Yesterday someone I barely knew came up to me and told me how wonderful my dad is.
It didn’t even catch me off guard, because it isn’t exactly a rare occurrence. I hear it a lot.
I was at a meeting to sign up to be a substitute teacher when she told me what an impact he’d had on her daughter in his work with the high school drama department, and someone nearby overheard, and she joined the conversation and agreed, and it wasn’t long before they brought up my mom, too, and told me how sweet and caring she was.
I could do nothing but smile and agree.
I’m starting to see their goodness now, but growing up, I was convinced that my parents existed solely to ruin my life, so, naturally, my instinct was to rebel against them.
As a teenager, I had every intention of offending and embarrassing them, so my grand plan went as follows:
Their response to this "rebellion"?
True, my dad loathed the weird folk band (and, it should be said, he held blanket hatreds of the country and rap genres, and folk was dangerously close to country), but he loved talented guitarists, so the metal wasn’t a big deal, even when it set the house to thundering and I screamed along with it from the confines of my room, which had multicolored Christmas lights hooked up to the speakers to blink in time with the beat.
Dad actually set up those Christmas lights for me.
My appearance wasn’t the shock I’d hoped it would be. The only thing my mom really said about it was that she refused to pay for my senior pictures unless my hair was its natural color: blonde. But prior to that, I’m pretty sure she even bought me purple hair dye once, and she let her mom bleach my hair white so the purple would take better.
And my lone detention form was displayed at my high school graduation open house, right next to my achievement plaques and diploma.
I’ve finally reached the point in my life where I understand what my parents were doing: They were simply letting me be me, and loving me for what I was.
Even when I was a silver-spiked mess with strange hair in old man clothes.
Even though I had this teenage instinct to rebel, they had instilled in me a moral compass strong enough to keep me from causing any true harm. My grades were good. I stayed out of trouble. I was even a mathlete.
My parents gave me freedom in my rebellion, and they endured with patience the embarrassment I forced upon them. Their love for me was greater than the stares and judgment I’m sure they received from other parents.
But they never walked ten paces behind me or forced me to change clothes before I went to school or pretended I was someone else’s kid when we were in public. They accepted my weirdness, and they never asked me to be anything other than myself.
Within their sphere of influence, this small community where we live, so many people recognize their impact that it is a widely-acknowledged truth. Their names carry weight and meaning and respect and smiles, and they have earned it all.
I do hear quite often that my parents are beautiful, remarkable, life-changing people. I hear it so often that the phrase has almost become trite. Perhaps that is the power of their impact: I almost expect to hear from others that they are wonderful, because it is just true.
But when I heard it yesterday, something within me clicked, and I finally saw why.
Being a foster parent has helped me to understand what it was they were trying to do for me when I was a child, and I now see the gifts they gave me, although I feel like I’m only now just unwrapping and enjoying them.
My father gave me the unusual combination of high expectations, the ability to see potential in virtually any child/situation/circumstance, and an extremely low tolerance for misbehavior that is tempered by patience, gentle humor and a childlike sense of fun (he made sure we had a giant trampoline and a swimming pool he had somehow made for us out of wood, giant cables and industrial-strength plastic), and the type of creativity that transforms Tupperware and cardboard into gorgeous wedding decor.
My dad taught me that imagination makes anything possible, and that there is potential in anything (or anyone) that others might see as useless.
My mother gave me the gifts of freedom, education, and experience. She let me run unbridled in so many ways. She gave me the gift of language: her tireless dedication to my education made me an early reader and lover of language. She recognized my talent and provided me with endless paper and pencils and sketchbooks and rolls of tape and glue sticks and fabric scraps and opportunities to combine and use them. She gave me blank canvases and encouragement and space. She tolerated my constant creative mess. She let me hang fluorescent plastic silverware from my ceiling and paint an eight-foot-square mural of my favorite punk album cover (MxPx’s Teenage Politics) on my bedroom wall.
My mother taught me that words are power, that education is more than just what happens in a school, and that people need space to make mistakes and try new things and freedom to just be. She has a beautiful way of recognizing talent and feeding it. She does this with her own students in her fourth grade classroom, I know, and she did it with me and my siblings. She brings out our strengths. She does this for my dad as well. She provides him with plenty of space and freedom to make his creative messes.
My parents saw seeds of potential within me, and they were able to patiently help me separate these from the chaff of my teenage mess.
They helped me plant those seeds, saw me through my seasons of neglect and maltreatment of those seeds, and kept encouraging me to return to them, to weed them, to nourish them, to trust them.
I hope they are growing into something that makes my parents proud.