When I was a child (and I think I’m not so unusual in this), my parents were my Parents — that is, they were comprehensible to me primarily through their roles, through their fulfillment of my needs and management of the order of my life. I loved them the way a child does, in a sort of all-encompassing, abstract sense that includes the simple, nearly religious conviction of their inevitability, their omnipotence, and their care. My love for them was also immediate and visceral — it was about a word, a touch, a knowledge of their presence, a notion of identity. Growing up with them was a long process of coming slowly to see them not as Parents but as people, and coming to love them as themselves and not merely as the combination of things they meant to/for me (which is also the long process of becoming capable of feeling this way about non-parental others as well). It’s a strange thing, the first time one’s parents are genuinely flawed or weak or wrong, and an even stranger one to reconcile the flaws and weaknesses with a real understanding of their strengths and their goodness. Sometimes, that reconciliation isn’t entirely possible. Certainly it isn’t so for everyone — some child/parent relationships are irreparable before they’ve even begun, and their participants remain incomprehensible and damaged to each other. That’s life.
Different life events can change the process of mutual comprehension that is Growing Up With Parents, too (never mind just growing up, period). Even Parents turn out to be mortal and fallible before one is quite capable of dealing with that fact, and this can color the whole world. This thought is what really strikes me as I think a little about Father’s Day through two lenses: J.J. Abrams nifty Super 8 and a chance reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog entry about his own father.
Watching Super 8 was, for me, an exercise in nostalgia as well as an interesting exploration of just the sort of thing I’m trying to get at here. For a person of my age, it was like watching a memory on two levels: its setting is my childhood, more or less, and its structure and presentation belong to my cinematic recollection (of which Spielberg, the producer of this film, is one of the framing architects). I was feeling reality and The Goonies at the same time; I think this is really a film that takes up that legacy and makes something immediate and timely and mature of it in a particularly interesting way. Most importantly, I was watching, through the eyes of both remembered childhood and current adulthood, children coming to see how complicated the world is and adults confronting that same complication. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. I will, however, recommend watching it with a close eye on the relationships. I’ll also recommend watching it next to Brad Bird’s amazing animated film on a similar theme, The Iron Giant. Most fascinating to me, in the end, is the way in which Super 8 represents, questions, and affirms different kinds of parental (and in-loco-parental) authority, power, and failure through the eyes of children and adults alike growing to understand that authority and its necessary limits.
It was with that on my mind that I got up this morning and happened to read Coates’ excerpt from his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. It’s a brilliant bit of writing, I think, and it illustrates richly and perfectly the sort of complexity I’m talking about. Here is Coates confronting, as an adult, his own childhood of grappling with his father’s role and person and all of the things that both A Father and his father could and did mean to who he was and what he became. It’s easy to say of so-and-so that this person is a “good parent” or a “bad parent.” It is much harder to be honest with ourselves and admit that there is no such thing as either. There is only a difficult and complicated world that we all negotiate in very different ways (some kindly, some abusively, some inconsistently).
All of which is a pretty windy way of saying “Happy Father’s Day, Dad,” I suppose — but then, being the child he had a part in raising, I couldn’t quite help it.