SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS - As a child of older parents, I've had to dig for commonalities
The story about the 57 year old woman who had a baby with her 65 year old husband triggered feelings buried deep within me. The feelings range from anger all the way to acceptance.
For most of my adult life I’ve felt sad and angry because my father died when I was only 26 years old, a time when I still needed his fatherly advice. He was 53 when I was born in 1958 and 80 when he died in 1985. He was seemingly healthy when he died suddenly of a massive heart attack, so I never had a chance to say goodbye.
After his death, I relied heavily on my mother for emotional support. She was 13 years younger than my father and stuck around for 17 more years, guiding me through my tumultuous 20’s and 30’s, until she started her slow decent toward death. I was at the peak of my career at that time, which I put on hold when I made the decision to drop everything to take care of her; a decision I have never regretted. She died in 2003 at the age of 86, leaving me an orphan at 45. It took me a long time to pass through the stages of grief and regain my footing after her death.
For the next 15 years I busied myself with work and tried not to think about the loss that was deeply embedded in my heart. I’d feel guilty about the fact that the memories were beginning to fade and would make a conscious effort to stop that from happening. Jealousy became a frequent visitor when my contemporaries would talk about the fun they had with their parents. During this pandemic, when my friends would complain about not being able to see their parents in person and could only visit over Zoom or Facetime, I’d think to myself, “At least you have parents to miss.”
When retirement descended upon me, I found myself relocated and with extra time on my hands. As I was “unpacking the boxes” of my life (quote shamelessly borrowed from the title of one of Donald Hall’s books of essays), I stumbled upon the Modern Library edition of Moby Dick. My father had given the book to me for Christmas, 3 months before he died. In it he inscribed, “To Suzy from Pop with love and high hopes.” I assumed he was just hoping I’d read the book, so I never asked him what “high hopes” meant. Thirty-four years later I finally had the time to try to fulfill his hopes.
I later learned from my older sister that Moby Dick was one of my father’s favorite books. It became one of mine too. After reading Moby Dick, I decided I needed to learn more about my father in an effort to fill a nagging void. I’d come into possession of an antique trunk that contained letters, photo albums, and scrapbooks covering his life from birth to the age of 45. After reading those papers, I was inspired to expand my research into archives located up and down the east coast, where I unearthed a treasure trove of additional information about him.
There was so much I didn’t know about the first 53 years of my father’s life. I didn’t even know the names of my grandparents, let alone the fact that they divorced when my father was in his teens. I had no idea my father owned a horse when he was attending college at Dartmouth and his favorite riding companion was his grey-bearded history professor.
As I learned more about my father’s life, I discovered we actually had a lot in common. My grandfather was 40 years old when my father was born, so we both had older than normal fathers. My father was a camera buff in college, just as I was. He loved horses and so did I. He traveled around Europe after college as did I. He was 30 years old when he finally landed the job that would sustain him for the next 40 years. I was 30 when I began my career as a lawyer, something he would sadly never know about. My father was an orphan at 32 (his mother died suddenly in 1927), much younger than my 45, but too young, nonetheless.
We even followed the same path in our retirement. He published a book about his father in 1979 and I’m in the process of writing a book about my father.
I am eternally grateful to my father for publishing his father’s story because I got to know someone who is important in my family tree. My grandfather was a self-made businessman, primarily engaged in the moving and storage business (one of his clients was Thomas Edison). When he commenced his career in 1885, the mode of transportation was wagons powered by draft horses. I was unaware that there was such a long tradition of horse lovers in my family. Perhaps it comes from the fact that our last name is Colt.
I do wish, however, that my father had devoted some time to writing his memoir because, even though I’m chin deep in his papers, I still have so many questions I wish I could ask him.
I think it is fairly common in our social development to be less interested in our parent’s past when one is growing up. We are not programmed to ask the deep searching questions that later in life we wish we had asked our parents. That is another reason children of older parents feel cheated when their parents die, because for the rest of their lives they are left wondering. I feel lucky that my father left a paper trail I can follow but it is a poor substitute for the living parent.
The decision my parents made to have me in their later years has had consequences for my life. Over the years I’ve transitioned from anger to a place of acceptance, especially now that I have time to discover more about my father. It was the in-between that was challenging.
If there is one piece of advice I would impart, based on my experience, it would be to encourage older parents to document their lives in some form or fashion. In this day and age there are a myriad of ways to do it electronically. Or pick up pen and paper and write memoirs or letters documenting memories so when children have questions after their parents have died, they have somewhere to turn. Answers, in this instance, may be the salve and comfort needed to sustain them for the rest of their lives as orphans.
[Photo of my father and me was taken on Christmas Day of 1976. I was 18 and he was 71. My parents had given me the Ray Parker painting seen in this photo for Christmas, which still hangs in my living room as a daily reminder of my parents gift to me and of their gifts to the art world in general.]