When you were a kid, didn’t you think life was just static after a certain point, that grown-ups just became grown-ups and that was that? Crazy that that child’s perception of time can carry with you for ever.
If there was anything about my perception of the world as a child or teenager that was just flat out wrong, it was that sense that adult lives are sure, stable, boring. I don’t think I was alone in thinking that once people got to a certain age, married, had kids, and were all settled in at their jobs-for-life, it was just a slow trudge to the grave (a trudge that, like any right-thinking teen rebel, I wanted no part in). And certainly there were examples close at hand of people who just existed in the same way, day to day, year to year, not changing, not growing, just getting by. I wondered how they could tell the years apart. My great grandmother, widowed at 69, lived on another 34 years; other than the last 10 when dementia took hold, her days hardly differed, doing the Jumble and watching TV, making pies in season, not doing much else. Others in the family lived much the same lives. My parents, the adults whose lives I should have had the most insight into, just seemed to be taking each day just like the last. They had worked for the same employers forever (it seemed), and always would. While they poured massive effort into renovating our house, there wasn’t anything going on in the outside world that they were involved with. It all just seemed like it had always been and always would be the same.
Time grants us the gift of perspective. What appeared then to be a life of (boring) stability from a child’s perspective was really just a brief period for those adults. Rearing children is constant change in itself. There was drama aplenty —anxiety about jobs, worries about money. There was drinking and infidelity. Friends and family died on them. It simply couldn’t have been as stable day-to-day as I perceived it. I was a kid; what did I know?
But it also can’t have been the constant progression I’ve experienced as an adult. I had a long stable period, too, where I was at a single job for nearly 10 years. But even in that stability, mixed in with all the challenging tasks of rearing children, there were new things to take on, new sports and arts to figure out. And after that long stable period was the most hugely unstable period of my life, at least financially. I had to point myself in a new direction and row like crazy to make shore. Life changing events continued apace – deaths of friends and family, cancer, changing jobs and finally changing cities. Even in the last couple of years, there have been some serious new challenges. It honestly feels like my life has been nonstop change rather than nonstop doldrums. It’s a little exhausting.
As I get older I wonder more and more what of my parents’ lives I really saw, and how much I understood. Do we ever solve that mystery? Can I possibly be as much of a mystery to my children as my parents are to me? (I’m gonna have to say no.) I’m less engaged in most of the old hurts (and yet . . .) and more able to really just wonder what their lives were all about, and what it was like to have led them.