I realized a couple things over the week I spent at my parents’ home during the holidays. First, my parents are surprisingly kind and emotionally generous people who take me precisely as I am. Or, at least, they sure try. Second, it’s possible that I really need not to be taken precisely as I am. At least not all the time; not in a totalizing way. Now, I’m not suggesting that I want my parents to squeeze me into the mold of their choosing, that they should chisel away at me until I fit their notion of who I ought to be. Far from it. But I am really wondering about what it means to live altogether too unchallenged, untested.
While I was home, S wrote to me, and his words have been on my mind for days, particularly because they tapped so clearly into the conversation I was having with my mother all week. S wrote that he is uncomfortable with the demand we make when we speak, that he wishes to be unassuming. My mother wishes to be unassuming as well, though my father and I certainly don’t. This leads to conflict between the two of us at times, though nothing that we can’t work through, usually with the help of my mother.
I’m lucky to have, in my family, the kinds of relationships that enable reflection, growth, and love. But I’m wondering—not at all sure, just wondering—whether those relationships are possible only because of my mother’s refusal to assume. Family relationships are strange relationships: you don’t choose these people. They are chosen for you. And then you live with them for years, under their roof and their rules. Absent the gentleness, the kindness of the unassuming parent, do the conditions for real conversations, for real relationships, even exist?
My father always says that “when LJ is doing well, she can do anything. When she’s not, she will do anything.” He wants me to be successful, accomplished, fully engaged and living to my full capacity. And he wants me to straighten-up-and-fly-right. My mother values success and accomplishment, but she values kindness more. She wants most of all for my sisters and me to be kind people. She’ll love me, whoever I am, but she wants this in me, for me. This may be the gift of the unassuming parent—to remind those of us who must assume that we need to take it seriously.
I believe that, in many ways, we only become thinking people, we only become full subjects, in relationships. I have relationships with the authors I read, the film-makers I watch, the poets, the playwrights. I have relationships with my friends. And I have relationships with my family. These relationships I see, I feel. But my mother, from her position of non-assumption, reminds me that being in the world means constantly being in relation to all of its other inhabitants. She reminds me that I should only make demands in the knowledge of those relationships.
Absent the influence of my mother, I don’t know that I would have surrounded myself with people who remind me of that. I may have been callous, or even cruel. I am sometimes: callous and cruel. But because I am in constant conversation with the unassuming, I do try not to be. My mother can feel the rightness of the kind act, the embrace. I have to take the rightness of kindness on faith. I have to choose to believe. I don’t know that I would have chosen, would continue to choose, absent her example.
When I see my parents, I know the experience of nostalgia, the longing for home. I feel that longing, even while I’m being welcomed into their arms, accepted, embraced. I can tell them this, so I do. Upon reflection, I’ve decided that I do need to be taken precisely as I am. But I also need to remember the position of the unassuming, that position so beautifully inhabited by my mother. Maybe over time I’ll learn to carry home, and my mother’s example, with me. Even then I’ll need to go back to my family, time and again, to remember who I want to be.