“You do not come from this.”
I said it to my son, matter of factly, calmly but with very clear emphasis.
The “this” at the time was—well, you fill in the blank. If you have children, you know from time to time that they test limits. Whatever it was—lying, not giving a true effort, letting down a friend—I was making it clear that this is not what our family is about.
Truthfully, maybe we are about some of that. Not collectively, as a group, but we all certainly have our share of screw-ups as individuals at different times in our lives. I come from a family of six children. Amongst us, there are 12 grandchildren and soon to be seven great grandchildren. Plenty of room for screwing up from time to time.
To fill the gap, I try not to end our conversations at these times with what they are not from; rather, I also try to impart what they do come from. Many days, in a city where my family is hundreds of miles away, that feels like a lonely task. I’d much rather show them what they are from than blah blah blah about it in the abstract.
On those days, I think about what they do not know of simply because they were not born to see it. These scenes loom large in my mind but have never been a part of their existence.
They sit at our mahogany dining room table, not realizing that I ate in my early years at a picnic table. In the kitchen. I do not know if my parents could not afford or could not fit a table large enough to seat all of us but regardless, I remember picnic benches. Which I did not think twice about at the time.
And yet, on many evenings, I went from our lowly indoor picnic table dinner to a ballet, an opera, the theater. What we did not spend on dining room tables I guess we reserved for culture. A contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But it worked for us. I had seen La Traviata and multiple Cole Porter revues, was familiar with the gardens at the art museum, before I had sat at a proper dining room table.
My boys have the real dining room table and theater. When I can drag them to the latter. Because we come from this. Art matters. Culture matters. Beauty matters. More than your dining room table.
I come from well-worn board games—Scrabble, Monopoly, Parcheesi. And my mother’s well-worn books. Using one’s mind, be it for strategy to outsmart your opponent or to open up to new ideas and worlds, was encouraged. The adults never let us kids win. Ever. I did not best my erudite mother in Scrabble until my late twenties. But when I did, I knew I’d earned my keep, so to speak.
We were not big athletes. We hold our own in a family game of softball but don’t ask us to play the beefy neighbors.
It is not by chance, then, that my boys both test off the charts for vocabulary and have a competitive streak. Nor is it by chance that I do not see athletic scholarships in their future. I have managed to encourage a lacrosse player and a tae kwan do belt. But I do not fancy myself an expert in such sporty matters. Unfortunately, neither is their father. The nerdy genes continue. I do believe, however, that nerds tend to be the ones to save a business, an industry, a government, entire populations. So I guess I’ll take the athletic “deficit” in stride. Despite my uncle’s football prowess, and I’m sure, much to his chagrin.
There is so much more. Nature walks. A well-tended garden. Fresh tomatoes out of that garden every summer. A private education that required sacrifices. Family members that disagree and sometimes do not like each other, who are as different as different can be, but who come together when one or more faces the fight of their life. Cancer. Divorce. Financial distress.
We come from Christmas Eve gatherings, birthday cakes with song, merciless ribbing for every epic fail, and—if you’re in the epicenter of the world (which everyone knows is Cleveland, Ohio), we come from always having a dinner table with an extra place set if you happen to stop by at the right hour. Your choice of dinner tables, in fact, in one of several (usually) welcoming homes.
But you might want to call around to see who is having what tonight. No need for succotash stew if you can score a steak from the grill.
Oh yes, we come from that also. We are nothing if not pragmatic. Gracious and grateful? For sure. But we do our homework, people.
Seriously, I hope my sons glean from me the values and traditions I inherited. When you are a two-household family, you wonder what gets lost in the shuffle back and forth.
But some days, rays of hope appear.
Last year, my son had to write a “Where I’m From” poem for school:
I am from music of all kinds,
From country to rap,
From iPads and shelves filled with books . . .
I am from the third brick house on the block with the scent of cookies baking.
I am from the maple tree
That turns crimson in the fall,
Watching it sway from my room.
I am from parties and birthdays all lined up in a row . . .
I am from riding bikes and loving dogs,
I am from try your hardest!
And take your vitamins!
There is more but it gets a bit personal. He mentions being from empanadas and strudel, a nod to his Latin heritage as well as my German and Austrian one—in the same breath as he mentions the names of my deceased parents.
I love the jumble. Love what stands out to him. That when he looks back, he may not remember his mother being so busy trying to make a living and keep us in house and school. That instead, he will remember the scent of cookies baking. The crimson maple tree in the fall. A house filled with music of all kinds. Riding bikes. Birthday parties. And that trying matters.
Always, trying matters. Some days, that is all I succeed at—the trying. There is no trophy to wave, no major success or progress to show. But I try. God, I hope they remember they come from that.
Harlem writer James Baldwin, of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” fame, once wrote: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
I buy that.
I just hope my children do.