How You Should Remember Your Parents When They're Gone
When I was a teenager in Holland, a Dutch band called Doe Maar had a song entitled "Pa." The first lines, about a father, go something like this:"You are only a family for a relatively short time -- usually about 20 years."
Sitting there now, your hair nearly white
The wrinkles on your hands
So friendly and soft, who’d ever have thought
You’ve changed so much
I didn’t become what you wanted…
At the time, the song meant nothing to me. My parents then were towering figures, in their prime. I hadn’t thought about the song in 30 years. But since my mother died last month, Doe Maar’s lines have been running through my head. They are helping me understand how to remember one’s parents.
My mum had been ill for over 10 years. By the end, there was little left of her. In Doe Maar’s words, she had “changed so much.” It’s not the memory I want of her. Better to remember parents as they were in their prime, when you were a kid.
In the weeks since the funeral, I’ve been looking at old pictures, as you do. There’s one of her young and beautiful and made up in London 40 years ago, about to go out for the evening after putting me to bed. Or there’s her in a sunlit garden with my late grandparents and me: a baby who looks a bit too much like Winston Churchill, but could still blossom into anything other than a cantankerous middle-aged journalist. Or there’s the strongest memory of her I have, no doubt inspired by an old photograph: the day she and I made a papier-mâché mask together in the house in Jamaica where we were living then. I must have been 3. I still remember my surprise at discovering that you baked the thing in the oven, like a cake.
You are only a family for a relatively short time -- usually about 20 years. In that time, much of what the family is trying to do is lay down memories. The aim is to leave all family members, but especially the kids, with snapshots of happiness for them to look back on after everyone goes their own way. When the children leave home, the family effectively dissolves, even in cases in which the parents are still alive and together. The day my mum and I made the mask together, we were laying down memories, even if neither of us knew it.
Now I’m doing it with my own children. Of course, lots of their memories won’t be good: me going purple with frustration in the morning, scraping Weetbix off the living-room carpet as they take five minutes too long to get dressed for school. And only partly because my generation had children late, my kids won’t remember me young and beautiful the way I do my mother.
But every now and then, there’s a day that works, when in the evening they lie in bed awake, staring at the ceiling trying to make sense of some wondrous outing we had together. That’s how I want them to remember me -- and not as the poor dying animal that I’m going to be.