How Our Parents Shape Us

Quaker Oatmeal Squares: five boxes in a row on a shelf in my utility room, above the elliptical. (The pantry cupboard wasn’t big enough.) They were on sale at Albertson’s and I knew I would eat them eventually, so I loaded up as many as would fit in my basket.

But still.

I caught sight of them the other day and thought, “Wow. You really are Gerry Kisling’s son.” (Note: This is something my long-suffering partner, Michael, could have told you, especially in Costco.) My mother, who left us three years ago, was a big believer in buying the things in bulk, particularly if they were tied to maintenance of a routine.

When she found something she liked, she stuck with it. A full 97% of her calories during her last two years came from eggs and toast from Robert’s taquito place, garlic mashed potatoes from the Chinese buffet, pasta with marinara from Bellino’s Restaurant, Dove ice cream bars, and communion wafers from daily mass.

Once, on a cross-country road trip, we stopped at a little grocery store in Montana to see if they had Mom’s favorite flavor of Snapple. (I think she was down to just a few six-packs.) As it turned out, they carried it. I can still clearly see the look on Dad’s face when the stock clerk brought them out to the car--through the warehouse door. On a dolly. Fortunately, there was still room in the back of the SUV, next to the cooler loaded with a month’s supply of her go-to flavor of Yoplait yogurt (key lime pie, if you’re interested).

I guess it’s a kind of control freakiness. Hedging bets against uncertainty. A habit she probably learned in part from her own parents, growing up as a child in the Depression. (Grandpa used to save used plastic sandwich bags--cleaned, neatly folded, and bound together with a rubber band in his desk drawer.)

As I surveyed the cereal boxes, I started thinking about how we as tots hitchhike on the nervous systems of our primary caregivers until our own come fully online. About how, from before I could speak, I was adapting to subtle changes in her energy, expression, volume, and mood as she reacted to the stimuli in her environment, according to her own internal compass. Without trying, I learned to monitor and predict her shifts as a strategy for getting my needs met. Hedging my own bets against uncertainty.

That’s pattern-making and personality-building in progress. That’s where I learned one set of encoded rules that I still bring, at some level, to every round I play in this game of life. And some of them are painful. If I pay close attention, they’ll surface and I can work on consciously changing them if they’re not serving me.

But, it *is* work. There’s a lot of deep muscle memory involved. And even now there are many subtle and sometimes arbitrary assumptions that I bring to every interaction--about myself, and the other, and how a situation may unfold, and what sorts of things could go wrong and what I need to be wary of. Things I learned from her without realizing it.

Of course, I learned many other things from her, too. Love of reading and art. A good punch line. The miraculous powers of Scotch tape and contact paper. The importance of education and having a job WITH HEALTH INSURANCE. The central role that religion has played in so much of my life--sometimes as a devotee, more often (lately) as a skeptic.

In addition, I’ve been shaped by my father and siblings and the many other people I’ve lived with and met, and the adventures I’ve gone on or that have come to me. But, without doubt, I’ve brought to each encounter the boy and the man marked indelibly by this woman. I am most definitely Gerry Kisling’s son.

This week, on her birthday (it would have been her 92nd), I placed some flowers from my garden in front of the Mary statue in the little grotto that I received from her. A couple of years before she died, she asked if there was anything from the house that I wanted. It was the first thing I thought of, and she promptly put my name on it. It was always there, wherever we lived, a comforting presence. I think of her with affection every time I see it--and, more recently, the boxes of cereal.

Oh, and the stash of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-dipped peppermint JoJos I have stockpiled in the cabinet. You know, *just in case* they don’t have them next year.

Happy Birthday, Mommy.