I’m reading this fictional tale of an old woman fondly remembering her life, and I’m hating it. This is causing me much distress, as the author’s intentions are truly noble. She believes that the folks you see staring into space in nursing homes have lived full, rich, eventful lives that must be shared. I cannot agree more. These folks have lived through the bloodiest war in history, the Civil Rights movement, Elvis, and the Beatles. A decreasing number of them lived through the Great Depression, and because the collapse of the financial institutions of the world without the FDIC didn’t suck enough, history also threw in the Dust Bowl and the rise of fascism. Because history is an asshole. They witnessed our culture shift from manufacturing and production to service and entertainment. And the best part about it is, they didn’t even realize they were living through history, because twenty-four-hour news networks weren’t constantly telling them that they were. The experience and humility of these passing generations is a resource that we must respect—and we, for the most part, do (except when they’re driving—no respect there).
But then there’s this book. Maybe I’m just not the audience for this book. There will always be people who want to read this kind of thing, where everything is happy and pastel, and the hardships people have to endure are vague and not at all related to mistakes. Mistakes are things other people do. It’s one of those we-worked-for-everything-and-were-grateful old people stories, but without the amusing crankiness and condescension. It relies overly on the words perfect, lovely, friendship, enjoy, and family It is this last word that gets to me, like a pebble in my shoe.
She only upsets her mother twice (once was because she was picking blackberries for Mommy and her dress got stained). One of the old lady’s family members disowns her child because of a marriage on the wrong side of the tracks—but that’s an excuse for a tearful reunion and learned lesson later. When the old lady and her husband go on a cruise, they bring their children and spend the vacation watching them as opposed to, I don’t know, having fun. This is a family without its own hopes and dreams—just affection and learning. This isn’t family that I know.
My family is far from perfect. We love each other, but half the time we would have loved to run each other over with a car (which happened once, but I was only four. Sorry, Dad!). There was a lot of shouting and frustration and confusion, because my parents had no idea what they were doing. That’s why they screwed up so much. And this isn’t just my family. This is most normal families. Some are the Cleaver family, and some are the Manson family. Behind every person is a parent—mother or father; biological or guardian—who questioned themselves and wanted that child to go away forever.
This book reminds me of an email meme that goes around about how the mother does all the chores in a family’s life, like cooking, cleaning, laundry, sewing, and working full time, and she does it all thanklessly, while the father brings home a manly check, eats the food, and goes to bed. My mother (no offense, Mom) couldn’t boil a chicken if she had to, and threading a needle was something other people did. She supported our family and came home, cranky and worn out. My father worked some of the dumbest, most demeaning odd jobs in history (I know because I worked some of them too) until he could get to his own dream job. I don’t know what they gave up to raise me and my sisters. So reading these emails and these books is a slap in their faces, diminishing everything they’ve ever done by holding it up to a standard that they, or most of us, can never achieve.
My parents worked hard, and often rewarded themselves by going out—without us!—like they damned well deserved to. From them I’ve learned from them the value of making shit up as you go along and trying to enjoy yourself at least some of the time. They taught me that it isn’t easy, and it never will be, but that doesn’t make it bad. Yes, my parents and grandparents had to climb uphill both ways in bare feet in the snow, but their lives were more than hardships; they were hard choices. I want to learn about how to do those things. I want to learn about their mistakes, because I want to learn how they fixed them or endured their consequences. Hearing about their victories may be uplifting, but it’s not useful.
Remembering the good-parts version of life is something I am guilty of. Scratch that: the word guilty is inaccurate. There’s nothing wrong with it. I recall seeing the sunrise as I rode home from a party, without the thoughts of sleeping alone that drowned my joy half the time. I can remember why I fell in love with every one of my exes while leaving the reasons we are exes. I smile every day to memories of friends whose last words to me were the kinds of things I shout to my cats when they throw boxes at my head. I remember drinking without hangovers; smoking without coughing; summers without sweating. But I never forget these things, and any history of me without them would diminish everything I’ve ever done.
This goes for my family, and your family too.