Rock Island, IL
If girls vow not to become their mothers more frequently than boys vow not to turn into their fathers, and if this has anything to do with the general nature of the Mother-Daughter Spat (that All-Havoc-Wreaking Cataclysm that differs so markedly from the minor conflicts that arise between fathers and sons—and that is qualitatively different from the Father-Daughter Spat), I doubt nonetheless that many of us avoid The Inevitable. Outrunning the pedigree is pretty unlikely.
Of late I find myself walking around the house at night, as did my father before me, turning off lights and saying incredulously, if only to myself, “this place is lit up like a Polish chapel!” And when any one of my urchins, whether at his piano or her homework, pronounces a thing “boring,” I do not hesitate to say, as did my mother, that “things aren’t boring; people are.”
I haven’t known very many farm folk who wanted for colorful expressions. My dad brought from the farm of his youth to the domicile of mine some choice phrases, many of which I’ve made good use of over the years: “as useless as tits on a boar hog” got applied to everything from lawn mowers that wouldn’t start to sons who would do their chores, which of course included mowing the lawn with mowers that wouldn’t start.
“The chickens come home to roost” carried a lot more weight with him than cosmic irony or “poetic justice,” which is an expression I’ve never quite understood.
“A cypher without the ring”—not especially agrarian, I’ll grant you—went some distance to capture a no-account neighbor boy.
“Don’t piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining” meant the bullshit detector was working just fine.
“With that [a good grade, a trophy, a medal, what have you] and twenty-five cents you can buy a cup of coffee.”
And the best advice he ever gave me? “Son, don’t ever get into a pissing contest with a skunk.” Solomon himself couldn’t have prepared me better for the committee room, the faculty meeting, or the comments box.
My maternal grandfather, the True Value man, was a card-carrying member of the make-do club. He loved the expression “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” as did his make-do elder daughter, who made a point of putting the phrase into circulation in our house, hoping vainly, I think, that it would displace some of the coarser expressions that descended to us from the farm.
It didn’t. But I did barbeque a pork tenderloin on a silk purse of a grill just the other night. I did this under my winter grilling light, also a sow’s-ear-turned-silk-purse. I did it not three hours after telling some bullshitter to stop pissing on my boots.
That is, I’ve become my father and my mother.
I think “continuity” is the right word here. It’s a word etymologically related to “contain,” as if to live in continuity with the past is somehow to contain it.
My daughter likes to play the piano pieces I had to learn as a boy (and—confound the girl!—she plays them better). She lives in continuity with her old man (a moniker my dad never cared for), and what she contains she improves upon.
I’m a coach’s son, and I’m coaching my son this year in Dad’s Club basketball. I’ve discovered that I can’t snap my fingers and make my boy better at seeing the whole court or going to his weaker hand. I live in continuity. I contain a prior frustration.
And just as my parents shivered on the sidelines during early Saturday morning flag-football games in October, so I have stood in the cold crisp air of autumn and watched my boy turn the corner and outrun the defense all the way down the field. That’s a great joy, of course, but it’s a come-uppance of sorts as well, the shivering there on the sidelines and the occasional mild inconvenience of it all and the effort to hold one’s peace because the coach isn’t exactly Tom Landry. (Or Barny Fife, for that matter.)
But there it all is, all of it: the jerseys and the boys and the parents and the thermoses of coffee and cheering and the smiles and tears and the injuries and the cold air and the continuity. I’m glad there’s grab-ass football and Little League baseball and piano and the same story books at bedtime. And I’m glad it all adds up to continuity, that the present has a way of containing the past, of actually, not just metaphorically, containing it.
As one who is sometimes utterly baffled by what it is to be human, and how it is that we manage in spite of ourselves to make things work out well enough, all told; and, moreover, as a man for whom the shadows are lengthening in what has turned out to be an infinitely interesting and tremendously rewarding, if also frustrating (but for that reason also interesting) life—as such a man, afflicted by weaknesses, blinded by dumb-assedness, balled-and-chained by failures and screw-ups, I cannot help but believe that Parks & Rec football and soap box derby cars and mumblety-peg and all the ancestral axioms (“nothing good happens after midnight”) are each of them the creaking vehicles of that light unwearied traveler, grace, by the mercies of which we manage, in the dusty gyms and excruciating recital halls of time, to keep ourselves from falling into the abyss.
My mom had a last-ditch emergency tactic for making me attend to my sharps and flats, which (especially if they were “accidentals”) seemed to me to merit very little attention at all. (Would they get me drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks? No.) She would stand behind me at the piano and, at each missed note, apply her sharp index fingers to either side of my rib cage. The jolt could send me to Jupiter. It’s a tactic still used at Guantanamo Bay.
Though there was never any Mother-Son Spat, I vowed not to become my mother on that score (plus sharps and flats still confuse me). But, as my old man used to say (there was never any Father-Son Spat either), “the acorn doesn’t fall very far from the tree.”
And damn me if the acorn doesn’t actually contain the tree.