Assessing One’s Parents
Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 2)
Not all people have siblings, but we all have parents, and their presence (or absence) in our lives exerts an irradicable influence on who we turn out to be. I once heard of a college counselor who regularly told his undergraduate counselees that “We all have to come to the point of forgiving our parents.” That is to say, whatever our relationship to our parents, to some degree or other, usually by the time we become adolescents, our parents’ faults will have become obvious to us, and we have to deal with our perception of their failures.
That may seem an ungenerous introduction to talking about my relationship with my parents, and I must make clear at the beginning that I suffered no abuse at their hands, and indeed they loved me and provided for me as they were able. But their age when they were raising me, the last of their brood, meant that they did not have the energy or the health to be very actively involved with me. Nevertheless, I received some significant guidance and nurture from them. Sorting through this mixture of influences from my parents challenges me to honestly identify and evaluate their effect on me, being thankful for the good things they gave me and gracious about any deficiencies I thought they had. It takes God’s help to review one’s upbringing clearly and to take responsibility for what we have become, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of our early home life.
I remember my father as a generally kind man. He certainly went extra miles trying to make my mother happy, and he seemed to be well liked by his customers and fellow workers during his long employment as a bread delivery man. Women responded well to his gentleness, and one of my sisters-in-law adored him as a surrogate father, having lost her father early in her life. Dad was a Bible-reading man and a steady Christian, qualities that led to his appointment as an elder in our congregation of the Church of Christ we attended in Abilene. He had strong convictions. I remember that when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s, he was adamant in upholding the greater authority of the King James Version because the RSV rendered the quotation of Isaiah that “a virgin shall conceive” a child (Jesus) as “a young woman shall conceive.” To him, that was changing the very Word of God; he had no conception of such a rendering being justified by a scholarly appeal to the meaning of the original Hebrew. Neither he nor my mother went past the 8th grade in formal schooling, and neither of them had traveled beyond Texas, so they had no experience that exposed them to any culture except what they had grown up with.
My father and I didn’t share much at a deeply personal level. When I was small he took me along with him on his bread route sometimes in the summer, but I don’t remember hanging out with him just to engage in some mutually satisfying activity, like attending sporting events or making visits to a park. He was a hard-working man, and our only regular family activity was going to church and having an occasional extended family meal with my brother Otho and his wife and children. Things were financially tough for my father and mother and me after he became ill with throat cancer. After his employment with Mead’s Bakery came to an end, he took up selling Watkins Products from door to door, and I would sometimes go with him on his deliveries and his trips to the warehouse to purchase products to sell. That ceased when I began to have jobs of my own to pay for my personal purchases and to add to the household income.
My mother’s health was always precarious, and she had several operations to correct internal problems, including a hysterectomy. Sometime during my early childhood, she had an emotional meltdown, or what was then referred to as a “nervous breakdown.” For a period of weeks, she was unable to take care of household chores; I think I was sometimes taken care of by some of my aunts and uncles during this period. She frequently felt bad, and though there were some real physical problems, my brothers and I, and several of our close relatives, I think, considered her to be a hypochondriac. From the time I was aware enough to make an evaluation, I responded to her perpetual health problems by wishing that she could be more stoic in enduring them. I can remember overhearing her telephone conversations with her female friends discussing clinical details of her ailments and medical treatments.
Merely by token of my being at home alone with her after she had sufficiently recovered from her meltdown to be active again, she exerted a kind of environmental influence on me. I was a rather sickly child up through my primary school years, often having to stay home from school. Indeed, I had to drop out of school during first grade, starting again the next year. (Incidentally, this gave me an ongoing advantage in my subsequent years in school, always being a year or so older than my classmates.) My mother took good care of me when I was ill and was very solicitous of me when I was well, insisting that I always wear a cap in cold weather. I have some very vivid memories of being treated when I was ill. As I recovered from upper-gastral problems, I was fed mashed banana and saltine crackers as soft food to re-accommodate my stomach to eating solid food again. When the problem was constipation, the remedies were always unpleasant and awkward, involving either milk of magnesia or non-orally administered water to loosen things up.
All of this care could have established a close emotional bond, but my mother’s wearing her emotions on her sleeve actually effected a determination in me to repress my emotions, and that early development has been manifested in my adult life. It took me years to learn to share emotionally with others, including my wife. Even now, I remain governed more by rationality than by emotion. That has probably been good for my scholarly pursuits, but less so for my personal life. I was especially turned off by my mother’s frequent appeals in my teen years for me to tell her that I loved her. The more she appealed, the less inclined I was to respond in the way that she wanted. I loved her dutifully, but not fervently or deeply. I honored my mother according to the commandment, and I saw to her needs to the end, but I did not weep when she died. Indeed, I rarely weep at all, which is probably a deficiency in my life.
I remember being envious of one of my closest friends during my post-high school years. His mother had heroically continued as mother to her two sons and a daughter as the family tried to make a go of their farm after the father had left them. She was a warm, affectionate woman, who welcomed guests and always had a treat ready when her children’s friends visited. I admired her for her combination of strength and warmth, and I wondered why my mother was so different from her. I can’t remember my mother ever acting with that kind of spontaneous hospitality toward my friends.
More than balancing out any deficiencies in what my parents gave me was our religious life together. We went to church three times a week and took it for granted that all of us would be there if not hindered by illness. We lived close enough to the church building to walk there, which took about 15-20 minutes. The routines of our household also reflected commitment to serving God. I remember vividly our custom of praying together every night before retiring. My father and I would kneel, and he would lead the prayer. This time was called the “family altar,” and my parents told me that it had been their custom to do this from the beginning of their marriage. Prayer came naturally in our family. We gave thanks at every meal, and that’s where I first learned to pray aloud. My mother was especially dedicated to prayer and had great faith that prayer was a spiritual privilege that produced results. Her great faith and readiness to pray anytime conditioned me to see prayer as a natural part of everyday Christian living.
My Christian walk, then, was undergirded by the example and teaching of my parents. Their lack of bitterness and their strong faith in the face of my father’s illness and loss of income encouraged me to work alongside them to supply the family’s needs. I might not have learned the value of hard, honest work if we had been better off financially. Their faithfulness to one another during over 35 years of marriage was another powerful working out of their desire to honor God and one another.
On the other hand, my lack of strong personal connection with my father and reaction against my mother’s excessive emotionality resulted in my taking a long time as an adult to learn emotional sensitivity to others, particularly my wife. I am by temperament strongly inclined toward a rational outlook, and my upbringing did not contribute to tempering that inclination with appropriate emotional expression.
In sum, God gave me parents with both virtues and flaws, like most people. I thank God that the benefits I received from them outweigh in significance those things I wish they had been able to give me. I can’t blame any of my deficiencies on them, for I am responsible before God for what I have made of their gifts and how I have compensated for any disadvantages they might have passed on to me. I must be as charitable and merciful toward them as I hope my children will be toward me.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)