My parents were, for my generation of children, a little on the old side. Not Guiness Book of Records old, or even Geez, I T’ought It Was The Menopause old. Just old-er. Nearly forty when I was born, which, these days, is nothing at all, but to my little eyes, surrounded as I was by friends with parents in their twenties, was old. Scary old.
I read a magazine article at one point about the children of elderly (no, that’s how they phrased it) parents and the extra burden that placed on their young shoulders. Many of these children, it was reported, would sneak down the hall to their parents’ bedroom at night to make sure they were still breathing.
My only reaction to this bit of reportage was surprise that this was not a universal practice. The children who didn’t check up on their parents were, I knew, lazy children and bad ones.
Because I was an imaginative child, I practised for when the reporter would interview me about my elderly parents.
“They’re old,” I would explain graciously, “They could die.”
When I got to high school, my classmates would report on fights they’d had with their mothers and I would be electrified with shock at their callous disregard. My mother gave very real indications that harsh words would literally kill her.
I may have been confusing literally and figuratively, but I wasn’t taking any chances. So we found other ways to piss each other off. Here’s a hint: dropping out of university at the age of twenty-one to marry a boy your father doesn’t particularly like is a doozy.
It wasn’t the first time I’d dropped out, either. I signed up for Katimavik when I was twenty. I lasted eight whole days. And then I nearly died of homesickness and spent thirty six hours trying to get home accompanied by two other drop-out misfits. We caused a crisis in head office. Apparently they weren’t used to that many leaving at once.
“And why are you quitting?” asked the head of our unit.
“My parents,” I explained graciously. “They’re old. They could die.”
My father presented me with a bouquet of roses when I got home. And then I went to bed and slept for an entire day. When I woke up, he said that there was still time for me to start the fall semester. “No, I’m good,” I said. “I’ll get a job.”
He eyed the roses, wondering if he could rescind the gift.
I did go back the following term (working in a diner for a bum-grabbing boss made it an easy decision), but it was never quite the same. I knew there was a bigger world out there and I wanted to be out in it.
OK. I suspected there was a bigger world. We had been billeted in a cow pasture outside of Roblin, Manitoba. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
As I got older and my friends started having babies, I was able to look on the situation from a new perspective. My friends had no idea what the hell they were doing. One day, they were carefree kids and the next, the nurse was handing them a little tiny stranger whose entire life was dependant on them getting it right. And no, there was no instruction manual. I asked.
I would ask people what age their parents were when they were born and think about how clueless I was at that stage in life, as they looked at me in sympathy for having to research long-term care and plan funerals in my forties. “Geez,” I’d mutter. “You were raised by amateurs.”
I’ve since stopped doing that to people. It’s kind of a mean thing to say.
But the strangeness of not being raised by amateurs continues. Alan and I were out for dinner with friends a few weeks ago, all at least a few years older than us and all with parents still living and needing to be looked out for. I take it as a sign of my own burgeoning maturity that I managed to stop myself from pointing out that we were the youngest at the table and the only ones with no parents left. Because that would also be a conversation killer.