In recent years, I’ve started to rethink what parenting means to me, especially now that I’m a grandparent, and I can watch my own sons parenting their children. Besides my own experience, both as a son and as a parent of four grownup sons, the strongest imagery of raising children that’s etched into our minds comes from fiction; old classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Scout and Atticus Finch, or the Rosebud mystery in Citizen Kane. They all embellish mythical images of larger-than-life characters that resemble little of what we had to deal with — smelly diapers, loose teeth, troubling report cards, the terrible 2’s, blaring music of teenagers — otherwise known as the “real life in the trenches” experiences of parenting.
I recently heard about Matt Ross’ remarkable story — Captain Fantastic, which was somewhat based on his own non-traditional childhood. The movie tells of a father’s struggles to raise six children, homeschooling them in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, along with imparting his beliefs and giving them tools for life beyond being a nice dad. This film touched on many taboos and made me think about how many parents have ruined their children’s life by trying to impart their fanatic ideology, with little concern for the cost their family paid for their own convictions.
All of a sudden I realized in shock, that my own father, whom I adored, in his selfless giving and endless loving, had inadvertently endangered my younger brother and me by his own actions, which I had always considered courageous and admirable.
It was the 1950s and we lived in the Eastern Communist Bloc when my dad, Filip, had requested immigration visas to Israel, where he had hoped to fulfill his lifelong dream to raise his family as proud Jews. The outcome should have been anticipated. He was thrown into jail, demoted in his job, and we lived under the continuous threat of reprisals. Subsequently, it meant that we didn’t have enough food to eat or wood to heat up our home and I developed pneumonia. My mother got sick and my dad could not provide her with proper medical treatment nor buy enough milk to give to my new baby brother, who could not be nursed by my dying mom. We were finally allowed to leave Romania after eight difficult years.
I must have shared this story a hundred times, remembering my dad in glowing terms, how strong and heroic he was by holding onto his dream and insisting on giving us a better life — which he definitely did. But it could have ended very differently. In the process, adding to the loss of his wife, both of his sons could have easily died, and how would have history have judged him then, risking his family for an ideology that he felt compelled to pursue?!
We lived in Israel safely, and both my brother and I served in the army with pride. I grew up resourceful and committed to provide the lessons I learned to my own children, but unlike Ben, Captain Fantastic, in the wild wood’s survival drama, I settled for a more conventional life.
I remembered another father from a poignant story about of a fallen soldier in the Lebanon war in Israel. The son died in Beaufort, and his father asserted that he had failed his son because his only role was to protect him, regardless of any patriotism he felt or nationalistic dreams he had to fulfill. That sentiment stood out in deep contrast to another parent of a fallen son, who died in a terror act as a direct result of their decision to live near the front lines in settlements and towns along the West Bank in Israel. This other father’s reaction was: “This land was earned in blood and we have to pay for it with our blood.”
I am not political, but I wonder which father was right? Did a bad outcome indicate a fault with that parent, or was a good life a validation of one’s decisions? Or is it just a matter of fate, and perhaps we need not focus on the outcome altogether?
In recent years, I started to rethink what I’ve learned, especially as I watch in awe, how my own sons are leaving their own marks on the lives of their innocent children — my grandchildren.
It was one of my son’s stories a few years back that stuck in my mind, when he repeated to me his proud conversation with his future father-in-law in which he said that I was never absent from any event in his life. I certainly shed a tear of joy for this remarkable recollection, but it only awakened in me more wonder about my place in the chain that relays the baton of life from parent to son and so on. Did I prepare them enough for life, or have I shielded them too much to protect them from my own demons.
With the recent racial violence here in the US and the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement, I’ve recently wondered had I lived in the ghetto, if I’d risk my own life and that of my children by becoming a political activist or would I just live my life quietly, under the radar, and hope not to get caught in the crossfire. We must accept risk beyond our own lives when we fight for a cause, and often our children are our collateral damage to our own decisions.
Johnny Cash sings a ballad of a boy whose father named him Sue, and in fighting to fend for himself with many ridiculing him, his absent father ensured that he’d grow up to be strong.
Despite our ideological stands, both my wife and I tried to raise our sons in a safe environment and preached social activism far away from the front line of the causes we believe in. Did we prepare our children better than my father did, by exposing us to danger while standing up for something bigger than our lives?
I’ll never know. There are no report cards to parenting, besides the bliss we hopefully get from the chance to see our children grow and, hopefully, outlive us and remember us at our best and forgive us for our mistakes and inexperience.
They’ll probably be repeating the same ones after all.