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Your parents are not (just) your parents

I finally reached adulthood this summer, as we prepared to celebrate my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. It became clear to me that, for all these years, my parents have been living a double life: their own, one that has nothing to do with me or my siblings, that preexisted us and that they have carried on shamelessly under our noses. With their anniversary approaching and my dad turning ninety, my brother, sister and I talked about making them one of those huge “This Is Your Life” parties. But my mom protested that she wanted nothing this elaborate. So, we whittled the big idea down to an intimate brunch on an early August Sunday with immediate family, followed by a Zoom celebration to which we could invite people from different parts of their life.

I oversaw inviting people to the Zoom call. My first hint of my parents “other life” was when I started sending information to their surprisingly large list of family and lifelong friends. I’ve known some of these friends of my parents’ since I was a kid, and to me they’ve always felt a little like family. We might assume that at this advanced stage of a couple’s life, they would be living with the curse of having outlived their loved ones, but this has largely not been my parents’ experience. A fair number of their older friends who go back with them sixty years or more are still alive and in touch: nursing school friends, synagogue friends, even my mother’s oldest friend from middle school with whose family in Israel I keep in regular contact. Somewhat unsettling to me was that a number of these friends were people I didn’t know and had never met. This somewhat shocking truth about them became most apparent when my mother told me, “I want you to invite my friend, Mimi.”

“Mimi?”, I asked. “Mom, who’s Mimi?” as if I were a parent interrogating his kid about the company she was keeping.

“Mimi’s a friend from nursing school. We see her at the alumni weekend every couple of years, and I’ve got to tell you, she’s just as outspoken as always.”

“Oh…OK, I can invite Mimi, mom, but why her specifically? I mean, you don’t really keep in touch with her…”

“Mimi is the reason you’re here.”

I cringed. This was beginning to sound like an adult child’s TMI nightmare. I feared to hear her next words.

“Mom, what are you saying?”

“Oh, stop it!” she scoffed. “Mimi set us up on our first date. She told me I should go out with your father.”

“But wait a minute, mom. You once told me that when you first met daddy, you didn’t even like him.”

“That’s true, but Mimi thought I should go out with him…so I did.”

Wow! I was stunned. Before my siblings and I came on the scene, my parents already had boring and complicated childhoods; my mom lost her mother at age eight, then was raised by my grandmother beginning at age eleven. My dad jumped out of airplanes and set up MASH units during the Korean War; my mom studied with world famous scholars of Judaism; my dad was becoming a professionally trained operatic tenor. On top of all that, my parents met, fell in love, romanced, married and built nursing careers.

And before my parents had my siblings and me, they had Mimi.

Some of us spend a great deal of time, with genuine justification, reviewing the traumas great and small visited upon us by the past sins of our parents, some of them sins of omission and some of them sins of commission. None of us deserves to be treated this way, by our parents especially. Yet, perhaps too many of the rest of us spend a little too much time cursing our parents for the ultimate crime of parenting while imperfect: as the people they are and were, with their own mixed histories of trauma and triumph, doing their broken best to love us and raise us. What if instead of cursing them, we blessed them by stepping back with compassion to take a long, loving look at their lives, not as our parents, but as their less than perfect yet often wonderful selves, worthy of our love, and if not entirely of our love, at least our forgiveness?

Celebrating the long journey of their love with my parents, a journey of which I am but one lucky part, I feel deeply blessed. Their life together and our family’s life have not been perfect. Such marriages and families don’t exist. But because they were and are themselves, with all my imperfections, I exist. That’s perfect enough for me.

Dan Ornstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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