Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Passing It On

When researching roots gets too close to home--hovering near the current, living generations--sometimes the going takes on a more difficult aura. It's hard to dig further into the details of those we remember living only a few years prior. There may be baggage, regrets, or memories that still need to heal. But while we have the time to document those remembrances, we need to do so.

Musing over that predicament after the loss of my mother, I wrote this piece a couple years ago on one of those anniversary dates that gives pause to remembrances. Having written that, I realized that even the difficult memories we have are part of our heritage that need to be passed along.

Last week was my mother’s birthday. Oh, no splurgy celebration scheduled. She’s been gone now for almost four years. But there is definitely a remembrance.

It’s not always an easy remembrance. I have some friends whose family members constantly dote on each other. It’s quite warming to observe their public postings of mutual support on Facebook. And no surprise that they are as obsessed with publicly appreciating their mother as they are in affirming their siblings.

But, unfortunately, that’s not me. Knowing that memories include flashbacks to not only the good days but bad ones as well makes it particularly challenging to rightly sort through the details.

I imagine a friend of mine is going through that same process right now. Today is her mother’s funeral. I have been acquainted with this mother-daughter duo for decades, having met the daughter when we were college students together. For every time she sighed in frustration over a momentary clash with her mother, I think I have matched it in one of my own. That’s not to say she didn’t love her mom—she was quite devoted to her. Yet the devotion was embedded with many passing frustrations, too.

We had talked about it from time to time. It can be challenging to not have the “Average American Mom” for a mother—the stereotypical mom who is always there to feed you chicken soup when your soul is needing a dose. But that is the legacy each of us had been given. The challenge to live up to was to honor despite the drawbacks, to see the value in what we have been given.

We are not alone, evidently. I remember talking with a coworker once, a master’s level professional. We were musing over the difficulties we sometimes had, interacting as adults with our mothers. I can remember the specific instance of horror hitting her face when she, thinking aloud over her reflections, realized, “I’ve become my mother!”

We have become our mothers. What we have found difficult, provoking, alienating, about their momentary behaviors has become the same opinionated off-the-top-of-our-heads verbal snapshots of our own lives. Their foibles, attitudes, insistences have become second nature to our next-generation beings. Without even thinking about it, we have assumed their affect, morphed into their mold.

It’s a kind of heritage. Not one that would be written out in a will, but written in an unspoken code—a genetic code. Somehow, it’s as if the product of our environment has become the very essence of our genes. After my mother was gone, I could sometimes hear her laugh, or sense her sigh—and, thinking I was hearing her again, realize that I was only hearing my own voice.

Or was it really my own voice? Where did that voice come from? The sound, the breath, the pacing, the inflection—how could it just be imitation of what I had heard countless times?

Regardless of the current opinion held of our parents—and farther back than that, our ancestors—we are actually a product of who they were. We carry all the benefits and all the foibles of what made them up. And, can we blame them? They were merely the recipients of what was given to them.

The minute tendencies that make each of us up are somehow our own, but somehow are also owing to those we call our parents, our grandparents. They live on in us. We benefit from them. We owe them much—whether in frustration or in gratitude.

And we have to understand that we, too, will pass that all along to others who will share our same frustrations. Just as there is no way to escape who we really are, there is no escaping the fact that we received it from those who went before us. The real task is to sift through that mixed bag of inherited items and learn to see the real value in what we’ve received—then pass it along in such a way that those beyond us will realize, with gratitude, what they are receiving.

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