Parents and Purpose
Novelist and BOOMER columnist David L. Robbins reflects on being raised by the Greatest Generation.
BY DAVID L. ROBBINS
The Greatest Generation – our parents – is almost gone.
It’s ironic that our final memories of them are the opposite of what they stood for. In their time, our folks did not disappear, drift away or retreat. Their defining trait as a group was how firmly they held their ground. In foxholes and assembly lines, armed sometimes with guns, sometimes just with faith, they stared down fascists, communists, racists, misogynists, you-name-ists, and made them all blink.
Our parents stared us down, too, tanned our bottoms, scolded and scalded our misadventures and set us aright before we could rejoin the supper table. We were spanked, harangued and glared at by folks who wielded a gesture, word, sigh and switch better than those of any era before or since.
My father stored a leather belt in the flimsy metal drawer beneath the stove; the thing curled and nested there like a black snake on top of the pots and pans. Though my mother routinely rummaged in that drawer for utensils, the belt somehow stayed on top; I was sure it crawled there. Meanwhile, Mom kept a tin above the Frigidaire. Never did I open that tin to find anything less than wax-paper-wrapped German chocolate cake slices, sugar-dusted rum balls, fudge or brickle. These were some of the solid, unspoken ways my parents worked, letting me know they were keeping their promises to teach me, raise me.
My father was an Old Testament archetype. When pleased, he was an embracing, protective and unquestioned power, a miracle worker. He was Moses the leader, Noah the deliverer, Solomon the wise. When angered, Dad became the avenging angel, bearing plagues swift and relentless until I got the point. Round One was a severe talk; a grounding came second; a slap, third; a short whupping and no dinner next; and if I continued to show that I was an idolatrous willful ingrate living under my father’s roof and rules, I was made to fetch the implement of my own dispatch, to bring him the belt, the coiled cobra. Those were long moments in a boy’s life.
GIFTS SIMPLY GIVEN
On the other end of the spectrum glowed the tin of cakes and rum balls. Walk with me. I come in the house from Little League, or backyard basketball, or tackle football in the churchyard, collecting blackberries in a vacant lot, sledding on the farm road, shooting BBs at crows, throwing dirt clods at trucks on the new interstate, tying string to the legs of June bugs to fly them like tiny Zeppelins, putting fireflies in a jug, lighting M-80s on model ships floating in a rain-swollen ditch, riding the bus downtown to shoplift at Thalhimers or sneak through the exits at the State or Loew’s movie theaters, or just running around like the small crazy person I was. After such a busy day, the thing a boy wants most is to celebrate his youth, reward his cunning and boldness, cap off his mischief with sugar. There is the tin, always the tin, magical and eternal like a mother’s love made corporeal, and fresh!
These were the parameters of my life, the strap and the sweet. I could not wander on this planet beyond them: Evil got you this; goodness got you that. I recall my father as stern but fair. My mother was soft and a little nuts, but consistent in her affections and confections. I can’t speak for girls – they’ve always confounded me – but a boy should not be raised with such an open hand that he never feels the back of it. A boy will push limits to see how big a world he can live in. My parents were my boundaries. They had to be, or I would have explored too far.
THE ICING AND THE STING REMAIN
Mom and Dad are long deceased. I still taste the icing and the sting of their influence. When I’m lonely, I am not lost; when sad, I don’t lose sight of truth. That’s the lasting gift they gave me, what their own generation had in spades. Purpose. A place to plant your feet, to stand and hold.
If you want to find me, I like to think I can be found in a foxhole or an assembly line, on a tractor or a ladder, holding a rifle, a hammer, a book of prayer or a cup of joe, a spatula or a belt, right there beside my words and deeds, just like our fading but indelible parents.
David L. Robbins is a best-selling author whose next novel, The Empty Quarter, will be published in June. His new play, The End Of War, will be produced this fall. The Sandston native is the founder of the James River Writers and co-founder of The Podium Foundation (ThePodiumFoundation.org).