Friday, March 18, 2005

Never (Or Hardly Ever) Look Back

One childhood memory I have is of listening to my mother and father tell stories of growing up in German communities in Poland and Russia, getting married and having a complex and often tragic life, even before I eventually came along to complicate it further. I have written about the early part of our family history elsewhere and won't revisit here what I have already covered there.

At the end of World War II, my parents ended up in Germany, where I was born, and along with my sister Wanda, we all emigrated to Alberta, Canada and soon after ended up in Ontario, in 1950.

I remember my mother's early struggle with learning English. She didn't have the time to attend night school, so she developed a routine which was both unusual and inventive to help herself learn the language. We lived in Port Colborne, Ontario, at the time, and on an old radio which someone had given to our family, my mother was able to listen to the daily Ramblin' Lou's Rainbow Ridge Show from Niagara Falls, New York. As you might guess, country music was played on the show. I remember early country music greats Eddie Arnold, Ray Price, and many others.

My mother liked Ramblin Lou. He spoke slowly enough so that she could write down phonetic approximations of words he used. She would then try to find something similar in the tiny English/German dictionary she had and write out the definition, laboriously memorizing each one. To her dying day, she insisted that she couldn't speak English properly. In reality, she was actually quite good, especially given the way she learned the language.

At home, we spoke German, mainly because of my father. Although he was fluent in German, Russian and Polish, he was already forty-six years old in 1950 and learning English was difficult for him. Evenings, we sat in our living room and chatted. My younger brother and I were enthralled by the stories my parents had to tell even though many made us cry or filled us with impotent anger because we were in no position to change the past. We didn't need TV. Our family was very close, because we spent so much time speaking with each other.

It must have been difficult for my parents to regularly relive their past anecdotally, so that we might experience it vicariously. I am grateful that they were able to do so, because I learned by their history and example to distrust government, to be self-sufficient and to accept responsibility for myself and my actions. My parents never complained. They had more reason to whine than anyone else I have ever met, but never did. Now, I have no patience for whiners. Got a problem? Deal with it.

I learned that if I dwelt on the tragedies of the past, both in our immediate family and in the larger world around us, I would be filled with helpless fury because there was nothing I could do to make things better. I couldn't bring back people who had died. I couldn't erase heartache. I couldn't change history.

I did realize, however, that I could change the future. Sometimes, that might mean a small improvement in my own life. Occasionally, it might even mean a significant improvement for others beyond my immediate family. I learned never to look back. When something was over, it was over. When things went wrong, as they often did for me, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and said: "Next."

Many of our parents and grandparents had to make huge sacrifices for what we and our children enjoy today. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude. We owe it to our children to continue that trend. That doesn't mean more toys and gadgets. It means something that will mean much more to them in the long run. What is that? Our time, of course, the one thing that many of our own parents were able to give us, even if we grew up 'poor.' If we don't have time to give to our children, our priorities are way out of whack. Years from now, our kids won't care about or remember their X-Box or their Ipod. They will remember how much of ourselves we did or didn't give to them.

I appreciate every minute of time my parents spent with me. I wish that somehow I could bring them back and relive some of those moments.

Unfortunately, that's not possible. So, please excuse me while I go spend some time with my son.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever you return to those days of struggle in your past, you have an uncanny ability to awaken the lost opportunies in my childhood. As the oldest in a family of eight (known then as a good Catholic family),I was not given the choice of being responsible for the younger siblings. My dad was very strict about the importance of being the leader, like it or not. But your blog had me reassessing the good that came out of it. Like you, I wish I could tell me parents how much they meant to me. You can never say it enough.