Words of Wisdom
I was 19 years old when my mother died. Those days were blurry to begin with and now, years later, only two moments stand out: sitting on my back porch steps with my sister, giddy with grief and laughing like recently orphaned hyenas at nothing as funny as all that, and reading a Kahlil Gibran poem my aunt had found folded inside my mom's wallet. It was the poem that begins, "Your children are not your children."
Here's the second verse:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Gibran was something of a rock star in the 1970s, and his words still resonate. On Children was bittersweet when I was 19, poignant when I had children of my own and now, as a grandparent, it is, simply, the truth.
Here's what I hope: I hope I'm here and coherent long enough to see my grandchildren become teenagers. I doubt I'll see them into adulthood, and unless they're perfectly scandalous, I won't meet their babies. What I have now may be the best I'll ever know of them, or they of me.
When my own daughters were small, people were always stopping me in the grocery store to tell me to enjoy every moment. Usually the moment they were telling me to enjoy was not pretty. When my younger daughter wasn't self-selecting $12 bottles of vinegar and cans of smoked salmon from the shelves as we passed by, she'd be in a full-throated tantrum, kicking at me from her seat in the cart.
My older daughter, meanwhile, had discovered the drama of slipping away to the customer service desk, where she would pretend to be lost. One second she'd be right there, and in the time it takes to reach for peanut butter, I'd hear, "Will the mother of …" over the intercom.
"Oh, for Pete's sake," I'd snarl. That's when somebody's grandma would tap me on the arm. "Enjoy every minute with your little ones," she'd say. I'd open my mouth to reply and have nothing.
I realize now that these women weren't really speaking to me. They were telling their younger selves all this passes away. The children grow, the clothes they're wearing are given away or turned into dust rags, the store relocates and the building becomes a mega-church. The screamer in the cart very soon is a college professor, and the dramatic artist eating lost-child animal crackers becomes a librarian.
At the time, no stranger's platitudes could offer me useful perspective, and anyway, I couldn't stop to chat. My job, as I saw it, was to help my girls become reasonable, civilized adults able to cope with life's surprises. To that end, I had to focus: Get my girls, get my groceries and get out.
These days, when I see harried moms surrounded by restless children, I want to lean over and say, "They really do grow up." But I don't because who wants to hear that from some biddy cruising around all by herself? The most I can share is a sympathetic smile. At least I hope it's sympathetic. I had days with small children when even a smile would have struck me as a warning shot across my bow.
Usually, I say nothing. I think of my daughters, now grown and good, and my grandchildren. I also think of my mother, who carried Kahlil Gibran around until his creased squares started disintegrating. I hope I managed to pass it on.
Margo Bartlett and her husband have two daughters, two sons-in-law, three grandchildren and two car seats. She also writes the Just Thinking column for ThisWeek Community News. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.