Making it up as we go along

EARLIER THIS YEAR my father turned 80, and as part of the surprise party I put together a DVD from old family slides. The Kodachrome images had been in my attic for 21 years, but it had been far longer since I had spent any time with those women with very big hair (including my mother), the men with their sideburns and muttonchops (including my father), and the little boy with his buzz cut (my older brother).

The celebration was held at the country club in South Florida where my father plays golf and most of the guests were elderly. This meant that the revelers – and I use that term very loosely – wanted to eat at 6 p.m., which was fine. Many guests expressed their fear that I had taken my father’s life in my hands by making this a surprise party. As one of my father’s poker buddies remarked as we waited for him to arrive, “Your dad’s got a good ticker, but you really want 50 of us screaming surprise at him when he walks in the door?” Fortunately, he survived the festivities.

But I was unprepared for the wistfulness that would wash over him when he watched that DVD of old slides, the colors slightly faded, on the big-screen TV we had placed in the dining room. He stood there transfixed, oblivious to the guests, as earlier incarnations of his family – as well as his once-robust younger self – were paraded before him. There was his late wife and my mother, dead since 1995, in dresses with pointed collars and cuffed sleeves from the 1950s. There she was in the gold-sequined bathing suit in which she had lived one summer, her skin nearly the red of a lobster. And there were my brother and me in the costumes of Cub Scouts and Little Leaguers and then of rather suburbanized hippies. Our hair by the late 1960s and early 1970s was long, but clean. Our Nehru shirts were pressed.

Everything, of course, looked smaller to me. The houses in which I had grown up. The dogs. My gigantic second-grade peace medallion was really no bigger than a quarter.

As my father studied the images and listened to the Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. songs that formed the soundtrack, I put my arm around his shoulders. I commented on the litany of cars with fins and how people sure smoked a lot in those days. And then, as a slide passed with my father in a trench coat and wingtips, I joked about how adults of his generation always looked so much more grown-up than adults in mine. I pointed out that I was in my mid-40s and thus older than he was in the lion’s share of the slides, and yet he appeared more responsible. More respectable. Both he and my mother always looked like they knew what they were doing, as professionals and as parents.

I told him how I rarely have the slightest idea what I’m doing, how most of the time I’m winging it as a parent. I feel like I’m making it up as I go along.

We glimpsed a photo of my parents arm-in-arm on their way to a black-tie dinner, my father in a tux, my mother in a strapless gown that seemed to shadow her collarbone. They were in control. They were in charge. They could have been movie stars.

My father shook his head. “Appearances can be deceiving,” he confessed. “Trust me: We were faking it, too.”

Someday when she is grown, my teenage daughter will be looking at old photos of her family. She will smile at the clothes we’re wearing and she’ll wince at what we thought were bold fashion statements. When she gazes at her mother and me, will she suppose that we had known all along how to raise her? Or will she realize that somehow, like parents of all generations, we had just figured out how to fake it?

(This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe on Octrober 13, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.