Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2010
Losing your parents makes you feel old; I got old early.
My mother died in 1989 when I was still in my 30s, and my father in 1996. I was a fully grown adult, or so I thought. It should have been just a normal rite of passage. You grow up, and then your parents die; that’s what happens. But I wasn’t ready.
When my mother died, I wasn’t married, wasn’t sure what my work would be, hadn’t yet published my first book, hadn’t provided any grandchildren.
When my father died seven years later, the reminders of this double loss were everywhere. By then I had children, and I felt a stab of jealousy every time a friend invited Nana and Gramps to a baby’s first birthday party or asked Gigi and Poppy to admire a cute new dress. Someone’s mother, I would hear, was taking the grandchildren on a special trip, and I ached for my own and my children’s loss.
Right from the start, I made my children live with my mother’s ghost, incorporating her character and her sayings into the daily mother-child chitchat. One day my eldest son, born two years after my mother died, turned to me — he was about 14 by then — and said: “I knew Grandma Jackie, right?”
Sometimes I dial the number for my parents’ New York apartment, just for the feel of it. Sometimes I call the house on the Jersey shore where my father lived after my mother died. Maybe he’ll pick up and lecture me about the grammatical mistakes in my last published piece. He loved to take a pencil to my work.
But I don’t really need to call them because they live in me. I am split down the middle, half of me her and half him. I see it most in my attitude toward my children, whom she never knew and whom my father barely met. Half the time, I am warm and kind, connected, protective (my mother), a little pathetic (her too). The other half, I am distant, stern, critical, removed (him). Sometimes I like to eat hot dogs from the pan with beans and a beer (her). Sometimes I drive too fast, listening to loud classical music and wishing I didn’t have to see any other human being for a year or so (him).
Even now, after dark when my children are in their bedrooms and I lie awake, I can go right back to the late nights when my father paced the ground floor of our house, working and playing the piano and making everything seem safe in his domain. Or I go back to my mother’s side of the bed, and to our desultory conversations in front of the nightly news, her beautiful feminine hands so unlike my own, her earring plucked off before she’d pick up the phone.
Even though it takes nothing to jar my memory, I retain certain literal aides-memoire. I can still smell my mother’s perfume, because I have a bottle of it from her closet; I have my father’s last can of pipe tobacco. And (the best memory awakeners of all) I have my sons, who are unconscious restatements of my long-lost parents, and who, with their own particular twists and flourishes, carelessly carry past into future. This has been my solace.
Amy Wilentz’s first book, “The Rainy Season: Haiti — Then and Now,” has been reissued with a new post-earthquake introduction.