Anyone who has followed me for even a millisecond knows the story of my five parents, 17 some odd siblings, 55 nieces and nephews and the 100s of cousins, aunts, uncles and family of choice, which make up my ridiculously large tribe. For those of you who don't already know, here is the quick recap. I was born to a mom who was in foster care since birth and a dad who was already married. I was taken by the state and placed into temporary custody by that family which legally adopted me at the age of seven. I found my close-knit birth family when I was 46. My adoptive dad had a second family with whom I went to live at 16. It was there that I learned about love and life from a very loving and caring step-mom. As a result, I have had five very loving parents each with his or her own ideas about parenting, love and life. They ranged in age from the youngest who died in 2011 at 67 to the oldest who is now 96, has dementia and no recollection, no clue as to who I am. I am 52.
At 52 we are supposed to be grown ups - whatever that means. I still am unclear. I think it means that you are supposed to have the answers and know what you are doing. I have a lot of friends who have a lot of answers, some of which I don't agree with and a lot of friends who, like me are still figuring it out. I have friends who seem to know what they are doing, until they don't. I believe I thought I had it figured out in my 40s and had the answers and knew what I was doing. And I did, until the bottom fell out and I realized I was as clueless as the next guy.
So, what is this grown up thing about anyway? I know I have dropped the "whoever has the most toys at the end, wins" model because it doesn't work for me. I do agree with David Orr who says, " The plain fact is that the world does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little dot do with success as our culture has defined it." I am not so sure that is the whole thing either. Some of my older siblings seem to have it figured out. They have successfully raised children, bought homes, have great careers, and contribute in meaningful ways to their communities, but even some of them are still figuring it all out. At 52 I am still unclear about what this is supposed to mean, how to manage it all and today, I am feeling just a little lost.
I remember sitting with my sister at the ripe age of eight or nine and she eleven or twelve, and counting what year it would be when we would be 50, 60 and God forbid, 75. Ancient. Old. Decrepit. We marched around our bedroom bent over creaking along with a cane fashioned out of some prop or other our voices shaking along with our bodies as we intoned the aged versions of our younger selves. We neglected to note the spry, witty 85-year-old in the next room, whom I am certain sat giggling at the antics of her beautiful granddaughters. We also failed to take notice of the 50-year-old mother who often held down two jobs while managing her household, three children, her mom, her husband and the numerous volunteer activities she drove - Camp Fire, Scouts, CYO to name a few, and the commute she and my dad made daily to courier us to Wellesley where we could obtain a fine education and some day rule the world. Incidentally, all of my parents were dreamers, so I come by my dreams honestly.
I watched my adoptive parents work in concert, each with his and her designated role as they moved our lives forward with calculating precision. What we wore and how we were presented to the world was Mom's domain. Dad was ever the archivist taking stock of when and where, providing logistical support and photographing the memories to prove we'd been there. They talked in hush conversations about money, where to spend what, how to fix what, who was going to do what. I recall small memories of conversations about how to finance my big brother's college education and the elation when he received a partial scholarship to Boston College. It hadn't been the basketball scholarship from his playing at Don Bosco, which was hoped for, but it was something, enough for my parents to cobble together the rest. Mom worked cleaning offices at a bank to pay for his books so he could just focus on school. All of this was before his number came up in the draft. Even that they handled with aplomb. Despite Dad's finagling, my brother went off to Vietnam, but managed to land a job serving in an office in South Korea while his buddies were out in the field.
My adoptive parents were shining examples of responsibility when it came to us kids, the large beautiful home they bought in a desirable neighborhood in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury, the choices they made regarding our extracurricular activities: music, dance, tennis, community service, Camp Fire and Scouts all of it seemed so easy. They shuttled us around to whatever activities were required of us for school - no small feat in the 60s and 70s Wellesley and Milton, Massachusetts. Yet there we were attending schools and summer camps where none of the children looked like us. We spent parts of the spring, summer and fall on the Vineyard where everyone looked like us. We visited aunts and uncles in New York in the city and on Long Island in Sag Harbor, we rode buses to Philly and Newark. We went on ski trips north in New Hampshire and Vermont and when I was very young we spent summers at my uncle's place in Maine. We ate in restaurants and attended fairs and seldom noticed that we were the only blacks in the place. My parents knew, but never let on that something might be amiss. They were careful. They were responsible. They made good decisions. They took care of us. They showed up and were there. They modeled good behavior and high expectations. They showed us how to live in the world. And most of this was done when they were my age now or younger.
Even with this remarkable picture painted for us, there were cracks in the veneer of the frame holding the whole thing together. My parents were unhappy in their marriage as evidenced by my dad's extramarital activities. Eventually the frame broke as did the glass and everything else holding the picture together. Responsibility extends beyond what you do for your children and within the community. For me, it became clear that those responsibilities extended to how you treated the person you shared your bed with and made vows and commitments to. That is part of my grown up picture.
My step-mom and dad had a well-oiled machine in place when I arrived. One more mouth to feed and a shy, quirky one at that didn't change their routine. Mummy (as I called her) still got up in the morning and asked who wanted what for breakfast and made it, came home during lunch break to start dinner, did piles of laundry, went grocery shopping with Daddy, took us kids to appointments, stood up for us as our parents, punished us liberally as needed (which was often), taught us to be responsible with our belongings, each other and our word when we gave it. They played with us, joked with us, ate dinner with us, knew where we were and with whom and what we were doing most of the time while maintaining jobs and good social standings among their group of friends who were numerous.
Our home was one which was open to other kids to come over and hang out and stay if they needed to for whatever reason. My parents were without judgment, and instead offered measured advice to any teen who needed imparted wisdom. I loved my parents for that. And I loved my siblings - all of them, which now included adopted, half and step kids. I didn't care then and still don't now. I knew I was loved and cared for. When that parental unit changed, it was OK. We were a family still. I learned a lot about what that meant from that experience.
My birth parents taught me about faith, hope and love in ways I couldn't imagine. They taught me about making hard decisions both in my birth and in their deaths. They taught me that time doesn't change who you are in relationship to another. When you are loved, you are loved. That never goes away. Ever. It doesn't matter who you are. They also taught me that time can heal anything if you allow it to. Because of them, I don't have very much hurt left in my life. In fact, just thinking about them makes me smile. They taught me to have joy in my life right now where I am and most of all, they taught me to not let a moment go by when you have an opportunity to do something. If it presents itself, take it. Go for it. Jump in. The time may never come again. It may, but it may not. Especially when it comes to love. Their deaths taught me about heartbreak.
So at 52, today, I am feeling a bit like an orphan. I have decisions to make and feel alone in making them. Sometimes, I don't know where to turn or what to do. Even with the benefit of a partner, it all can still seem daunting. I mean, how did my parents do it? What was their secret? How did they know? Is it because I am not a parent that I haven't developed my stealth decision making skills? Or is it just because I am, as one of my dear friends calls me, "a peace loving flower child" that prevents me from zeroing in on what to do next?
I know I walk by faith most of the time. I know that I sit and listen to what it is that God tells me to do; I walk through open doors and see the path laid out in front of me. I know that in a world that prides itself on all of the toys we can collect, my life through some eyes often looks like failure. For others it is a thing to marvel. In my eyes, most days it is perfectly fine, but then being a silk purse out of a sow's ear kind of girl, makes everything seem pretty rosy. In the world of rampant consumerism, this can sometimes be a very hard path to walk. I often wish there were another equally beautiful path to meander along. I am reminded of a passage from Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,..." And I agree with Kid President, who when talking about this says, "And it hurt man!!" My path, although unlike the one he describes as full of rocks and glass sometimes feels littered with other stuff like, emotions, challenges, pitfalls, people even. And yes, walking along this untraveled path sometimes hurts.
So, today - and maybe it just is today - I am longing for that older voice of reason, the one which I trust to hear me and ask just the right questions to set me on my way. I want that comforting voice. That person who could tell me at 17 to be OK with the fact that my girlfriend was leaving me because even though I didn't understand at the time, I would have a lot of loves before it was all said and done. I want that voice that listened in earnest at 48 and then just simply asked me, "So, what are you going to do?" Or the one who told me repeatedly until I finally got it in my late 20s to stop worrying so much about every little thing because I was going to worry myself to death. I would even give anything just to hear the one that said, "OK. Move over," when he decided I had hugged him enough. I'd be grateful for the one who told me I could no longer come home after I had run away for maybe the fourth time and who later told me that was one of the hardest things she had ever done.
I long for these voices to guide me and to help me through these things I am concerned about, to help me see with their wisest of wisest minds and crystal clear discernments. I want those things, but even as I am writing this, I know it has not always been the truth. My parents did not always have the right answers for me. I was a child who marched to my own drum. I was a kid who never really was like everyone else. There was always something a little off. As an adult I am OK with my quirky eccentricities. I revel in them in fact, but my parents struggled with that notion that I would not fit into any box. I always colored outside of the lines. They did their best with me. Yet, even as I write this I am reminded though that my parents for all of their responsibilities and knowledge had their own limitations created by the very nature of being a parent - time: my parents could only see as far as their lifetimes would allow them to see. Kahil Gibran in On Children puts it very well: "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, / For they have their own thoughts. / You may house their bodies but not their souls, / For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, / which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."
So, I sit here sighing and getting over my self-imposed momentary pity party. I know that there are things I just won't know until I know them. There are decisions I will make and won't know if they are right or wrong until the outcome. Everyone has that in common. We make our best decisions and then stick by them or we don't. Inevitably, we will see what the decisions yield. As for the rest of this grown up thing, I can hear my parents voices in some far off distant time of the past telling me to stop worrying, asking me what is it I am going to do, letting me know that whatever the outcome it will be OK and that although I don't know it yet, there will be other decisions to make and get right before all is said and done.
So, I will do what my parents did and what theirs did before them. I will listen to my christ-mind and make the best decisions I can. I will figure out what needs to be done and do it. And I will somehow take joy in knowing that I am fortunate to be the product of five very loving souls who all contributed as best as they could to the wisdom I now hold at 52. Maybe, that's their input. Maybe, I really am not alone in this thing as much as I think I am. Maybe, just maybe they have given me all I need to be the grown up I was born to be...and then some. Maybe that's all that any of us can really ask for.
Robin G. White is an author, educator and publisher who believes that the world is round.