My family has always been pretty close. Growing up we talked, we ate dinner together, and we supported each other. But like many boomers, I moved out of my parents’ home when I started college. Then I moved hundreds of miles away when I married and started a family. My family gets together with the extended family when we can (typically for holidays or events), and we call each other once a week or so. But recently I have been wondering … was that enough to give me and my children a strong sense of who we are?
Last year, the extended family got together to celebrate my niece’s wedding. (Weddings are a great time to reconnect!) Before the big day, I had the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with my mom and dad.
For several years, my dad has been struggling with health issues that have increasingly impaired his ability to communicate clearly. His wit and way with words that kept us smiling and chuckling all these years is mostly lost in translation now, as I seldom pick up on more than a couple of words over the course of a conversation. Yet one of his greatest pleasures is to take a loved one on a tour of some room in the house to reminisce. Usually he takes me to the dining room where pieces of crystal, paintings, and other collectibles tell a story of the life he and my mom have led together for more than fifty years. But this time he took me on a tour of his study.
We looked at pictures. The black and white of four jets in formation. Was Dad flying one of those planes? The color photo of an F-18 Hornet surrounded by signatures with a nameplate that reads McCain CF-18 Training Year, Dad’s name above the cockpit. Was Dad the instructor, and were the signatures from the pilots he trained? Then there’s one of Dad in uniform with Mom standing beside him in a sharp, dark dress as he receives some sort of commendation. What commendation? One book shelf displays an array of portraits of Dad at a variety of life stages, one as early as age 15. I identify most with the ones of him at age 40-ish in the service khakis he wore to work every day. He’s standing proudly; his thick, dark, wavy hair combed back neatly with Brylcreem.
We looked at certificates and diplomas. Displayed prominently in the middle of the wall is the oversize diploma from the US Naval Academy. The words that convey the degree are in an elegant, bold font. Below is the Rear Admiral’s signature followed by those of captains in charge of the various departments of the Navy. Watercolor-like artwork symbolic of the institution frame the words — Poseidon, eagles, an anchor and an angel, as well as dragons, a ship with sails, and other images, whose significance I do not fully comprehend. At the bottom left is a gold seal. How beautiful! Why had I not noticed that before? Other diplomas line the wall: a master’s degree in education, a master of science in international affairs, and the one that brings back memories — the degree from the US Naval War College in Rhode Island where I attended elementary school.
And we looked at books. The leather bound Harvard Classic collection in blue, red, and green that has been on the bookshelves for as long as I remember. And books about China, Vietnam, the Korean War, the Civil War, astronomy and space. And one called Goren’s Bridge Complete that Mom and Dad no doubt used to polish their bridge game. Then there are the books embossed with Dad’s own seal that now occupy a special place in my study by authors like C.S. Lewis, my favorite Christian apologist, and Will Durant, an American writer who made philosophy (one of my favorite pastimes) more accessible to us laypeople.
Then there are the books about developing training, computer-based training (CBT) in particular, the avocation my Dad pursued as he transitioned from being a pilot and a flight instructor in the military to a professional in the aerospace industry. His focus on what was then the cutting edge of training development and delivery became my passion and career too. So much of my Dad has unwittingly become an integral part of who I am.
I wonder: What will my children and grandchildren have to say and learn about me when I can no longer communicate? What part of me is sprouting and growing and becoming a part of who they are?
Researchers confirm that in the twenty-first century, young people are taking longer to grow up, so much so that social scientists have defined a new life stage called “emerging adulthood,” which begins at age 18 and ends around age 29. People now spend most of their twenties in search of identity. And while I think it’s great that so many of them have the time and resources to explore the possibilities, I’m concerned that much of that time is spent feeling uncertain and anxious. As leading research scientist Jeffery Arnett says in his book on the subject, while emerging adulthood is an exciting time of exploration, it is also a painful time of anxiety:
Because the lives of young people are so unsettled and many of them have no idea where their explorations will lead. They struggle with uncertainty, even as they revel in being freer than they ever were in childhood or ever will be once they take on the full weight of adult responsibilities. To be a young American today is to experience both excitement and uneasiness, wide-open possibility and confusion, new freedoms and new fears.
I believe we need to spend more time understanding our past and the role our families play in who we are. And I believe that as parents and grandparents, we do our children and grandchildren a disservice if we do not tell our stories in a way that will help them develop a stronger sense of self that will aid them in their transition to adulthood.