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Watching children grow after they grow up

December 16, 2004

kids. In both instances, it finally became clear to me that to build

anything more than a superficial relationship with our adult

children, we have to take a step back and see them fully rather than

as projections of our fantasies.

Whenever I get to thinking this way, I remember the scene in

Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" in which a mother

comes back in a vision to her adult son and regales him with idyllic

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stories about his childhood. He listens patiently until he can stand

no more and tells her gently that it didn't happen the way she

remembers. And when her continued denial makes it clear what an

enormous stake she has in these fantasies, he finally gives up trying

to communicate and simply allows them to his mother.

As parents, we can't go back and undo past mistakes. We can only

acknowledge them, correct what we can, claim high motivation and move

on. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can reach across generations

and talk to our adult children where they are instead of always

expecting them to come to where we are. Debby has had a year of

adjustment. The youngest of her two sons has not only fled to a

distant university but is spending his junior year in Brazil.

His older brother is tied to a job in San Francisco. Debby is

still dealing with the emotional residue of the empty nest and a

divorce three years ago. And shortly before Thanksgiving, she was

laid off her job because of diminishing business and low seniority.

This is where Sherry and I found her when we arrived in Boulder.

She has turned living alone into an opportunity for

self-expression. Her home is full of music and art that speak to a

sense of well-being. She has acknowledged, finally, that she was

underpaid and underused in her old job and that losing it is a

blessing that will force her to look for work worthy of her

intelligence and skills. So she is preparing to market herself and in

this process has reached out for encouragement from a strong group of

close friends and a kind and gentle man who is enriching her life.

She managed our visit -- the first time Sherry has made this

Christmas journey with me -- with relaxed efficiency that removed any

possible atmosphere of stress. Her shortcut to the airport was

somehow symbolic of a sense of self-confidence she hasn't always

allowed. We had a delightful time in Boulder, and much of that

delight came from seeing who my youngest daughter has become -- an

emotionally self-reliant woman who is enjoying life and being enjoyed

while she addresses her problems head-on.

Such discoveries have come more quickly with my older daughter,

Patt, who lives only a few minutes away and is very much a fulfilling

and satisfying part of my life. Patt and I have built traditions that

feed on both honesty and close companionship and have transcended

personal obstacles that could only be overcome with these qualities

-- and the perseverance of love. It's especially rewarding -- and

also easier -- to get reacquainted on a regular basis with your

offspring in the seventh inning of an Angel game or the sixth race at

Santa Anita.

I don't know if this works in reverse. I do know they watch me

rather carefully, but I suspect it is for signs that the old boy is

slipping here and there. Maybe it's more than that. Maybe they want

to get reacquainted with me. They might still find a few surprises.

* JOSEPH N. BELL is a resident of Santa Ana Heights. His column

appears Thursdays.

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