My son, Jason,called the other day and jokingly said that I didn’t keep myword.
“About what?” I asked. “I have never broken apromise to you.”
“When I was 7,” he said, “you gave a radio headsetto someone, and when I asked you to buy me a set, you told me, ‘Yes– but not until you are 12.’ Well, Mom, I never got it.”
I laughed, “Put that on my tombstone.”
My memory, which has been on delete for severalyears, had absolutely no recollection of the headset or the promise.But I never doubted his recollection of the unkept promise. He wasraised to tell the truth.
I dubbed Jason the family historian when he wasyoung. Every family has one. He was the type of child who set therecord straight, no matter the situation. I remember telling ArthurSchlesinger Jr. how Jason’s middle name, Kenneth, was in memory ofRobert Kennedy, who had been killed only a few months before my son’sbirth. Jason interrupted and corrected me when I exaggerated adetail.
When you have a historian for a son, it’s a goodidea to solidly secure yourself with him; that way, the accounts ofthose times when you behaved badly aren’t so painful. There is noharsher history than the one recorded through a child’s eyes: Aguilty parent does not play well over time. A responsible, lovingparent does.
I recently attended a bar mitzvah of a child whoseparents are divorced. A month ago, the young man decided not to splithis time between his parents, as the court decided he should do, andto move in permanently with his mother. His father, a physicist,threatened retaliation. At the ceremony, each parent stood, facingthe boy as they made speeches, telling him how proud they were ofhim.
The father, after presenting his son with thetallit, which three generations of his family had worn at their barmitzvahs, told his son how each boy who wore this tallit found a wayto split from his father, and that he was now part of this history.When the boy made his speech, he thanked his parents and, looking athis father, said: “I hope things work out OK between us.”
I was so moved by this kid. The father lays downthe tallit gauntlet, the symbol of his challenge to his son’smanhood. But the father poses as the main obstacle. What kind of afuture is he thinking about? But the son is clear-headed: he onlywants a straight, loving relationship with his father.
I once asked the director of a nursing home in LosAngeles why children did not visit their parents. He told me thatonly a small percentage of patients had no visitors, but that he wasnot sympathetic to them.
He said that they had had a cruel history withtheir children. “Many of them were so embittered with their own livesthat they took it out on their children,” he said, “and now theirchildren want nothing to do with them. They had only unhappymemories. So what do you expect?” he asked.
What do you expect, indeed. Every day for eightyears at P.S. 133 in Queens, we recited: “Train up a child in the wayhe should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” My sonwas raised to be honest. But suppose he was raised to be a liar? Hecould either be this pathetic person who continues to lie and use hishistory as an excuse, or he can break with his history and then raisehis children in the way they should go.
If you’re lucky to get old, there comes a timewhen you sift through your history and separate the meaningful fromthe inconsequential, the effective from the destructive. What remainsis the significant, the joyful. Best to decide early in life how youwant your history to read or face late in life that you can breakwith history only by understanding the past — hopefully, before yousuffer from its consequences. Tombstones record who you were inrelation to others. I’ve never seen one that read, “Mother, Wife,Daughter and Writer.”
Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of”Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon& Schuster).