My father recently told me this story: While living on his own in his early-twenties he glanced in the mirror one morning only to be met with a shocking revelation. To his surprise and dismay the realization suddenly came to him that he was "nothing more than the genetic extension of my parents." To some, the idea of that realization isn't very frightful, to him, it might have been terrifying. I however have been blessed enough to embrace the characteristics of my lineage, and I can say with some gratitude that I am not completely ashamed of what I see in the mirror.
The rest of this post might read a bit like a eulogy. Both of my parents are living, so don't mourn them yet. I simply want to point out the characteristics built in each of them, innate and environmental (at least from my perspective, and from what they've shared with me), in an attempt to paint a self portrait. It'd odd to think, but I am truly the sum of these two parts. Every characteristic you read from here on in, every flaw and every strength, is very much a part of me.
After a certain age your parents stop filtering what they tell you.
My mom told me once that she ran away from home when she was twelve. She successfully hitchhiked from her home in Virginia to somewhere in Florida. After using a pay phone to call her mother, my granny pinpointed her location and had the police pick her up. I think she ran away again at fourteen, and for one final time at sixteen after she graduated high school. She is still, to some extent, that same person, which might be why to this day her favorite activity is running. She can seem perpetually restless, and can be described as erring on the side of "flighty" at times. She is socially flexible, quick to make friends and able to make a situation work with very little. She can be a chameleon, blending into different groups with ease. She's been known to be extremely resourceful (which may be a required trait for raising eight children), and usually has a larger than life attitude (which may be why she took on the challenge of raising eight children in the first place).
This larger than life attitude has taken my mother on many conquests and adventures throughout her life. Subsequently, it has caused her to live pretty steadily beyond her means, which is probably why it has been suggested by my father that she prefers to live in "Fantasyland." She rarely heeds warnings or bothers to read caution signs, which might speak to the fact that she has over fifty speeding tickets in her lifetime. Just like the little girl who ran away when she was twelve, she is pretty stubborn when it comes to obedience. She displays a tenacious distrust for authority, and is generally bluntly unapologetic when scrutinized by anyone, which is probably why in her mind the police are still at fault for every one of those speeding tickets. She can be quick to retaliate when feeling threatened, and she's known to lack compliance (back talk) with officers of the law or other figures of authority. To those who she perceives disrespectful, she has a knack for finding their buttons and pushing them repeatedly.
Her problem with authority probably started with her father, who was an alcoholic and consumed by his work as a bio-chemist. She also couldn't relate to her mother (my granny), whose parenting was rigid and ineffective, so I suppose it was natural that she took such a liking to her grandmother (my great grandmother). Nam, which is what they called her, was something of a renaissance woman. She was educated, modern, talented and easy-going, and my mother looked up to her. She was an exceptional athlete, and even in her later years she would often get the better of her grandchildren at tennis. She wrote children's books, worked with pottery and painted. I think she played a big part in how my mother is turned out, and how she chose to shape her own children.
Perhaps she raised us how Nam would have, involving us in every sport, recreational club and class available. Whether it was Judo, Ice Skating, or Comic Strip Drawing, I did it as a kid. We were forced into piano lessons and music groups (in one we wore cowboy hats and played xylophones in the mall, I'm still not sure why), and when I showed interest in guitar, she quickly bought an old classical acoustic. To my surprise she could play it pretty well. She taught me some old Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, one of which was "Proud Mary," ironically, because my mothers name is Mary, and it could be said that pride is one of her characteristics. Music came natural to my mother, who could also play piano and sing quite well. She would capitalize on any suggestion we had, paying close attention to our interests and helping to develop them, teaching us when she could and employing the help of others when she couldn't. As kids we often resented mom for making us do so many activities (perhaps it was cheaper than daycare?), but I think now we all look back and are thankful for those experiences. She would read classic novels to three or four of us at time on a nightly basis, and I can remember her voice quivering and her eyes tearing up during Where The Red Fern Grows and other sad stories. She would sing us songs and nursery rhymes from her childhood, some of which I can still remember.
All in all my mother was, and is, a loving and hard working mother. Because of her hard work in making life interesting for us, none of us chose to run away at twelve, although I must admit I had given it some serious thought.
My father is for the most part a logical-minded person and a deep thinker. He enjoys finding profound truth, and then regurgitating it with dramatic pause for those in ear shot. Usually, if you're in ear shot, he's about two inches from your face. To his credit, a phrase spoken from his mouth in the heat of the moment will almost never hold as much meaning if heard again from somebody else's. He is well known for his command of words and flowery rhetoric, and he enjoys delivering stifling blows to intellectual egos that unwittingly cross his path. As a preacher, it was not uncommon for the congregation to be moved to tears, especially when he told the testimony of how he came to faith.
He is a man of drastic mood swings, and when feeling out of place can tend to overwhelm strangers with waves of excitedly spoken words and outlandish behavior. Other times he can remain solemn and withdrawn, as if deep in thought, aloof and introspective. When I was growing up he could be very impatient and have a short fuse, and then at times speak very calmly and directly. If the case is that we all have a war within us, between what we aspire to be and what we hate about ourselves, it could be said that my fathers war is exceedingly worse than anyone else's I've ever met. To this day I'm not sure which side is winning.
In social situations his delivery can be so enticing and unrelenting, that one might assume he finds equal if not more pleasure in his own comments than those of others. His words of wisdom and even rarer words of kindness ring powerful and true, but the inverse is also true; He can very cunningly dismantle someone's confidence with words of anger, his talent for articulation used for foul play.
His own authority is generally the only one he adheres to, which probably speaks to the fact that his own father was unavailable much of his life. I never met my fathers father, because he died in his mid-forties long before I was born, a victim of alcohol abuse. His mother was caring but ineffectual, so in a sense my dad became a self-made man. He was ill-equipped from the start with the tools needed to succeed, especially as a father. It's a surprising credit to him that he did as good a job as he did.
Looking back, it must have been incredibly awkward for my dad to show fatherly kindness to us. I can remember him taking me out for lunch on Saturdays by myself, showing a specific interest in fathering me, which was a rare thing as I had five other hungry siblings at home to pick from. This is not to say he played favorites with me, because sometimes in an attempt justify his cravings for fast food, he would pick two or three of the older kids to go to McDonald's with him (this was on rare occasions when my mother was gone). I can recall sitting at home after missing that boat a few times. I can also remember him taking us on vacation and teaching me little things, like how to fish. Those little things, in retrospect, must have been such unfamiliar territory for him. For a man of such pride, its worth noticing his attempts at being someone he had no idea how to be.
Before fatherhood, my dad was a hippy and a vagabond, a man of little obligations other than those he set before him. He travelled back and forth across Canada seven times in the seventies, jumping trains and hitching rides, living life one day at a time. Being born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada, it was of some surprise that he met my mother(who is from Virginia) in Vancouver, British Columbia (the west coast of Canada). They both gave their lives over to Christ at some outreach gospel meetings, got married, and got to work on making babies and providing a stable life for them. Well, it was probably more complicated than that, but I wasn't there so who cares.
My father had no formal schooling in any trade, so he took night classes to get his CPA. In the early 80's he started working for the government as an accountant. He grew tired of this quickly, and eventually started a small business producing removable "hard tops" for Suzuki Sidekicks and Chevy Trackers. The company took off, and he was able to provide quite well for the lot of us. Back in 2000, at age fifty, my father decided he wanted to be a stock broker. So he studied and took the exam, passing with the highest scores in the group and beating out much younger minds with fresh bachelor degrees. If my father has taught me anything, its that tenacious self-confidence is the only thing a man needs to succeed, hence why the men in our family, including myself, tend to err on the side of arrogance. But just you try telling us we can't do something...
Through practice my father showed us what my mother taught us through her constant nudging; That anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
It's almost laughable reading back on those characteristics. Whether I want to admit it or not, I am every single one of those flaws, and every single one of those strengths. In most cases, the strengths become flaws when used with ill intentions, which is the sad irony of human nature.
This has been an eye opening exercise for me. I've probably made incredible errors on the historical facts, and if my parents read this I'm sure they'll have corrections to make (I would imagine especially in the way of their shortcomings). If you've made it this far, I want to thank you for reading this round about way of writing a self-portrait. I'm not sure if it is a technique used in any academic circles, nor do I know if there are any psychological benefits to writing a self portrait this way. All I can say is that it is time consuming work that requires you to think, and that can't be a bad thing.
I'll leave you with a few quotes that agree with me:
No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. ~Voltaire
What luck for rulers, that men do not think. ~Adolph Hitler
Few minds wear out; more rust out. ~Christian N. Bovee
Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.
~ Henry David Thoreau