This past weekend my wife and I loaded the kids up and headed to my mother-in-law’s for the first of our many Thanksgiving dinners. Neither her parents nor mine are willing to yield on a holiday, so the best compromise we’ve reached is to celebrate the same holiday several times with our various family factions. I am not an enthusiastic individual when it comes to holidays, mainly because such festive occasions put me in the awkward position of having to speak to people that I spend the bulk of the year trying to avoid entirely.
Also, where my in-laws are concerned, the atmosphere is . . . restrained. During the blessing, which my wife’s grandmother spoke with a stately Southern Baptist solemnity, my daughter Isabella shrieked, “Shake your booty!”
I believe this was prompted by the word “bounty” being said in the context of the blessing. I can’t be certain; I was only half listening anyway, but as soon as Isabella said it, her twin sister Chloe chimed in as well, and so before a fitting Amen could be pronounced, the peanut gallery of two-year-olds was demanding that we all shake our booties.
Curiously, my wife’s grandmother was not amused by the twins’ antics, as though their declaration to dance had somehow profaned the entire meal.
Of course, there was a time when I was immune to the cute quirks of children. Prior to being a father, I dripped with disdain when it came to people who dared to further crowd the planet and boost their egos with tiny replicas of themselves. I found everything about kids charm-free, particularly their mispronunciation and mangling of phrases and words, those hatchet jobs on language that became fodder for the saccharine tales of parents trying to one up each other on who possessed the more precious offspring. I did not understand the alluring mystery of children, because I did not speak the language of breeders.
Besides, what was the point of bringing a child into the world anyway when all it would result in would be a lifetime of miscommunication? When I was a teenager, my dad didn’t understand why I needed a CD player. This man who was born in 1941, who grew up listening to AM transmissions of country music in mono-fidelity, could not comprehend the glory of digitally remastered stereo recordings of the Beatles released in the most durable form ever. And now that I am thirty-five and my dad owns an iPod, he cannot understand why I collect vinyl records, even though their superior sound resonates with a warmth CDs cannot achieve. My dad thinks “Careless Whisper” (yes, the George Michael song) contains one of the great lyrics of all time. How did I ever endure being in the house with such a philistine?
Now, though, I can feel the cruel wheel of fate turning against me. And it is not merely because my children shout inappropriate things at the dinner table. I teach a few classes at the local community college, and as I have drifted into my mid-thirties, I have noticed that my ability to connect with students is slipping considerably. My disconnection from the future leaders of America has been reinforced this semester because I somehow was assigned to teach a section of freshman comp to high school students in an early college program.
I always like to read W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” in class on September 11th. It’s a poem that is strangely prophetic and hopeful. I always start class by asking the students to remember where they were on that day in 2001, and this year, for the first time ever, I realized I was standing in front of a room full of people who had no memory of being anywhere. They were seven or eight at the time. If 2001 is a vague and distant remembrance for them, then my high school graduation in 1991 is ancient history.
They also do not speak my language. I have lost track of the number of papers I have had to decipher this term because a good portion of them used texting shorthand. It takes me nearly twenty minutes to send a text message that is but a single sentence. One of my students declared proudly in class that she had cut back on texting the previous month, sending only 20,000 text messages. “You mean two thousand,” I said.
“No, twenty thousand. You know, two-zero-zero-” her phone beeped and she looked down to check it, then back up at me briefly as her thumb began to twitch over the buttons, “-zero-zero.”
“You know, a phone call is more efficient, Darien.”
She blew a puff of air between her lips and said, “Why would I talk to people I don’t like?”
I let the conversation end there. I can’t imagine sending 20,000 text messages to people I adore, let alone tapping out what amounts to simplified Morse Code to people I can’t bother to talk to on the phone.
What kind of strange creatures will my children become? And if these teenagers seem so inscrutable to me now, what kind of strange creatures will my children become? With my own parents, I may have had total communication failure when it came to matters of audio quality, or how to dress (my mother was forever ironing my jeans so that they possessed a crease that could slice a tomato), or how much one should spend on a prom date (my dad still grumbles that I dropped $50 on dinner my junior year), but at least we were a part of the same world. The great technological leaps between the generations of my grandfather, my father, and me amount to color television, the 8-track, and the microwave.
I am accepting of the fact that the coming twenty years of communicating with my children will usually be punctuated with much eye-rolling – on their part and mine. After all, it was my generation that honed sarcasm to a fine skill. But I am haunted with the constant worry that by the time they reach the age where we can finally start talking like reasonable people, it will be too late. And I don’t mean too late in the cat’s-in-the-cradle-Harry-Chapin way.
Shortly before I met the woman who would become my wife, I spent about a year helping to take care of my grandmother who was in the thick of Alzheimer’s. She was eight-five at the time, wheelchair bound, but quite chatty. It was disturbing enough to have to help her to the bathroom – after all, I am not a trained nurse, nor did I have children at the time, so my experience with bowels other than my own was confined to maintaining litter boxes. But bathrooms have a way of introducing comedy into any situation, so that was ultimately a small burden for me to shoulder.
What was most troubling were the hours I accumulated talking to my grandmother, trying to get her to remember me, to remember how she met my grandfather and how they had eloped – a charming story really: they went to a movie, left halfway through and went to the justice of the peace, were married, and then went back to the movie in case anyone asked them how it ended. But none of that was there. She would smile and ask about people that died before I was born.
Thinking of all this, I am filled with remorse – a beautiful word that comes from old French which literally means to be bitten again. And I am bitten continually. When I see my parents with my children, I feel trapped as a thought between two languages, with no adequate word in either tongue to express what I am feeling. So many things about my father that I found confusing while growing up have finally been deciphered with the Rosetta Stones that are my children. But my dad isn’t speaking the paranoid, worrisome language of early fatherhood anymore – he’s lost in the lexicon of being a grandparent, for which the rules of authority allow him a playfulness that he never fully expressed with me and my brother.
I am bitten whenever I am seized with the compulsion to tell any of my children how much I love them. My son, who is nearly seven, seems embarrassed for me. My children will never understand the deep love I have for them – at least not until they have children of their own. My twin girls, who are two, smile and nod their heads. I suppose these moments sink their teeth in the most because my grandmother developed a curious habit the further she sank into dementia. Whenever anyone walked into a room where she was, she would ask that person, “Do you love me?” It was rather jarring, no matter how often she asked me, because in that moment she seemed strangely alert and focused, which was not at all her normal state of being. As soon as her questioned was answered, she slipped away again into a dreamy gaze.
Once, when I was sitting next to her and helping her eat, she turned and looked at me and and asked me if I loved her. “Of course I love you,” I said. “You always took care of me.” She smiled and then leaned her head on my shoulder and left it there for nearly half a minute. When she lifted her head she said, “Dewey, when is papa going to get back from the store?”
I remember this as I am leaving my in-laws’, Isabella stuffed with turkey and mashed potatoes, her eyes heavy and her head on my shoulder. This is where the bliss of being a parent weighs in equal measure against the sorrow of it all: My children will never understand the deep love I have for them – at least not until they have children of their own, and at that moment I will begin seeing the world differently too, as a grandparent. We are never quite able to speak the same language.
But a head on the shoulder – what’s lost in words is made plain when translated literally by the heart.