When I was an idealistic young teacher working on my first set of report cards, I listened carefully in the lunchroom to hear what the more seasoned teachers were writing in that terrifyingly blank space labeled “Comments.” In the slow tones of the South, one of the seasoned 5th grade teachers drawled an acronym: “A…D…F…F…F…T…T.” When I looked up quizzically, she explained, “Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree!”
Now that I have two little apples of my own, I see that there is more than a grain of truth in her sarcastic pronouncement. As parents, we are justifiably thrilled when we see what we consider to be our best traits becoming evident in our children…and a little less so when we see they’ve inherited the not so desirable ones.
Take, for example, our kids’ unfortunate gene pool options when it comes to singing. They have the poor luck to have not one, but two completely tone deaf parents, one of whom nonetheless loves to belt out snippets of tunes she sees as pertinent to the conversation (the kids have taken to saying, “Mama has a song for everything…except regular carpet” (as opposed to the magic kind, about which there are several choices)). I didn’t realize how my approximation of singing was affecting my children until we were at the home of Will’s godmother, who sang at our wedding and all over Europe with her choir. Playing with baby Will, she began singing a familiar children’s song which I thought Will had “heard” many times. Transfixed, he sat on the floor before her with his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. Perplexed, Annie looked at me and said, “He’s heard that one before, right?” As I realized the reason for his amazement, I answered, “Not like that!”
That Josh had inherited my singing talent became apparent the other day when I reprimanded him for humming randomly and tunelessly under his breath to annoy his brother (and in doing so, grating on his mother’s brain like fingernails on a chalkboard). Deeply offended, he retorted, “That’s one of the songs from our 2nd grade musical! I was practicing!”
While Mark and I are delighted that both of our children have inherited our deep-seated love of learning, we have hoped from the time they were very small that they would also have a chance to be “cool” in the eyes of their peers. You see, Mark was small enough to climb INTO his desk and hide in second grade, and I used stick my folded spelling list in my sock to study in the outfield when we played kickball in gym. Yes, we were true bona-fide, official geeks, and suffered enough for it socially that we wouldn’t wish the title upon anyone, least of all our own children.
So, we try to dress them a little bit hip (when Josh was very small and had just begun talking, I told him he needed a new baseball cap, and he promptly replied, “Gotta go to da GAP!). We buy some, but not all, toys that we know will be short-lived fads rather than brain-stimulating secret learning tools. We recently allowed them to watch the Star Wars movies, and yes, we bought them Nerf guns, an experiment in social interaction that has had some challenging results (but that’s a post for another day). Instead of just PBS and Nick Jr. options, their TIVO list now includes Garfield, Batman, and The Clone Wars.
And yet, TAADFFFTT…the other day I was struggling to control the troops while making dinner and suggested they watch a show. The remote clicked on and all was quiet on the couch. Curious to see what had so quickly grabbed their tired, end-of-the day attentions, I looked up to see them sitting side by side with their blankets, eyes wide, totally absorbed…in NOVA. Another day, I came home with a magnetic white board chore chart, as we are getting ready to start Josh on an allowance. Excited to start saving for a DS (refer back to the “cool” paragraph), Josh drew up a tentative list of chores for himself…which included “Play outside!”
At least I am not leaving behind the legacy being granted by my dear husband. Will had caught one of the hundreds of illnesses going around this endless winter and was trying to explain to me the location of his headache. “It hurts right here,” he wailed, patting the crown of his head, “right where my bald spot’s gonna be!”
I worry especially about my firstborn, who is a classic number one, born to two number ones. He hates surprises, resists trying anything new or different, struggles to achieve any kind of flexibility, and tends to quit when things don’t go perfectly his way. “Oh, God, what if he grows up just like me?” I worried recently, working out my tensions in my customary way — with flour and sugar and butter. I paused in my fretting as I began to roll out the crust for a pie (apple, ironically) and thought to myself, “Damn! This is really nice crust. My new vodka trick is actually working!”
You see, I had just lately discovered that while I WAS employing vodka in my never-ending quest to master my mother’s piecrust, I was not utilizing it most effectively by sucking it down with tonic and lime. Scanning through pastry hints online, I came across a recipe that suggested using vodka to replace part of the water, which reacts with the flour to produce gluten and must be used sparingly to avoid a tough crust. I was about ready to give up on pies altogether at that point, so I gave a metaphorical shrug and tried it, along with another small modification or two. After years of tears and tender but brittle pastry, it seems I have finally come up with a version that works for me.
I carried on with my crust in the light of the late winter sun, my body swaying above the rolling pin in the remembered ways of my mother and my grandmother before her, my hands, shaped like theirs, moving almost without conscious thought. It struck me then – I had struggled for so long to do this exactly like my mother, but the truth was, it was okay to change the recipe. It was not the measurement of flour and water and salt that mattered, but the continuation of a dying art in honor of generations of women who practiced it so deftly.
Perhaps it’s not just where the apple falls that matters, but how it rolls. As our children grow up, maybe it is our job to say, “these are the numbers you drew in the great genetic jackpot of life, the ingredient list handed to you at birth. I will teach you the recipes that have worked for me, but in the end, you need to pick and choose how to put the ingredients together to make these recipes your own.” Over the years, Josh will find his own way to deal with his need for quiet time, order, and routine; he’ll acquire the fine art of flexibility; and eventually he’ll learn to let life and the people in it be imperfect…including himself.
All this time I thought we were responsible for turning out a finished product, when in actuality, our job is only to start them; in the end, we all have to finish ourselves.