Relay: Leftover Thoughts

You get to watch with each passing year the metamorphosis of your offspring

I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving for only about half of my life, as I moved to America some 25 years ago. But already I’ve decided that, like Christmas, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a set of repeats: Its uniqueness is its groundhog nature. Same food, same faces, same tablecloth, same fancy china.

The only thing that breaks the predictability is that if you happen to be a parent, which I am, you get to watch with each passing year the metamorphosis of your offspring, from minor to major. 

My son is 17, on the cusp of going off to college and then who knows what. He and I are close. Well, as close as anyone can be to a teenager. It comes and goes, like cell reception in Northwest Woods. Sometimes I hear his deep, comforting voice, and other times it’s just static and snatches of some indecipherable language. 

As I watched him at the Thanksgiving table, his long limbs spilling around him, chatting effortlessly despite being the only person under 35, I realized that all the received wisdom about teens, about the talking back and the mess, the sulking and the door slamming, is mostly just sitcom clichés. I’m actually pretty astonished at how good humans are at getting through the chrysalis stage.

And that’s the other thing about these festive holidays: Each and every year you get sucker-punched by sentiment. That ability only a select handful of days have to repeatedly overwhelm all sense of judgment and intellect. So by the time the meringue and pumpkin pies, the ice cream and the sweets made it to the table, I was already as wobbly as the cranberry jelly, on the verge of dampening the whole festive thing.

In my lachrymose state, I realized that one of the biggest lessons about being a parent is that until you become one you have no idea of what love is, or like, or even what it’s there for. That urgent, delicious loin-warming feeling that you had understood to be love was really only something to be prefaced with “making” — it’s the tease, the amuse-bouche, the glimpse, a warm bath compared to the riptide of the real thing that arrives with parenthood. Up until then you’ve just been paddling in love. Growing up, nobody ever tells you this, parents never explain this fact to you — that one day you won’t be able to feel the bottom of your loving, that you’ll drown in the stuff.

Parents don’t tell their children this, of course, because by the time they’re adolescents or teenagers, to try to explain the depths of that terrifyingly transcendent fundamental act of nature that is loving your child is too difficult and choking. Most likely if I tried right now, my son would curl up into a skinny, athletic-clothing ball of hellish embarrassment, arms scything the air.

The funny and sad thing is that the time when it’s easiest to express these feelings, when there is the least emotional resistance between parent and child, when all that love is most obvious and free flowing, is the one time your child will never remember. Those first years when he couldn’t blow his own nose, when you picked him up and rocked him and watched him speechlessly as he slept, are simply blank. 

Later, as a child grows up, the relationship is muddied with practicality, with life’s lessons and mistakes, with the dull rigmarole of discipline and bedtimes and homework, inappropriate behavior, soccer games, and tiredness. And that’s the part a child remembers of his childhood. He’ll remember dodging through it. But there were four scant years when all he was immersed in was an ocean of love, and even though we parents will never forget it, a child remembers none of it.

I’ve decided the greatest design flaw of human beings is that we don’t remember our childhoods and can’t recall the moment we uttered our first words or took our first steps, the first time we tasted chocolate or fell asleep on a father’s shoulders. My son doesn’t remember these things. He won’t until well into the future, someday when perhaps he’s a parent, and then, sitting around a Thanksgiving table surrounded by faces and food so familiar that you come to realize they are only there for the transmission of memory and remembrance, it will all come to him.

Judy D’Mello is a reporter at The Star.