Do parents ever really grow up? on holiday
Sunday 30 April 1995
"I hear you and Tony are getting married," I said (thinking, this is like some awful opening scene in thirtysomething).
"Well, yes, probably," she admitted, sounding faintly embarrassed.
"What do you mean by that?" I said, in rather too loud a voice (scene two: daughter over-reacts). "Are you or aren't you getting married? You must know by now."
"It depends on what the bishop says," she replied. "We have to ask him if I'll be allowed to remarry in church."
"And what if the bishop says no?" I said (scene three: daughter hopes for Act of God).
"We'll still get married," she said. "But wherever we do it, it's going to be very quiet, just the two of us. Do you mind terribly not being there, darling?"
"No, that's fine," I said (scene four: daughter tight-lipped; story to be resumed next week).
I don't actually know very much about the man she is marrying, but instead of hoping for the best, I imagine the worst, and find myself fretting about her as if she were a skittish teenager who had decided to run off with some hideously unsuitable boyfriend. This is, of course, ridiculous. My mother is 56 years old.
Anyway, I've got enough on my plate worrying about my father, whose eccentricities are legion. Last October I took the children to see him in South Africa, under the erroneous impression that he was about to remarry, only to discover that he had recently embarked upon a nervous breakdown and was also in the process of splitting up with his partner. He wasn't talking to her, or anybody else for that matter, apart from the dog, and the plants (no one else understood his suffering as a frustrated genius, he said). The woman I had believed to be his fiance was furious with him, and I ended up trying to paper over the cracks ("The thing about my Dad is, he's always been a little bit up and down"), and then giving up ("Yes, all right, he's completely impossible) and agreeing to move him out of her house and into a small flat of his own. Now I think they might be back together again, except that he's gallivanting off to a new job in Botswana. Botswana! Will he make any friends there, I wonder? Can he change the habits of a lifetime and remember to lock the doors at night/stop burning saucepans/refrain from telling everyone he meets that they are wicked anti-Semites?
I was telling my husband about these various anxieties, and he said: "I worry about my mother, too. I'm very worried about the thought of her going off across America in a camper van. It might be dangerous." My mother- in-law is a resourceful woman, who could doubtless hold her own against an army of rednecks and hoodlums; but still, I understand his misgivings.
Concern about our parents is, perhaps, a sign that we are getting older. It's crept up upon us: they've entered a second youth, and we've become middle-aged. But it's probably inevitable. You spend all those years being fed up with your Mum and Dad, and possibly lying on a therapist's couch complaining about them and their peculiar foibles; and then, bang, you have your own children, and the worry button clicks on, and before you know it you're feeling apprehensive about the fate of any number of people: sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers - our kith and kin, all wandering around in a strange and ugly world.
The other thing about getting older, and slightly wiser, is that you soon realise that you are not alone in having worrisome parents. (Could it be their revenge for all those nights that they paced the floor with us as crying babies, or sat up waiting for us to come home from depraved teenage parties?) You start comparing notes with friends, and most of them have lurid stories of parental madness and multiple infidelities. To be honest, my mother and father are no trouble at all compared to some others: they don't gamble, they don't drink cooking sherry for breakfast, and they don't spend their entire income on plastic surgery. In fact, a friend of mine recently challenged me to name one set of parents who did not provoke neuroses. I thought for a while, and finally came up with some acquaintances - a seemingly placid married couple in their fifties - and she said no, I was quite wrong about them, they caused their children endless grief, what with their constant squabbles and financial crises. As my sister says: "There's no such thing as happy families."
This is comforting in one sense (we're all in the same boat), but disturbing in another. What will I do to unsettle my own children? The possibilities are endless: dancing to pop music in the kitchen is already out ("Oh please stop Mum, you look so silly"); as are my attempts at keep-fit in the living room ("I don't think your legs are supposed to wobble, Mum - Mr Motivator doesn't have wobbly legs"). Who knows what familial tensions the future might hold? ("Mum, are you really going to leave the house dressed like that? You might catch cold, and I'm not sure that skirt does you any favours at your age...")
I asked my husband what he thought we would end up doing wrong in the eyes of our children. He paused for a moment and then said: "It doesn't bear thinking about. Simply exist, I suppose."
Coincidentally, just as I was finishing writing this, my father rang, for the first time this year. "How are you, Dad?" I said, braced to hear about his latest disaster.
"I'm fine," he said. "I was ringing to find out how you are. I was worried." !
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