During winter break, Julia flew solo to Fort Lauderdale from Newark Airport to spend a few days with her grandparents. She’d last flown as an infant but had no memory of flying so this was a first, a rite of passage for a 14-year-old, particularly because her parents are adverse to plane travel. She interpreted the experience as an opportunity to stretch her own wings, so to speak, and she did so with aplomb. Midflight she texted me a photo of a plane wing with the caption “Berlin 46 degrees” (a Photoshop joke). On the way home, her grandparents left her at the airport curb and she navigated her way through check-in, boarding, and out the other end to the gate where her Dad and I were waiting for her late Friday night.
Flying—and all that it entails—was a big deal. But her four-day visit with her grandparents proved to be even more transformational because Julia came home with an empathetic and an enlightened perspective of me, my relationship with her Dad, and of what it must have been like for me to grow up with my own parents.
My parents are in their mid-eighties. Neither is particularly mobile. They rented an extended-stay hotel room with their two dogs for winter. I don’t speak to them, nor does my husband but we help Julia maintain a relationship with her grandparents. When Julia is away—at camp, with friends—she doesn’t communicate too often. Hell, when she’s upstairs in her room, she doesn’t communicate too often, except to announce she’s hungry. During her four days down south, she texted sporadically but the communiques were loaded clues that she was paying attention and absorbing information about her grandparents, their relationship, and the way they behave in the world. It was as if she was seeing them for the first time.
Historically, she has spent limited time with her grandparents. At most she has visited for an overnight with them in their city apartment but those rendezvous are usually less than 24 hours, and Julia has her own room to sleep in. Given my father’s propensity for the television, and my mother’s obsession with the phone, Julia has not had to confront any real level of intimacy with them until this trip. The extended-stay hotel room did not have a separate sleeping quarter for Julia (we didn’t know that when we organized the trip). She was asked to do their laundry and other chores. She had to ask them to drive her to the mall, which they did, and to other tourist attractions, which they didn’t.
When we picked her up at the airport, I felt a small electric current course through my body. My child, a Russian adoptee, who is also a moody teenager, was glad to see me and her dad. I saw the glint in her eye, and in her body language. Nothing effusive or sloppy but I know my child and she looked at me with fresh eyes.
As soon as we got in the car, she was eager to spill. She was extremely disturbed about the ride with her grandparents to Fort Lauderdale Airport. She described a harrowing journey of screaming and stress as she tried to use a phone app to navigate them to the airport. My mother was screeching at my father, and he at her, and when the frustration reached a fever pitch, they turned their hysteria on her. They blamed her for the phone dying even though my mother had ignored Julia’s warning to her to charge her phone. Nothing about this was surprising. Every road trip from my childhood flooded back. The endless loops. Miles in the wrong direction. The feeling of utter doom infusing every motor vacation. No one ever mastered the art of reading a map. We always got lost. Inevitably the frustration and fear elevated into an all-out nuclear eruption, and it was my job to quiet nerves and think of ways to get us back on track.
“You told me they were like children,” Julia said. “You were right.”
I smiled, and felt a warm feeling, like being immersed in bath water. My child finally had an inkling of why it’s so important for me to feel in control. Though I’ve said my parents have always acted like children before, Julia got it. She saw them in action and she had context for how my upbringing has shaped me.
Julia continued. For four days, she observed my mother on a constant rant, mostly targeted against my father. “I felt sorry for him,” she said. I would have fallen out of my seat had I not been strapped into the car seat. “Exactly!” I exclaimed. That was how I felt too—all through my youth, pitying my father, a victim of my mother’s wrath. Of course their relationship was complicated, and my father was not an angel, but when Julia revealed that kind of empathy for him, I was nearly moved to tears.
Then another bombshell. She told us that after a day or so of their constant fighting, she showed her displeasure. She grunted and put on headphones. My mother said to her, “What’s the problem? Your parents don’t fight?” And Julia said, “No, they don’t.” My mother hissed and said, “That’s not normal.”
“My mother thinks fighting is normal,” I said. “She doesn’t understand any other way.”
“I think she’s jealous of your relationship with Dad,” she said. More tears of joy. I have been seen. My daughter sees me and her dad, and the comfort our good relationship has created for her.
Over the last couple of years, Julia and I have fought a lot. She’s a teen. I’ve been unhappy about some of her recent decisions, and worried most of all about her lack of academic efforts because I fear it will thwart her from being able to pursue her musical dreams. We’ve lived with a lot of tension and screaming but since she’s returned from her trip, she has expressed outright determination to stop fighting with one another. It’s as though her intimate experience with dysfunction held up a mirror and she didn’t like what she saw.