Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

I was driving from San Francisco up to Santa Rosa one Friday afternoon in 1994 to pick up my daughter after school when I heard Ian Frazier read aloud on Fresh Air the last paragraph of his newly published book about his family. It brought tears to my eyes then, and brings them to this day.

At every step I would compare myself especially to [his father], would judge if I was doing better or worse than he had done at being middle-class and putting kids through school and not terrorizing my family and staying between the lines while trying not to forget what it is I actually want to do. And unknown things would happen, and sooner or later I would die, too — I understand that now, clearly, the way you suddenly became aware of the sky and the diving board after the person in front of you has jumped — and my kids perhaps would see me off as I had seen my parents off, or perhaps not. And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us; perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and none would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.

I believe many of those of us who are parents will find most heartbreaking the realization that our children won’t long remain in the state we leave them. If humankind hasn’t destroyed itself, or made the planet uninhabitable — and are not both possibilities terrifyingly easy to conceive? — our children will one day be the people we’ve seen our parents become, that feeble and pathetic. And we, having been gone for decades, will be powerless to tell their woefully underpaid, perhaps resentful caregivers, “Hey, wait a second. Let me tell you how gorgeous and smart and full of life this person was when she was little. Let me show you photos!”

I find it so hard nowadays to look at photographs of my own and my friends’ parents as very young people. I’m overwhelmed with guilt borne of having half-imagined in my own youth that they were examples of trick photography. My parents, young and raven-haired, sparkly-eyed and gorgeous in the photos, bore little resemblance to the people whose home I shared. Wasn’t I the center of the universe? Didn’t people exist only as I knew them?

That first night on Ed Sullivan, the only good thing either of them had had to say about The Beatles, who were manifestly The Way Forward, was, “Well, at least they pick nice songs to sing.” That was Audrey Mendelsohn after Mr. McCartney warbled “’Til There Was You.” Maybe they’d been through the Depression, and then through World War II, but had they ever smoked pot, or repudiated racism, or repudiated sexism, or repudiated homophobia, as we'd eventually get around to doing? Had anyone ever been as uncool as my parents?

I began in 1973 writing a song, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” about how people see their parents. The lyrics have changed many times over the years; they keep getting just a bit wiser. In the most recent version, written when I was the age my mother was when she blessed “’Til There Was You,” the first and fourth verses became:

We were gorgeous. We were clever. It was obvious that ever we’d be thus.
We had genius beyond rating. History clearly had been waiting just for us.
Like a diver from the cliff at Acapulco at the moment that he dives,
we were so exhilarated as we waited for the best years of our lives.

Now as we become our parents, it’s apparent that appearances deceived
Our beauty has been looted. Life’s refuted everything that we believed.
We baby boomers, growing tumors, arm ourselves with irony and knives.
We’ll go, but not so quietly, in these, the waning best years of our lives.


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