Wednesday, March 28, 2007
My Parents Can Beat Up Your Parents. Spiritually, I Mean.
Meet Barb and Dick Howard, me mum and dad. A sweller pair of parents I never coulda had. They’re retired (Dad was a church historian for 30-odd years; Mom was a writer/editor of church publications; both were ordained ministers), and heading toward their 80s with vim and verve, still doing the odd guest minister gig, the occasional wedding, baby blessing, funeral. Scads of their friends seem to be checking out, so my folks have been writing and delivering a lot of eulogies lately.
A wacky offshoot of the wacky LDS (Mormon) tradition, their church is now called the Community of Christ. When I was growing up, it was called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But everyone knew it as Nancy.
By the time I was rebellious enough to reject it (age 15), the church had liberalized tremendously, in part because a few influential members like my parents were less interested in Bible-beating than in actual theology and social justice. When I was little, though, it was a very conservative sect, a lot of scriptural literalism, a lot of fear, a lot of “thus saith the Lord” prophetic mumbo-jumbo. I had some Sunday school teachers who were like Saturday Night Live parodies. Many weeks of my youth were devoted to trekking around the country from church camp to church camp, because my dad, despite being way less insane than many of his fellow preacher mans, was a hot ticket. He had charisma and he was funny. And my mom had a welcoming, chatty, Southern charm that ingratiated our family to church communities around the world.
By now, Dick and Barb gracefully accept the fact that none of their kids stuck with the RLDS church (only one actually goes to church at all) and simply dig us for the heathen weirdos we are. They really are splendid human beings. I didn’t always think so. Nay, I was an early subscriber to Philip Larkin’s basic thesis in “This Be The Verse,” viz.:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.
Actually, I still believe that. But a little fucking-up and fault-filling make for interesting kids. Like a lot of creative people, I’ve leaned heavily on my flawed personality, mining its absurdities and paradoxes for the gold that is always lurking in the Shadow. Imperfections = good texture. Whatever complaints I may have had over the years about my upbringing, I don’t think there’s anyone who knows our family who’d deny that my folks raised four interesting, creative people. I’m lucky to be one of them.
One advantage we had, I think, is books. Visitors to our house were always stunned by the sheer tonnage of books. Not many split-level homes in suburban Independence, Missouri, can claim a library. Ours was basically built around one. I don’t ever remember being bored as a kid (except in church). When there was no baseball, football, basketball, swimming, ice hockey, or kick-the-can to be played, I could always find a book. Neither the Bible (I side with Joseph Campbell, who called it “overrated”) nor The Book of Mormon (“chloroform in print,” according to Mark Twain) ever really had a chance with us kids, because there were so many more compelling books around, and the inevitable reading of them was a central fact of life. Come to think of it, one of the books was “The Facts of Life and Love,” where I first learned about copping a feel.
The day I discovered the Kama Sutra in an unlocked file drawer in my folks' study was a mindblower. I looked around their study (they had two long desks made from doors on top of file cabinets, and long shelves of yet more books) and realized there was more going on in there, and elsewhere, than I'd ever imagined. Yikes.
I remember tripping my brains out in high school, coming home late, going into the library, and turning the lights on low. (The library had the only dimmer in the house, unless you count the wildly unreliable rheostat of drug use.) Wow, the library. The books glowed around me like magic embers. I ran my hands over rows of them, briefly believing I could absorb their contents without opening them. Ah, the collected Shakespeare — a beautiful, shelf-wide set of small blue volumes, tiny print — and there was Hamlet. I flipped to its most famous soliloquy. (If you ever happen to be on acid in the middle of the night, I don’t necessarily recommend this, but it worked for me.) I began memorizing it on the spot, and having forgotten most of it the next day, resumed my existential brain calisthenics. Want to hear “To be or not to be” in its entirety? I can still recite it. Thanks, Ma & Pa.
That library is also where I discovered C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Santayana, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath, Germaine Greer, and (thanks again) Carl Jung.
My parents are, among their peers, famously well-read, curious, informed. All four of us kids caught their bug for reading, for ideas and vivid language and storytelling, the power of words and imagination to convey and transform experience. Having traded on it to pay the rent for nearly three decades now, I’m particularly grateful to them for that. And I’m sure having these shared frames of reference gave us something to hang onto during my adolescence and turbulent twenties.
My shift in attitude toward my parents has as much to do with their own transformation as it does with my becoming an adult and parent myself. These are two people who examined some of their most deeply-held assumptions and decided that some of them were not good enough, not true enough, and certainly not Christ-like enough. They evolved. And they brought a lot of their church friends with them, through the power of their ideas and their generosity of spirit.
A few didn’t come along, of course. The RLDS church splintered into a number of smaller groups some years back, with the homophobes, the women-shouldn’t-be-priests crowd, and various other fundy factions shearing off to form their own little clans, deflating the mythic grandeur and beauty of Christianity one small-minded pinprick at a time.
I don’t meet many committed Christians who make a first impression of openness and curiosity, and my folks would be the first to admit that, well into their thirties, they had more answers than questions, too. But they just keep opening up. Like the two decent bottles of wine I’ve managed to cellar for more than a week, they’re improving, adding layers, deepening, little by little, over time.
Unlike wine, they show no signs of peaking. This summer, they’ll be the featured sages at a couples retreat arranged by my daughter. She and her boyfriend, along with two other couples, plan to spend a weekend with Dick and Barb, talking about how to keep a relationship alive and growing for a lifetime. Could you ask, in old age, for any greater confirmation of your journey through the vicissitudes of life and marriage, than that kind of love and respect from your grandkids?
Well, maybe to have earned it from your kids, as well. I’ve seen a lot more of my folks than my kids have over the years, up close and personal, and my own view is clouded by that history. But the weather’s been clearing up, these past two decades. I look at them and I see the sun. I be the son, and proud of it. They still drive me nuts sometimes, but mostly I marvel at my good fortune.
So here’s to you, Mom and Dad. (I know, you hardly ever drink. I’ll knock back a couple extra to compensate.) If you ever need a little validation, a little proof that your kids’ appreciation of you has grown since the family struggles of yore, here's some. Just look at the difference between how I blogged about you and how I blogged about Ted Haggard, Alberto Gonzales, or Rhonda Byrne. They suck. But you guys! You are superfine. I love ya.