Many times, I try to keep this blog “light,” to look for the pretty, the happy, the inspiring. And I think this post will fit those categories, but it’s not light. It’s heavy, it’s serious, and it could change the world.
I am lucky enough to have outstanding parents. They aren’t perfect. They have often struggled. They’ve screwed up. But, man. They are out-of-this-world fantastic. And they shouldn’t have been. They didn’t have the best models. No one taught them about openness, about expressing affection. My mother’s parents controlled her every choice, to the extent that she picked a tiny college in the Midwest over Radcliffe (Harvard), because college in Boston meant living “at home” and commuting. My father never knew his real father, and the man whose name he bears left when he was tiny. His mother drank too much, raised her children in poverty, and my father has few childhood memories that don’t include “a beating.”
And yet, they rallied. When I came along, they got their acts in gear, and they stepped up. Sometimes, there were meltdowns. Sometimes, there was therapy. I didn’t always feel safe. And yet. And yet. And yet I ended up with these parents who held me and told me they loved me. Who supported the things that interested me. Who didn’t beat me, and yet set boundaries. Who went without so very much, that I could have musical theater, or a new blouse, or my own paperback copy of Gone with the Wind. Who taught me that human beings depend on each other, and that kindness mattered.
I always knew I was loved. I always knew I was valued. I always knew they were doing everything they could to make everything alright. Many adults I know cannot say that about their childhoods.
But despite how hard they worked, how kind they were, how much they loved me, life was sometimes hard. We were often poor. We were sometimes homeless (I write more about this here). Many people (some of whom I still don’t know) helped us, at one time or another. My parents didn’t always talk to me about this help, at least not when it was happening. In most cases I found out later, when I was old enough to understand. Friends and acquaintances gave us money, food, places to stay.
As our situation improved, through my high school and college years, my parents (intentionally? unconsciously?) adopted what I can only classify as a “Pay It Forward” philosophy. Always, even when we were struggling, our doors were open to anyone, and Mom could always stretch supper. As I got into high school, our house became the place the kids went, whether things at home were good or bad. My folks had two rules:
1. Your parents need to know where you are. (And they were always happy to talk to wary parents/guardians.)
2. You must be kind.
Very few people were ever asked to leave our house, and in each instance, the catalyst had something to do with not being kind. In some cases, having a soft place to land and a safe place to stay changed people’s lives. In other cases, what seemed to be common kindness left a bigger, longer-lasting mark, as I recently learned from Julia.
People could (and did) count on my parents to advocate for their special needs children in the school system, market their struggling band, hold their hands through medical treatments, mark their departure for college with a handmade quilt, and call them out on bad behavior. They adopted everyone we knew, as children, parents, siblings. The world view my parents presented to me was one in which we are all related, in which support was the only option.
In high school and college, when things were a bit better, as we drove through Portland, I often saw Mom stop and hand any money she had–sometimes a couple of ones, sometimes a five, or even a twenty–to panhandlers. Once a friend of mine told her it was dumb, because “he’ll just go buy booze.” Mom’s response was excoriating and classy, as only she can muster. She broke out her best erudite, proper, Boston Brahmin accent and said, “I don’t care what he buys, and neither did the people who put money in my hand when we needed it. You buy what you need to get you through, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a hot meal, a cheap room, or a bottle. I can’t judge him, and neither can you.”
That philosophy, that idea that you only took what you needed and that you gave all you could, that belief that we must all care for and support each other, if any of us are to survive–well, it puzzled me sometimes, angered me at others, and marked me indelibly.
In the end it did all work out. We found a home, and called it ours for 14 years. I went to college, and to grad school, and “made something of myself.” Mom’s career took off in ways that we hadn’t imagined. We chose and purchased permanent homes, that we will always own. Mom still “adopts” people who need a family, and Daddy pretends to be irritated, but never balks at setting an extra place at the table. I teach my kids that “hate” isn’t an option in this family, and to be compassionate in considering the needs and actions of others. As far as I know, Mom still hands out money when she goes to the city (I know I do), and I know she’s first in line when someone (anyone) needs help.
Next to me, of course, because we stand in line together, still paying it forward, still knowing that we only survive together. I hope my boys will get it and remember it 20 years from now.