If good memoirs reveal something about the writer, great memoirs reveal something about the reader. Jennifer Grant’s When Did Everybody Else Get So Old is a great memoir.
We are experts at avoiding that which disquiets us. (Ch. 5, Coyotes and Shadow Selves.)
Grant tells of her early thoughts on middle age, which principally revolved around trying to figure out how old one has to be to reach it. Once there, she found all the tropes she expected – growing children leaving the home, navigating new ways to interact with her friends, discovering aspects of marriage unanticipated but not unmanageable – as well as unexpected events – debilitating illness, even death, among peers.
The poignancy found in some chapters is balanced with triumphs, and moments of laughter and lightness of heart are liberally sprinkled. They are found in equal measure when she writes of her children growing up.
But things change when they hit adolescence. Our kids begin to prefer the company of their friends to time with us. They no longer follow our advice about what to wear or what books to read. Whereas they once found us endlessly funny and entertaining (Peekaboo! Silly songs in the car! Kitchen dance parties!), they often find us mildly annoying. Or worse. Most of all, they want space.
Some of that passes, of course, but we have to acknowledge that this is all as it should be. Since their births, we’ve raised them with the hope that they’ll be strong adults and able to make their ways in the world, independent of us. (Ch. 9, Of Teenagers and Flight Attendants.)
My wife and I followed the same philosophy, although not as elegantly expressed. “You raise ’em up to move ’em out” was our refrain as our son and daughter made their way through high school and on to college. As first our son and then two years later our daughter went off to university we found that – unlike we’d been told – the house did not feel empty.
Then it hit me: We’re not empty nesters. We’re spacious nesters. How could the nest be empty when we’re still in it, for crying out loud?
Jennifer Grant’s memoir tells me we are not alone in looking at our family this way. Unlike just about everyone else I have expressed that sentiment to – people whose responses have ranged from indulgent and slightly patronizing looks to outright contradiction that any parent should feel this way about their kids leaving home – Jennifer says “this is all as it should be.
As great memoirs should, this revealed a truth about myself I had not put into words. In moving through middle age and on toward retirement (God willing I live to enjoy yet another stage of life with my wife) life’s progress has been all as it should be when it comes to raising our children to young adulthood. They have learned and continue to learn how to make their way in the world.
Just as their parents continue to learn as well.