I always depended on my parents while I was growing up and saw them as my caregivers.
But now they're in their 70s and I'm almost 40, I'm getting to know them as people.
I appreciate who they are to me now outside our parent-child relationship.
Growing up, I saw my parents as wise and dependable caregivers who had the answer to every childhood problem. They handled the adult stuff while I busied myself with important tasks like going to school, playing with toys, and reading stacks of Dr. Seuss books.
Only now, with them in their 70s and me just under 40, do I feel as if I'm starting to discover their identities beyond the roles of being my mom and dad.
Mom was my teacher, helper, and playmate
I remember Mom as domestic in many ways, the one who filled our small kitchen with the smell of homemade Italian bread, slow-simmered pasta sauce, and fresh chocolate-chip cookies. She introduced me to the world of books and reading and fueled my imagination with frequent trips to the local library.
On Saturdays, we took trips to the grocery store, the mall, or local department stores and grabbed lunch from our favorite quick-service spots on the way home. I usually wanted to bring home something new, and Mom often obliged with a craft kit, a Lego model, or a doll, which I eagerly tore into as soon as we got home (if I could wait that long).
I relied on her most of all for help with life's basics: getting ready for baths, brushing my hair, dressing myself, and tying my shoes. I loved her like crazy, but I took those patterns of life for granted. I had no concept of how much time and effort she put into simply teaching me to be self-sufficient.
Dad was the builder, fixer, and outdoorsman
I knew Dad most as the self-proclaimed "mountain man," a lover of the outdoors who took me fishing, taught me to whittle, and planted a big garden every year. He loved camping and wildlife, yardwork, and working with his hands. He kept our fieldstone fireplace roaring during the cold months and sat with me in front of the flickering flames to build Lincoln Log houses or read aloud from "Little House on the Prairie."
And yet a quiet introspection overtook him at times, and he'd spend hours in his big brown chair in the living room, working his way through book after book. Or he'd take a drive to a place he remembered from his younger days, perhaps seeking a way to process life's challenges through the lens of the past. I leaned on that sensitivity when I needed someone to talk about the struggles that surfaced as I passed into my teen years.
I'm finally starting to appreciate my parents for who they are
I find it ironic that society celebrates distancing ourselves from our parents at the very time we begin to develop the perception and empathy that allows us to enter into their emotional experiences.
I missed that window of opportunity in my 20s. But I'm determined to make the most of the time we have left to uncover the unique stories and insights I never had a chance to appreciate as a kid.
I go out for coffee with my dad at our favorite local spot and have long talks, adult to adult. His sensitive side is more apparent to me now, his need for companionship, his desire to show love even if he doesn't always know how. I see the creative streak that prompted him to write stories and poems in years past, a way with words that shows where my love of writing comes from and explains, perhaps, why we've always seemed to have an emotional connection.
But it's harder to get inside Mom's head as if we haven't quite surmounted the barriers and boundaries of childhood. Her domestic industriousness remains, manifesting in flurries of housework, cooking, and baking. I catch glimpses of a soft heart that moves her to pray for others, pet every dog in the neighborhood, and take time to help kids from church with their homeschool studies. I'm beginning to see her as fiercely independent, unshakeable in her convictions — and yet somehow fragile, in need of reassurance and gentle love.
Little by little, I'm finally learning to see the individuals my parents have become after a lifetime of experience.
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