What Does It Mean to Be a Grown Up?

2553005109_d06049082b_oby Beth Burrell

I’ve never been good at growing African violets. Despite having nursed many a houseplant through moves, mishaps and pests, African violets died no matter what I did. This wasn’t so for my mother. Hers always had firm green leaves with beautiful purple, velvety flowers.

Recently, I noticed a change. Hers were struggling and as I watered them, I asked what had happened. She didn’t know. Her health and my dad’s had been taking precedence over about everything. I suspected she’d just lost track of them. During my latest visit earlier this month, I found both plants had died. I pulled out the remains and threw them away, without mentioning it.

At home, I noticed my own two African violets thriving. I’d done nothing different, yet there it was. They’d gradually become stronger and stronger, and the contrast felt symbolic. Could I really continue on without my mother – growing plants, growing older, growing anything? Would I ever feel as vibrant, as lively, as alive to my children as she has been to me? I didn’t see how.

Many years ago, I believed I’d become a grown-up in a major way when I became a parent. I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I wasn’t right either.

I haven’t truly grown up. I’m a baby. I haven’t lost either of my parents, and this makes me feel like I don’t know anything about being on my own. The path ahead is foreign and foreboding, requiring a compass I don’t have and don’t want.

I still rely on my parents a lot. They may be increasingly feeble, hard of hearing and struggling, but they help me. I call when I have news, or want to talk about the news. I call to get advice about one of my three kids or to vent about being married. I call if my dad needs help with his computer (though one of my kids is usually more help here). I call to tell them I’m home from a trip, that my plane has landed, that I’ve arrived. I call to hear how they are.

I call and they’re there. What do I do when they’re not?

Recently my parents, both 80 this year, began the process of buying a small condo in a retirement community nearby. This would mean selling their house of 30-plus years and downsizing considerably. In the end, they couldn’t do it. Health-wise, they need to. Emotionally, they’re not there.

I talked with a friend who is familiar with the many decisions facing ailing, older adults – the steps they need to take but sometimes don’t want to. She assured me that backing out of a first move was very common. I felt better hearing this but wondered how long it could wait. Could they continue living in a too-big house without someone coming in regularly to help and check on them?

Last week while my mom was out picking up dinner food for the two of them, my dad fell. He caught his foot on a hall rug, banging up his knee but mostly jarring his already bad back. When my mom returned, he did not want an ER visit. There have been several doctor’s visits for him and my mother since this incident, mostly unrelated.

Both of my siblings live closer to our parents than I do, and I often feel useless. For me, getting there quickly means flying, so I click between tabs on my computer checking air fares, never sure when or if I am leaving.

Many years ago when I was in 4th grade, my family moved to a house by a lake. We’d spent a number of years living in apartments and my parents were eager for a house and yard. I watched that spring as my mother created an azalea bed to the right of the house just at the woods’ edge. Until then, I didn’t have much experience seeing my parents in a yard. I wasn’t quite sure what an azalea bed was, or would ultimately look like. But it seemed pretty important to my mom.

I’m no master gardener, but much of what I know I learned watching them. That would probably surprise them since we’re not always aware of what we’re passing on and down. What I know is that my parents have taught me how to grow many things and how to grow myself.

But growing up, I’m afraid, is a different matter altogether.

Beth head shotBeth Burrell is a journalist who worked in daily newspaper reporting before winding her way to parent newsletter and freelance writing. Currently, she helps produce the weekly parent e-newsletter for Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Pa, She lives in Merion, Pa. with her husband and three (sometimes fewer) children.

Read more of Beth’s posts at http://firstdaypress.org/tag/beth-burrell

Image: african violet by Nick Ford via Flickr





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One thought on “What Does It Mean to Be a Grown Up?

  1. If we stay open to change (and don’t succumb to the easy comfort of dogma or fundamentalism of any kind), we’re never “grown up.” Growing (up) is a life-long process, not a stage we reach in life. No changes are permanent, but change is.

    You’re fortunate if, at it seems, your parents encouraged you to think, and learn, and grow for yourself, without limitations, and didn’t burden you with stultifying expectations or terrifying guilt. You’re fortunate that you can still look to your parents for advice and guidance. Not everyone is so lucky.

    You’re most fortunate of all because you know how to grow yourself, using your own intellect and reason. That’s the freedom we need to commit ourselves to revealing and sharing with others, of all cultures, both “at home” and abroad. That’s a purpose for our lives that has meaning and value: liberating others from the constraints of “revealed” wisdom; from, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.” That, not “coexistence,” is the only way we’ll ever bring the world’s people together in common community.

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