My parents, my child and me: what could go wrong?
A brief chronicle of a brief visit during the Dobrenko Cold War 2022
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Each and every visit with my parents feels like a Shakespearean play. The question is simply which style of play it’ll be: comedy or tragedy?
For those who don't know, we are a family of of immigrants who moved here to America, a land of purportedly "united" states in 1994. I was six years old, my parents were older.
But not that much older! My mom was 27 and my dad was 30. Children! Soviet children. Raised inside of another alleged union of soviet socialist republics the USSR. We are Ukrainian specifically, sort of. Except we’re from Odessa which is mostly Russian speaking, at least it was before the war.
Except even more so, we are Jewish - and so back there were a minority within a minority within a formerly great republic in rapid decline.
Arriving here in America brought our family opportunity, prosperity, and the chance for young Sasha to wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothes in middle school to fit in!
It also brought the perfect environment for our family's very own Cold War, a multi decade long conflict between culture, language, and whether or not its okay to have sleepovers growing up. "You want to go sleep on someone else's floor," my parents would say, "but you have a bed here. Why not just sleep here?!"
That drove me nuts. I wanted so badly to fart the night away with my friends in a shitty Kirkland brand sleeping bag - the American dream - but they did not allow it.
Classic Three Act Structure
The Cold War of our Shakespearian play has three acts. The first act is my parents raising me, the second act is me rebelling against how they raised me and in so doing becoming an adult myself, which makes my one and a half year old son and how he shall be raised the final battleground upon which this Cold War shall be fought. Grab a coat and some gloves babe, cuz it's about to get CHILLY.
To begin allow me to introduce my parents, two unique, delicate flowers terrified of any and all things that might blow them away. When they visit, they bring slippers from Rhode Island in plastic bags. They do not under any circumstances drink anything but bottled water. They will not eat at any restaurants except for one - Fish King - where they both order the same meal - Swordfish with rice and steamed veggies - every single time. "Why would we eat at a restaurant when your mom's cooking is the best cooking!?” they say, not joking even a little bit.
They are both on the shorter side - my mom coming in right under 5 feet and my dad about my height at 5 foot 6. And let me just stress: they love slippers.
For them, all of this is normal. For them, I am the insane one, the American who would risk eating food at some random restaurant run by some random people who are gonna do god knows what to the food and then just expect us to TRUST that it will be okay? That it will be healthy and also good and also not kill us? Now THAT is crazy, they would say.
Upon landing at LAX we drive directly to Whole Foods for them to pick up a few key items of sustenance - stuff to make salad, cheese, and pita.
Before heading into WF, my dad bonks his head hard trying to open my 2009 Prius trunk because it didn't glide all the way up like his brand new prius does, instead stopping at the perfect place for my dad's head to SLAM into when getting a coat or something for my mom from their luggage even though its like 95 degrees in Los Angeles.
Minutes later, inside the Whole Foods, I see that he's placed a giant hunk of parmesan cheese up to the bump on his head as an ice pack. I laugh and go "are you gonna buy that?" to which he says "no" and then puts it back.
Here, too, at the Whole Foods is where our first Wilder skirmish takes place. Specifically it is his nose and the frequency with which it is cleaned. My parents believe that if even the idea of snot presents itself below those tiny nostrils they must CLEAN HIS FACE immediately. I can safely say that in the five days they were here they cleaned his nose more than we have in his year and a half on this earth.
The second arena for disagreement is just south of the nose - the mouth, and particularly how food enters and exits. They like feeding Wilder. We like to let him eat on his own. Baby led weaning is what our books and Instagram accounts tell us to do. Let him get messy, let him lose his mind and figure out what he likes and dislikes, let him tell us when he's hungry and when he's done.
To my parents this is original sin. They must feed him, bite by bite, micromanaging his food intake like he's an Olympic wrestler who needs to cut weight for a match in mere minutes.
From here you don't even need to hop, skip or jump to our next front, or should we say theater, that is the land of NO. If food falls on the ground, they say no no no don't do that. If he screams, they say no no no. If he spits water out of his mouth and onto the ground they say no no no even though that is objectively funny as hell.
And then there are the CAREFULS. Let us get specific: there was a koi pond at the hotel and he would walk up to the edge to say hi to the fishies. He is clearly very good, I believe, at recognizing when not to go too far with edges of things, so I have no problem with him getting real close to the fishies. Not so for my parents. For them going anywhere near the pond required holding their hands as well as being barraged with a litany of careful no careful no no no carefuls.
But to me it's like - so what if he does - worst case scenario - plonk into the pond? He'd cry and the fishies would be scared and his mind would connect the falling down with the actions he took before hand and he'd know not to do that again.
Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know!! Maybe my parents are 100% right and I'm a moron who is raising an absolute hellspawn. All I know is how viscerally angry it all makes me!
Which also makes sense. Watching your parents with your child also feels like traveling back in time and witnessing how they raised you. Do I thusly assume that my fear of all things, large and most usually very small, comes from the fear that they instilled in me? You betcha!
I don't want to train Wilder's little brain that danger lurks around every corner, that he must always be afraid of everything, that he must trust no one and doubt everything. Because that's how I am, and that's how they are.
Enter Nadya, Stage Left
There's a family in our neighborhood who moved here from Russia after the war started - they've been here for less than six months. And when I talk to the mom Nadya and see her with her two year old boy, I feel like I'm talking to my parents when they first moved here. The fear, the not knowing what you don't know, the weight of starting over, the loneliness of being away from everyone and everything you've ever known.
One day during the trip, my parents and Nadya met up at the park. They gave her advice and told her that all that matters is that your family is the “The Two H’s” - Happy and Healthy (this is a trademark saying of my dads).
After my parents left, I ran into Nadya at the gym. We worked out on two elliptical machines next to each other and she told me how grateful she was to talk to my parents, how it weirdly felt like she'd known them her whole life.
She also shared some amazing advice my dad gave her after she’d told him how anxious speaking English made her: "If your english is bad, who cares? If they can't understand you, that's their problem."
What a powerful, badass thing to say.
I told Nadya how frustrating it was for me at times to watch my parents with Wilder and she said she understood. I was like ok great she gets where I’m coming from. But then she said no, she related to my parents.
Y tu, Nadya?
"That's how we were all raised in Russia. That's normal."
I asked her where that came from - was it how her parents raised her?
"No, it's everywhere. It's the air you breathe. Trust no one. If you start trusting people, bad things happen."
Once again I realize what I have been realizing my whole adult life: that by moving here my parents gave me the gift of not being able to understand them. Of not fearing everything, even if they still would. Of a chance at not just a better life but a better outlook, one of trust and faith in others, one of hope.
But that doesn't mean they can all of a sudden adopt that same outlook. And it doesn’t mean it won’t piss me off!
One more example: all throughout our trip random Americans would come up to us and say how cute Wilder was. After one particularly intense showering of praise my mom told me that whenever someone says nice things about the baby, you have to make a "dula" with your hand:
This protects Wilder from the "evil eye" that is out there, aka from those people putting a curse on him with their jealousy or the bad thoughts that they have secretly about Wilder.
WHAT?! Why would anyone feel that about a baby! They just think he's cute, we don't need to protect him with a weird thumb thing? But for my parents, it makes perfect sense. How could you trust these strangers who might hate you for being Jewish, for being from Ukrainian, for simply being alive and having a grandchild who is a cutie patootie? To live in Russia is to live in fear - my parents cant change that anymore than I can change the messy gremlin life I live here.
The cold thaws
On the last day of the visit, we drop off Wilder at daycare and have an hour to chill before heading to the airport. My mom goes to the bathroom and there my dad and I sit, at the table, a father and his father, a son and his father, etc.
We both talk about the trip and how great it was as if we're giving a joint press conference between two countries. Great trip. One of the best.
Then, after a pause, I say "hey, no big fights."
To which my dad says "no big fights...but there was some tension."
Well put, a nod to the people of his country watching this press conference that says 'I saw it too - my son is an insane monster who cannot control his temper and makes having a great time with our grandson close to but not actually impossible."
Continuing the tactful politburo I say "we have very different parenting styles."
To which he agrees, sort of. "When we were raising you, we listened to our parents,” he says.
Doesn't take a scientist who deals with rockets to see his implication here.
"It was all we had, their knowledge, so we did what they did. But you guys, you have the internet and books and so much else."
He's not wrong, and it is an interesting point, how weirdly it seems like we trust the advice of strangers on the internet who seem to have their shit together than our own flesh and blood. Or maybe it makes perfect sense. We know what our parents did to us and we know how much it messed us up. This is the key to the second act of the Shakespearian play - to become adults we must differentiate from our parents, must become our own people by defining the ways we are not like them.
Just like Wilder will with me. Will he probably become a neat freak who is super careful about everything just like my parents? Probably. My wife recently bought him a "Let's Play House Dust! Sweep! Mop! 6 Piece Pretend Play Set" which he is obsessed with, running around the house sweeping and cleaning.
Does it make me sick? This indoctrination by Big Clean to a child who isn’t even two years old? Sure. But does it make him happy? You betcha.
And that at the end of the day is really all that matters. So too with my parents. They were SO HAPPY when they were with him. A culmination of all their hard work here in this little blob who would hold their hands whenever they asked (which he does not do with me and Lauren, by the way).
Driving home one day after going to Whole Foods for the 55th time, my mom starts giggling uncontrollably in the backseat. She and Wilder are playing some classic peekaboo game and then he was laughing and the two of them were just losing their shit and my dad starts laughing too and in spite of myself I start laughing too.
And I realize the only person who is fighting a cold war here is me. Everyone else in the car is happy, joyful, thinking about nothing, feeling the good feelings, laughing the good laughs.
Which makes all of this a classic tragicomedy of infinite proportions - the son who is a dad, stuck between generations, between cultures, depressed for no reason, a boy-man who cannot appreciate the infinite gifts he's been given, stewing in a car surrounded by a family full of love and laughter enjoying the day.
Shakespeare could never.
This morning, Wilder and I ate oatmeal with blueberries, a meal introduced to by himmy parents. He loved it and made a little mess on his hands, then held his hand up and starting going eehhhhh which means “do something” and I knew he meant that he wanted me to clean his hand. And so, in spite of all I believed, I got a napkin and cleaned his blue stained hand.
So who won this battle of the Cold War? my parents, my child, and also, begrudgingly, me.
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