I have been thinking a lot about what makes a good parent this last few weeks as I watch my own parents cope with the difficulties of my father's illness and struggle to work out for myself how best to show my own love and support for them.
I think I am very lucky. On the face of it the fact that my own father died when I was three and my brother one was clearly a tragedy, for my mother, for his own deeply loving family and for us. Yet somehow out of that my mother, and my stepfather, conjured for us a very happy family and an easy, adventurous childhood. It is very many years since I thought of Dad as my stepfather. He is just Dad.
When you are a teenager you do not know that your own family is not normal. I have read much about the child of an unhappy family slowly learning that theirs is not the only way to live and finding that there are families out there which are places of sustenance and love. Many of them build their own lives very consciously to produce a different experience from that of their childhood. I don't think I have read very much about the experience of the happy family. Happiness writes white as they say. I assumed with the blitheness of adolescence that my family experience was the norm. I knew my parents were younger and more energetic than those of most of my friends. I knew they were more adventurous and more likely to respond to ideas with "Why not?" than with a string of reasons why something might not work.
It was only when I went away to university that I began to realise that my experience was not the norm. Many of my friends, perfectly nice people with what seemed to me perfectly nice parents, struggled with the process of disentangling themselves. For some their parents were a drag, an obligation, going home was something that had to be done from time to time but it pulled them away from the real business of their new lives. Telephone conversations were inevitably conducted in a fug of irritation or mild guilt. Parents' only useful function at that stage was to provide funds. Others were so tightly tied into their home and family that the pain of homesickness was too much for them. There were other people whose experience was like mine but we were much fewer than I would have imagined when I left home. For me my parents' house was always a place where I felt nourished, recharged, re-energised but, crucially, recharged ready to go back into the outside world. We used to joke about the way our parents were always delighted to see us come and delighted to see us go and I think both of those things were equally true and extraordinarily freeing for all of us when we were in our late teens and early twenties. The delight at having us home again, or at having us visit later on when we had established homes of our own, was profound. But they lived their own lives so vividly that there was no sense that, having waved us goodbye, they did anything other than turn back to them with a smile when we went away again. I had no idea at all how very unusual that was.
But whenever we needed them they were there: my dad making and mending things, my mother cooking and looking after babies and children, both of them driving up and down the motorway, or giving my children a glorious taste of life in Devon over many years of summer holidays while I struggled to work as single parent. Of course from time to time we must have irritated each other or been at cross purposes. But running under all of my life is the sense of being, with my Dad, loved and practically supported whether he understood me or not (and we are very different people) and with my mother of being heard, of being loved, of being let free to be myself.
So how to be present for them now as their lives close in through my dad's illness is the question of the moment. But I do know I am lucky, both in them and in the family of my own I and my husband have created in my turn. We shall work it out.