Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.
The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.
When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.
“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)
Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.
About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.
“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”
Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.
And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.
So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:
“You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.
“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”
“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.'”
“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?
Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.
I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.
When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.
And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.