sure that I will have a formative influence in the man that he becomes. I have no memory at all of my paternal grandfather, who died when I was only a year old; but my maternal grandfather still remains an active presence in my mind. I recall his wry humor, his gentle manner, even small details like the way he cracked an egg at breakfast time. I must have been quite young when he died. Did he outlive the war? If he did, not by very much, and I was nine years old already at war's end.

What would I like Luka to remember of me, or to learn from me? I would like to think the same kind of thoughtful, gently humorous presence as my own grandfather--not overwhelming with discipline or instruction but simply there, a model for the kindness and consideration for others that I think is so important. I have sometimes thought about what I would want to "teach" him, if I were to sit and offer my advice about how to live his life, and the two words that keep coming up are the simplest ones: BE KIND. A part of being kind, I think, is being polite--a quality I was taught to practice perhaps even to excess. There's a fine balance between being considerate, on the one hand, and being deferential to the point of self-effacement on the other. I would like him also to understand the value of becoming fully oneself--and comfortable with who that person is.

One quality I would have wanted to improve in myself in younger years--and there is still room for improvement, even as the years pass by!--is the ability to more freely express the love I feel for those close to me. It is an "English" quality that I do not admire, to feel somehow embarrassed by the emotions, particularly love. So this is the priority I need to set, in this serious conversation: to allow myself to feel, and show, my love for those closest to me, my family.

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