Thursday, December 17, 2009

America America

I recently finished America America, by Ethan Canin, and it was a marvelous read. I have a library copy, but that didn't stop me from dog-earing the pages that contained passages that I knew I'd want to copy out later. The ones related to parenting, of course, stood out the most. The last one is my favorite.

What you aren't prepared for is the way children change your past, too. That's the thing. Everyone knows they change your future, but to see them in their innocence - in their cribs and then on their bicycles and then in their cars, at their soccer games and then their recitals and soon enough at their graduations and their weddings - to see them through all of that is to know that everything you have ever done, every act you've ever had a part in, has another meaning as well, and that it is both greater and more terrible than the one you knew. Not just the meaning it had for you but the one it had for someone's child, as well. That's what came back to me now, more than anything else. The unavoidable truth of that. That all one-s deed - those of honor and those of duplicity and those of veniality and those of ruin - that all one's deeds live doubly.

"You know," he said. "You raise your kid the way you know. You take what your folks did, you try to add what you think of as your own corrections - things that hurt you, injustices, all that kind of thing - and you try to bring these blessed objects into the world so it doesn't do them any more harm than it has to. At least not too early, anyway. And then one day you realize that they're not all that different - I don't know - they're not all that different from some wild animals you could have just found out there in the woods. And you have about as much influece over them as you would over animals. One's fierce, maybe. One's calm. . . . One's always got his eye on the horizon. . . . Then one day you realize how silly you've been. There's nothing you can do but let them all go. All you can do from your end is pray."

(She) is like her mother. Devoted. Fierce. Willful. There is an unexpected trustworthiness in such a character, though. When she was growing up, (she) was the one who embarrassed us at dinner parties. . . . and at nine, a normally well-mannered age for girls, she still had no compunction about saying in her tin-soldier's voice, "I don't like you" to anyone blithe enough to fake affection toward her. She's always seen right through that one. As a father, I have to say, I take some comfort in it. And of course I know where it comes from, too. It's the thing that most scared me about her own mother from the time I first knew her - that same abiding and prickly truthfulness.

It doesn't take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I've long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I've grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go - in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I've watched our own girls move away now, too - first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands - as I've watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we've always tried to do for them, even if it's not always what we've succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we've fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I'm certain from my own childhood that of course I don't.

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