And behold, the child becomes the parent. Given decent luck and a long enough life, that's the way it's meant to be. Yet the reality didn't quite sink in until I recently visited my younger daughter, Kate, in Chicago.
I was stretched out on her living room couch in the dark, sipping her boyfriend's gin, listening to the Band's Music from Big Pink on the record player and idly perusing the album cover when she walked into the room.
"How can you see with no light on?" she scolded. She switched on the floor lamp. Then — entirely without irony — she walked over to the stereo, turned down the volume and headed back into the kitchen to finish cooking dinner.
Stunned, I called after her. "Do you realize what you just did?"
"Well, you've done that to me a million times!" she responded from the kitchen.
"Yes," I agreed, "but I'm the one who's the parent!"
That's the way it goes, I guess. With advancing age, those once-clear lines between parent and child start to get fuzzy.
I trace it all back to the day my eldest, then-12-year-old Julia, decided to wise me up to her growing independence. I had just picked her up from school. We were driving home, a time historically reserved for childish reports of the day's minutiae.
"So, anything interesting happen today?" I prompted.
This time, though, no charming prattle was forthcoming. Instead, my darling daughter swiveled toward me in her seat, her baby blues narrowing into slits worthy of a 50-year-old mobster.
"Why?" she asked suspiciously. "What have you heard?"
The wheel hasn't always turned smoothly. Like the oak sapling we planted in our yard in 1986, my relationships with my daughters have endured good and bad seasons. There were times they blossomed and times when the tent worms of life made our bonds seem hopelessly messy and imperiled. Yet I came to appreciate the lesson of that little sapling: Nearly 30 years later — and seasonal stresses notwithstanding — it's grown into a towering beauty, casting endless joy across my front door.
Take, for example, the evening when a much-older Julia treated me to dinner on East Fourth Street. The kid has always been a great dining companion, gifted with an adventurous palate, an enthusiastic appetite and a knack for engaging conversation. This time was no different — until the bill arrived. I was still pawing through my purse for my wallet when she uttered those seven magical words every parent longs to hear: "Don't worry, Mom. I've got the check."
A few months ago, Kate and I were headed back to the car after an arduous session of retail therapy at Beachwood Place.
"Mom, you're limping," she observed. This came as a surprise: I thought I had been doing a masterful job of masking my chronic knee pain. The fact that she could detect a small hitch in my gait was both sobering and impressive.
"I want you to make an appointment with the doctor as soon as you get home and get that knee X-rayed," she lectured. "Your mobility is nothing to take for granted."
My immediate reaction was barefaced joy: Yippee! I thought. This kid's going to be a great advocate for me in the nursing home!
I did get the knee X-rayed, and it was nothing but the same old arthritic gunk that's been collecting there for 20 years. But while chatting with my doc — himself the father of five grown children — I shared the story of Kate's insistence that I seek care.
"You're lucky," he said. "It's a wonderful thing when they start looking out for us. I'm just not sure my kids are there yet."
His offspring are still in retribution-seeking mode. Years ago, when some of them were preteens, he threw one of their CDs out the car window, shocked at the music's violent, vulgar lyrics. Ever since, he's waited for the other shoe to drop. It finally fell.
"I was playing Pink Floyd," he said. "All of a sudden, Cora presses •eject,' rolls down her window and heaves my CD into the ditch!" His daughter, now in her 20s, echoed the tone he'd taken with her way back when. "She tells me, •I don't want you listening to that kind of music anymore!' "
He swears they had a good laugh about the role reversal. But is this the kid you want exercising your power of attorney?
Back in her Chicago apartment, Kate and I also shared a good laugh about her urge to turn up the lights and turn down the tunes. Sure, she'd harshed my music-and-gin-fueled mellow with her mothering. But as she fluttered around the kitchen in her apron, putting together our evening meal, my daughter's maternal instincts made her mama's heart swell with pride.
When she and the boyfriend dashed out for a last-minute errand, I did what any normal kid would do under the circumstances. I finished the booze, refilled the bottle with water and cranked up the volume on the stereo to 11.