Saturday, June 07, 2008

What I learned about being a mom from watching my dad

My dad is fond of saying that "grandchildren are a parent's revenge." The statement annoys me, even now that le Petit is here and part of me secretly hopes that some day he'll understand just what it means to be randomly woken up in the middle of the night. It is the wording I take offense to: it is as if somehow we children deliberately put our parents through the wringer (though there may be a grain of truth to that when we're between, say, ages fifteen and twenty) .

But I understand what he means, too, that there is a clarity that comes when the roles are shifted, and I'm sure some satisfaction when your children are "all grown up" and ready to bumble through parenthood in your footsteps. You wonder what they'll take from what you gave them to give to the next generation, what gifts they choose to become heirlooms.

I must have been seven or eight, I honestly don't remember, when my dad took me to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge to go birdwatching together. It must have been early spring or late fall because the sky was a heavy gray and the tall rushes and grass had died back far enough to see into hidden ponds and pools. There were plenty of birds, and lots of slow-moving dabbling ducks that a kid could get a good focus on even in a pair of adult binoculars.

From the moment when we arrived and started on our hike, we weren't just father and daughter, we were partners on a mission. What I managed to observe and identify was just as important as what he pointed out to me. We both asked questions, thumbed through the bird guide, and stood at the waters edge quietly, waiting for the next feathered enigma to wander past.

A flock of jet-black birds settled around a pond. The tops of their wings were outlined with bright red and gold, and I found them beautiful, like no birds I'd seen before. They were red-winged blackbirds, my father explained, and the logic pleased me. I'd never before been interested in birds but I started to see the game in searching first in the air, then in the colorful pages of a book.

I pointed out a small, reddish-brown duck with a baby blue bill. For me, ducks came in two models: Mallard and Donald. This odd specimen looked like a freshly painted toy where someone had chosen the wrong pot of paint. My dad found it in the book for me: a ruddy duck. So it was real after all, and from then on, I decided it was mine. I saw another black bird, this one with a bright yellow head. I wondered aloud if it could be called a yellow-headed blackbird, and I was beyond proud when the book confirmed my reasoning.

I don't know if my dad set out to make that day particularly special. I know he always tried to share his interests with me, even when his efforts often failed. I could've cared less about the telescope that Santa brought one Christmas, and despite a year of playing the trumpet in elementary school, I never learned to play jazz or even joined the marching band. There were some things for which he planted the seeds young, like a love of travel or an appreciation of the natural world, but it took years for the seeds to blossom.

I often think about what I want to share with le Petit as he grows up. Will he pick up his daddy's mastery of maps and geography or my interest in weaving? Or a love of reading from both of us? His father's way with languages or my mania for running? Will he be a food snob, a classical music critic, a world traveler?

It may be none of the above, and that's ok. What I learned from my dad is that what your kid values most is the being and learning with you in the moment. That's what you share first. When we went to Nisqually together, when he took me to Seattle Symphony concerts on school nights, when we cooked or read together, it was always the together that mattered most. He is that kind of dad. And I want to be that kind of mom.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thank you!

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