So here is a confession: my parents and I had a falling out recently. The details need not be aired, but I will admit that I spent several weeks not talking to them, and it was brutal. As summer neared, the mulish anger subsided, and just in time for the return of the prodigal daughter. I placed a phone call to Mom to patch things up.
I was still skittish about coming home after making amends with Mom and Dad. After only a few delicately worded conversations, it seemed that we were all walking on egg shells, and anything was apt to go wrong. Visiting my parents is not like visiting other parents.
Mom and Dad live in a giant, ancient schoolhouse. Correction: the third floor of a giant, ancient schoolhouse. So a visit begins with the hauling of half a ton of belongings up three flights of slippery crumbling tile stairs, usually late at night, during a rain storm. Can’t find your kids at Papa and Nana’s? They are probably just playing hide-and-seek, aren’t they? At my parents’ schoolhouse, which is roughly 45,000 square feet of mystery and danger, I have about as much chance locating my wandering children as the drunken transient who has broken into the building in search of valuables to steal and sell at the pawn shop down the street. There’s a Hunger Games vibe.
In a town full of individualistic characters, my parents are the definition of characters. Everyone knows them, and depending on previous encounters, the mere mention of their names can bring smiles and happy anecdotes or dark scowls of contempt. Am I proud of this? Damn right I am! Does it make life a little harder when I come to visit? Sometimes. But while running errands around town today, something made me realize how important your family is, even when driving you crazy, making you mad, and causing you constant frustration.
It started at the dented can store — the kind of place where you buy cereal boxes that have the tops taped back on and cans of organic black beans with little dents in the sides — all at a discount. We went to look for “good deals”, a longtime family ritual. Inside the store a photograph of me is tacked up at one of the cash registers. It has been there since 2003, when I left home to go to Baghdad. Me in my Army uniform, with my infant son, who is holding a little American flag.
Every time we have gone into this store over the past eleven years, my parents have made a fuss over the picture. Now my children make similar remarks, mimicking what they have heard my parents say for their entire lives. “Doesn’t Momma look neat in that Army uniform?” It finally occurred to me that the picture is still tacked up at the register because my parents have made sure I’m not forgotten. They have made me into the hometown hero and carried on my memory long after I’ve gone.
Running errands around a town this small, my main concern was finding sustenance to accommodate my annoying food sensitivities. I had already fallen off the gluten-free wagon during a delicious but near disastrous lunch at a local sports bar, so I was thrilled to discover that one of the grocery stores features a new, impressive gluten-free section! Arriving back at the schoolhouse (and after four trips up the three flights of stairs carrying 200 pounds of grocery items) I mentioned to Dad that the section was quite progressive. He took complete credit for its inception.
“I talked to the store manager for some time about doing that,” he said. “I told him that you needed better food options when you visit, and that there are a lot of other people in the community who need gluten-free foods.”
I was, quite frankly, in awe. It’s possible that my father was not the one person solely responsible for the gluten-free section of the grocery store. However, knowing him, he probably spent a great amount of personal time lobbying the store on my behalf. Just like he spent eleven years remarking on my deployment photo, making sure that everyone within earshot didn’t forget me. It made me wonder if the reasons why I had been so upset with my parents were really worth being so angry after all.
It makes me wonder something else too. Will I ever be as good a parent to my children as my parents have been to me?