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3.29.04 Reflection on those Chicago days

I've been writing some entries on my last days in Chicago (1970-71). My mother writes: "Your Chicago diary was very good but we felt sad that we didn't seem to realize how much you went through to prove your independence."

It makes me wonder. First, how much should we expose our parents to our coming-of-age stories? Haven't they already paid their dues? Shouldn't we just let our parents alone with their fantasies about us, just as we cling to our fantasies about them? I know that bookstore shelves are filled with memoirs that accuse parents of ruining the author's life. Some of those confrontations are needed and others are just whiney deflections of responsibility for oneself. I don't have any such agenda. These tales are my own meditation on growing up.

But second, why did I insist on being so independent? The tradition on both my father's and mother's sides is for children to stick close to home. Once the discomfort of immigration was endured and then the boys' military service, everyone pretty much stayed put. It took me till adulthood to realize that not all families are like that. The upper classes send their children to boarding schools and fully expect them to go off to a top-notch college, then get into a career that might take them anywhere in the world. Their fledglings are booted out of the nest. But that's not the story of the working class.

And yet, there I was, needing to go --and once out in the world, knowing there was no turning back. It's not that I was adventurous. No, I was shy and having to meet new people was agony. (Still is!) It seemed like a big deal that my mother had to arrange a friend for me in kindergarten, but I see that young mothers do that all the time nowadays. Maybe I figured there was something wrong with me, so I grew a protective shell that made me feel invulnerable as I proceeded to make my way into the world.

I wasn't running away from anything in particular -- except for a house that was too small and gave me no privacy. Was that what I was searching for all along -- a room of my own? I was 22 before I got one and that didn't last long.

Who knows.

I think of my nieces and nephews. How will their parents know which ones will take risks and go through their coming-of-age period without serious damage, out of their sight? Maybe parents never know. Maybe kids wind up making those decisions on their own, out of their own personalities and drives. It's a truism, I guess, that parents can only hope they've taught their kids a few survival skills before they are off on their own.

Coming-of-age stories are popular. The transition between adolescence and adulthood is full of danger and excitement. First jobs. First apartments. Major choices. Major temptations. We are relieved when we have survived it but we also look back with nostalgia. Will life ever be that new, that risky, that exhilarating ever again? Midlife crises make the nostalgia sharper, I guess, as we realize that was it -- from here on it's sagging skin and 401Ks.

Wahhhhhhhhhhhh! Baby boomers who had colorful transitions to adulthood protest our decline. We dig out the old stories and put them before ourselves as examples of life at its most intense. Then we quit our jobs and launch into something new, not really needing all that agony of 20-something learning but needing to show ourselves that excitement still lies ahead.

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