Inheriting the baggage too

The Thinker by Rodin

For those who are wondering, my mother’s funeral was quite lovely. While it would not be accurate to say everyone had a good time, it went about as good as a funeral could go. The music was lovely and touching. The priest gave a simple but heartfelt sermon that hit all the right notes. After the funeral mass, many stayed for the eulogies. Most of us children had words to say publicly; you may have read mine already. Tears were shed, but the tears were as much from laughter as of sorrow. When we remembered my mother’s little eccentricities, we could not help but laugh. Afterwards we repaired to one of the restaurants in Riderwood for a nice luncheon reception. My Mom must have been disappointed that she had not prepared the food.

My friend Courtney attended and saw my family at its full size for the first time. She remarked how much my family looks alike. She is right. You would be hard pressed to find any family where the siblings looked so much the same. Perhaps it was her remark that had me watching my own family, small though it may be. Before the service, my wife and daughter largely sat by themselves on a bench. There were plenty of people to talk to, but they preferred to stay quiet and silent rather than seek out conversation. I found myself greeting arrivals at the door to the chapel. I am learning to be gregarious, but it does not come naturally. Part of me wanted to be sitting on the bench with them.

The patter continued during the luncheon after the service. My nieces were at a table together laughing and sharing memories. And there was my wife and daughter, at a table by themselves. I joined them, but eventually mingled. This was, after all, family. Many I had not seen in years. The time I have with them is precious because we are so geographically separated. Why would I want to distance myself from them, particularly at such a turning point in our lives? Why would my wife and daughter? It is not as if they have not had plenty of time over the years with my side of the family and feel comfortable with everyone.

One thing is for sure: neither my wife nor I are extraverts. We tend to prefer the pleasure of a good book to a social gathering. If I must engage socially, I prefer small groups of people that I know. Still, there was a time when my daughter was popular. From ages 6-9, she was definitely the popular girl on the block. She was our amazing social butterfly. Girls were constantly knocking on our door, streaming into her bedroom or wanting them to come to their house. She was the nexus of a complex social, preteen network. It seemed more normal to send her to a sleepover on a weekend then not. She changed, but I do not know why. Now my daughter seems more like a cloistered nun than a social butterfly. Yes, she does have her friends, principally the “losers” (social outcasts) at school. Mostly they share her ambiguous sexual feelings and aversion to all things trendy. However, it is a small group of genuinely good teens. They meet irregularly in person. Most of their conversations are on IM, not in person.

Having twenty family members in the house for the wake was a bit much for her. She said a few polite words and then scurried out of sight into her room. The door remained closed until they were gone. Like her mother and I she likes to write. Still, it seemed more than a bit odd that she would disappear like this. She does this quite often. This girl, once so popular and the block extrovert, has morphed into the block introvert.

What happened? I am sure there were many factors. She had friends who got weird on her. They experimented tragically with drugs and sex, things that were not her scene. Yet on another level, I think she was also just modeling her parents. It is unfair to say we never host parties, but the last real party in our house was in 1999. My wife and I do attend parties once or twice a year. Yet invariably we don’t stay too long. Usually an hour or so before anyone else is even thinking of leaving my wife is tugging at my sleeve: let’s go. It usually does not take much persuading for me to leave either. Especially if it is a large group of people I do not know I find myself fumble mouthed and fumble footed. Somehow, I missed the class on successful social navigation. Few things terrify me more than having to go to a party full of strangers then have to make casual conversation. Therefore, I generally avoid it. Give me home. Give me peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I am starting to come out. It may be a modest midlife renaissance, but it is a start. My new job has its social aspects. I have learned to swim in it. I do this a lot on business trips. I am usually with a group of 8-12 people. We spend the day in meetings and the evenings at restaurants. Most of these people I now know a bit more than casually. I do not find it too burdensome. In fact, I am finding it kind of fun. It used to be that as soon as business was over I was anxious to run to my hotel room. Now half the time I find I want the conversation to linger. Perhaps that is a good sign.

However, most likely my engrained habit toward introversion will never wholly recede. It is too comfortable. Likely one of the reasons I fell in love with my wife was that she was a shy introvert like me. There would be no need to worry about having to fend for myself in big parties if I married her! Now I am starting to understand that my daughter has modeled our behavior. I do not think that she intended to model us, but she did nonetheless. Just like Mom and Dad, her most comfortable times seem to be in her room, alone.

If it were just her introversion, perhaps this would be no more than coincidence. She is currently half way through her teenage years. What I am now seeing is more like a perfect meld of my wife and myself, rather than the free and independent spirit I had hoped to raise. I find it spooky sometimes. Neither my wife nor I were first in line in the dating business. Maybe we had self-image problems, or we carried from childhood a latent shyness. While I wanted to be dating but seemed to lack the courage, my daughter explicitly chooses to shy away from intimate relationships. Perhaps it comes from witnessing some of her friends self-destruct in these relationships. In addition, I think that she picked up that this was an area of tenderness in her parents, so she was supposed to model it.

I am beginning to perceive something that should have been blazingly obvious. While children are not intellectually sophisticated, they are excellent readers of other people. Perhaps since they learn to talk through learning to read emotions, they become very adept at understanding people’s body languages and the complex subtext to daily living. Most of this emotional intelligence I think is buried in their subconscious, so they are not explicitly aware of it. Since we parents are a constant presence in their lives, we model a version of reality that for them, after a while, seems entirely natural. It is more than religion that our children pick up from us parents. It seems to be pretty much everything. Even in areas where our children seem to be a contrast to their parents, it appears that (in my daughter’s case) it is picked to deliberately highlight the contrast.

My shyness is her shyness. My self-image problems are also hers. My feelings of toxic shame she also seems to carry forward in her life. And it goes on and on.

Perhaps all this comes from genetics. I am skeptical about this line of reasoning. Had foster parents raised her, I suspect she would have modeled them, instead of us. I do not know whether to be flattered or to be upset. Overall, I probably lean more toward the upset side. I raised her to be an independent thinker: so why is she as a liberal as I am? If she has to inherit attributes of me, why could she not pick just my good attributes and not the bad ones? Why would I want traits like my feelings of guilt to be carried over to another generation?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently to change any of it? I really do not know. Perhaps if I had been less a presence in her life, she might have turned into someone quite different. Instead, I played the dutiful and loving father role. I am sure it has many positive aspects. Somehow, my lesser aspects came along for the ride, as did my wife’s.

On the plus side, my daughter inherits our creative instincts and strong intelligence. These characteristics will serve her well in the future. She will have to work through a few issues though. I suspect my self-esteem is higher than my wife’s is. Which will she carry into adulthood? My wife is much more the bookworm than I am. Will she pick up my wife’s love of literature and always have a book in her hands? On the other hand, will she be like dear old Dad, read newspapers, and skim the media for content? Does it matter?

Time will tell. She is rapidly moving toward adulthood. Nevertheless, I do not think what my daughter went through is at all unique. I strongly suspect her friends are engaging in similar and mostly largely unconscious behavior emulation of their parents too. As I ponder my own mother’s death and try to understand the gifts she left me, I also realize some baggage came with her gifts. I hope that when my turn comes to leave this planet I will have left her with more gifts than baggage.