I wish I had asked

I admit to forcing childhood stories upon my children. Not so they know me. But so that when it is too late, they won’t wonder: why didn’t I ask?

That night in my sister’s bed, I stared at the ceiling and felt the true loss of my father. Not his money or his house, but the man I sat next to in the car. He had protected me from the world so completely that I had no idea what the world was capable of. I had never thought about him as a child. I had never asked him about the war. I had only seen him as my father, and as my father I had judged him. There was nothing to do about that now but add it to the catalog of my mistakes.

The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

Who are these people?

Retired and laid low by the pandemic, we cleaned out closets and scanned photos. Who are all these people in my mother’s albums? Snapshots expose moments of our parents’ lives of which we were unaware. Guilt overtakes me as I realize how little I know about my parents’ childhood. There were no grandparents to share stories. I am guilty because I never asked.

This I know

Two facts I know because I asked:

  1. although my father grew up on a farm with work horses, he had wanted a pony.
  2. he was stationed in England during WWII and repaired guns.

He related that the coldest he had ever been was the Christmas Day when the horse-drawn sleigh overturned on the way to his grandparents’ home. He disliked having to stoke the furnace on cold Iowa mornings. And was happy to have indoor plumbing. My aunts enjoyed styling his hair.

That’s my paltry awareness.

He was my father, gentle, with few words. Only once did I hear a profanity:  a sotto voce “damn” in response to an uncooperative car frightened me in its singularity.

My favorite memory is the sensation of leaning on his chest as he read aloud the newspaper comics, his laugh reverberating throughout my entire body.

Many memories, but they revolved around me.

I am not alone

Friends and family of my age share my regret of ignorance. Why didn’t we ask?

I observe my children as they adopt adult roles, allowing me to forgive my younger self for its self-centeredness. Modern life is complicated, requiring a great deal of energy and attention for physical, emotional, and spiritual survival. The needs of children increase the demands exponentially. What young parent has time to regard their parents’ childhoods?

Why didn’t we ask? Perhaps it is not so much that we didn’t view our parents as individuals. Rather, our own experiences of life appeared mundane, and in our ignorance, we assumed the same of theirs.

Incidents are unique when they no longer exist.

My childhood playtime in the woods near our house, picking flowers for bouquets, playing in the creek was the neighborhood norm. Only when I knew my children would never have that opportunity did I realize its value.

I admit to forcing childhood stories upon my children. Not so they know me. But so that when it is too late, they won’t wonder: why didn’t I ask?