Do No Harm

Pictured above: The author and her father in Turkey.

My father grabbed my arm when I was about 6 years old and said between gritted teeth, "Don't you ever speak to your mother that way again. Not ever." I don't know what I had said or done, but I remember that was the most violent scolding I had ever received from my father. He was visiting me because my parents had never been married, nor ever lived together.

I was an accident. I was a surprise. Some might use the word "mistake." My mother nearly died giving birth to me. Nothing was easy about my arrival into the world. My broke college student father fell in love or lust, I'll never know for sure, with my very broke mother who was 10 years his senior and a single mother of three children. They worked at a pizza place in Berkeley in the sixties while students were protesting, the national guard was keeping them in line and the Vietnam War was a daily staple on the evening news. My unlikely parents shared a violent upbringing, the singular experience of living through the sixties, and me.

My father had only one goal as a parent: His one goal was to never hit me for any reason and he never did. His primary concern was to do no harm. My father was beaten as a child. His was hit more than he was hugged or held. The one thing my father knew about parenting was what not to do.

My generation has been bombarded by research about the developing brain, breast milk, infant sleeping positions and an infinite list of child-rearing concerns to rob us of our sleep and make us feel perpetually inadequate. The demands of modern parenting and slick marketing suggested that anything else than a tri-lingual, musically gifted, literary astronaut would make me a failure as a parent.

My parents' goals were uncomplicated. They would have been content with any path I chose. Do what you want. That was the most advice they gave me.

My mother wanted to be wanted and loved her whole life. Her mother died when was 14. She was beaten by her father regularly for failing to put something back in its place, looking at him the wrong way or taking up too much space. She spent many nights picking grains of rice out of her brother's bloody knees after my grandfather made him kneel in uncooked rice as a form of punishment. My mother grew up poor; the kind of poor that knows the pain of an empty stomach night after night. What my grandfather lacked in love and compassion, he made up for in misplaced pride that prevented him from ever asking for help to feed his children.

My father grew up in Connecticut with an angry Polish father and my mother grew up on a sugar cane plantation in Hawaii with a cruel Portuguese father. Neither of my grandfathers were alcoholics. They were just violent men who had probably been beaten by their own parents. Some families have heirlooms and pie recipes they pass down to their children and grandchildren; other families pass down rage from one generation to the next.

When I was 40, I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands with my dad. On our first night in Ecuador, my father said something about how excited he was about our trip together. I responded, "It's the longest period of time we have ever been together."

"Is that true?" He asked. I nodded and realized that he really had no idea.

"That's really sad," he said. His eyes got red and wet with loss and we spoke no more about it because there was nothing left to say. We clinked our bottles of beer like two serious men. It was a period at the end of a sentence punctuating an understanding and forgiveness all at once.

It was on this trip that I decided I would take each of my sons on a trip of their own their senior year of high school. I loved the idea of taking each of my sons to a place in the world that neither of us had ever been. This year Jackson entered his senior year and so we planned a trip to Budapest, Vienna and Prague.

Together, we walked miles and miles of city streets, drank an ocean of espresso, consumed palaces of artwork and read in silence for hours on trains. It was easy not to complain about Jackson's wet towels on the bathroom floor when we had maid service in the hotel and a day filled with adventure ahead of us.

On more than one morning, I watched my 18-year old son sleep. My father used to tell me that when I was a baby, he would come over late after work to visit me. He would rub my back while I slept because he said he wanted me to have big wings, wings that would take me far and high. I watched Jackson sleep thinking about his wings.

I have never claimed to be a perfect mother. I have lost my patience with my children and raised my voice more than I would care to admit, but I've never raised a hand to my children. My parents made sure of that.