By Tom Ehrich
My morning writing-perch at the kitchen table is surrounded by spring flowers that my wife picked before this week’s snow and cold. Yes! I can smell them.
The cold that I brought home from visiting a grandchild last weekend kept me awake two nights, but today I can smell the hyacinth and dream of spring.
Something else will pass today: I will teach my 24-year-old youngest son to drive a manual transmission car. Most of what I can teach him about life happened years ago, and I admire the person he is becoming. Passing on to him the technique of shifting gears and using a clutch will give him not only a useful life skill, but, I hope, show him the joy of driving smoothly and capably.
Parents are always teaching children, of course, even when we are unaware of doing so. Maybe especially then, when we aren’t trying, just living, we teach the skills and attitudes of living a decent life.
I look at the grotesque charade of right-wing politics and am not surprised that one candidate’s father was a bully, cheat and Klan sympathizer, and the other’s a delusional pastor of extreme and nonsensical views. When you grow up in that kind of household, it takes en enormous effort to do better. Neither Trump nor Cruz seems to have expended the effort to move far from the tree.
Decent living isn’t a matter of branding or showmanship or spending lavishly or compelling obeisance through bullying. Decent living starts early, like a spring crocus. It is learned by watching how father and mother treat each other and how they carry out the responsibilities of adulthood. Do they share the load? Do they show kindness to each other? Do they bristle and bicker? Do they seem to have a purpose in life larger than self-interest?
Parents are imperfect, of course, and one lesson we teach happens when we deal with our imperfections and their consequences. Children learn to embrace risk and failure by watching their parents deal bravely with failure. Children learn to accept the ambiguities and uncertainties of life by watching their parents do so. The parent who falls apart at the least setback or loss of control teaches the wrong lessons. We won’t always succeed or win or get the job or hold the job or sign the deal. How we handle loss says more about us than any amount of winning.
We are always teaching, especially our loved ones, but people around us, as well. I am now in the wonderful position of learning from my children. I learn from the ways they are forming their own families. I learn from their strong work ethic. They teach me practical lessons like modern technology and life lessons like saving for the future. Their accepting risk helps me to understand my own predilection for risk. Maybe I wasn’t always aware of what I was teaching them. But now I see my own values better as I watch their values unfold.
So today I can smell a hyacinth, and I can appreciate the thoughtful way my youngest son picks daffodils for his sweetheart back in Manhattan.