I am one of the fortunate ‘sandwich generation’. From this position elder parenting is required in many directions and subject to varied definitions. I myself have become an elder. I am officially retired. It is a shock that I can ask for a senior citizen’s discount. In every group I find myself in the older cadre. Recently I met family members and friends I had not seen in many years. My, they had all become so old. Did that mean that I too had become old? It sure did.
My sons, now 37, 34 and 32 have also begun to enter the category of ‘elder’. At least they are no longer teenagers whose raging testosterone requires clear limits, specific expectations, and real consequences. I am still their parent, their mother; still called when the chips are down. But now it is mostly just to be listened to unless my opinions are very explicitly requested. In most circumstances, my thoughts in the matter are not required. But ‘elder’ or older, the increase in chronological age does not necessarily mean they are any wiser. I see lack of wisdom a mile down the road but am prudent enough not to describe the vision. This self-control, while to hard to come by, is absolute necessity. When friends announce the marriage plans of their children and ask advice for negotiating the merger, my standard response is, “Just keep your mouth shut.” Perhaps, in the Wisdom of God, such discipline comes more easily and naturally when one’s own diminishment is becoming evident and energy sags.
The philosophy of prudent non-involvement has kept my sons and the women in their lives in happy relationship to me. I admire the ability of these young women to adjust to the notion of a mother-in-law who is a nun in a cloistered monastery. Their acceptance elicits my respect. Cultivating respect for them and my sons as adults who are making independent decisions has demanded much self-discipline. My heart, on the other hand, has yet to learn its lessons. After all, these are my children; the babies I tenderly nursed and smothered with kisses; the kids I saw through chicken-pox, rushed to the emergency room or sat by their side after surgery; the teens I ferried from soccer game to scouts to religious education; the young men whose achievements reduced me to tears of gratitude and admiration. I still want so much for them and worry so much for them. To hold those sweet memories, along with the concerns and worries, silently in my heart is truly an ascetical practice. This is the condition to which the parents of adult children must surrender. The heart of a mother remains just that.
Grown children, their spouses and significant others make up one slice of bread in the elder parenting sandwich. That slice seems as straight forward and as anticipated as white bread. The other slice is prone to alarming alterations in appearance and texture every day. My parents, my elders for so many years and source of support and wisdom, are slowly moving in another direction.
My father was born in Germany. He came to the United States in 1928 when he was eight years old. He served in World War II and earned an engineering degree on the G.I. Bill while supporting a wife and two children. He is a craftsman and builder. Intellectually, he is a Renaissance man, an avid reader and raconteur. His resume boasts a long professional career of varied accomplishments and an active professional engineering license. He may be the oldest P.E. license holder in the state.
My mother is the daughter of Sicilian immigrants. At the age of eight, she became little mother to a three month old brother upon the death of their mother. She is an accomplished home maker. Trained in fashion design, her artistic talent has been devoted to creating pleasing delicate water color paintings for over forty years. No holiday would be complete without her delicate home made manicotti and fruit tortes. Today my mother’s short term memory is almost gone. Her former pursuits no longer hold any interest.
My sister and I have begun to feel that the tables have turned; that we are increasingly parenting our elders. The juxtaposition is not configured the same way every day or in every situation. A quality of diplomacy usually applied to international relations is required here. How much do you insist on helping? When do you say the driving license has to go? Must you be present at the next visit to the doctor? Do you have to make the next appointment? All superimposed on life-long parent child relationships bearing scars of ancient grief and old resentments kept tender by resilient memory. Now the deck is shifting as each new wave of reality breaks over the bow. The clock is ticking and we do not know when the alarm will sound.
Life is all about relationships. No one remains exactly the same from one day to another. We are subject to an infinite variety of mutations and permutations of character and personality, expression and physicality. It is all so very interesting and all so vexing. I have learned to expect that all things will change sooner or later, for the good or the bad. Challenge and opportunity for growth are always around the corner. But the greatest learning has been to appreciate the necessity of continuing, day after day, in total faithfulness, to go on loving, no matter what.