Friday, September 09, 2005

Progress and Resemblances

Last night, I took our four year old daughter to her first soccer "practice."

As we were driving to the soccer field, and later as I watched her aimlessly chasing a soccer ball around a well manicured field--all the while trying very hard not to look too adoringly at every move she made--I couldn't help but note the irony involved, an irony that says something very interesting about this country, my family, and growing up in this country in the late 20th century. The irony relates to the notion of progress, and resemblances.

We didn't play soccer where I grew up, but we did play Little League baseball. My parents, however, did not come to baseball practices, such as they were. Not a single time. This was no great loss, as I did not want them there. Many were the times that, after practice or a game, I was the last person left at the ballpark, waiting alone in the bleachers for a ride home because my parents failed to get to the field on time. I remember well a feeling of humiliation when the parents of my teammates would look my way, with obvious concern and embarrassment on their faces and ask every possible varient of "are you sure you will be okay?"

Of course I was going to be okay--waiting for them to show up was always the least of my problems. The problems started when they finally did show up, usually well on their way to being drunk, usually in the middle of a fight, and usually unwilling to hide their resentment at having to make the trip. I distinctly remember feeling somewhat sorry for them in these situations: it was all so pathetic and so weak, the way they shirked basic parental responsibilities, the way their lives were controlled by the bottom of a bottle. There is little doubt that, today, they would be jailed for some of their actions. But alas, that was then, and, especially back then, and especially in the sticks, children in families like mine tended to have to fend for themselves.

Why do I bring this up? I bring it up as an example of hope, believe it or not. I bring it up because my experience as a parent just last night gives me a sense of optimism about the human condition, optimism that life is not merely a one-way ratchet, always with a faint click in the wrong direction. No, I did not have a happy childhood in twilight of the 20th century, but my daughter (fingers crossed) is in the midst of a happy childhood at the dawn of the 21st. There will be no empty bleachers for her. There will be no puzzled looks or questions from the parents of her friends. There will be no need for her to assume the responsibility of an adult while living in the body of a seven year old, or a nine year old, or even a twelve year old. Not on my watch.

Returning to irony and the title of these thoughts, let me to add one more detail to this story. On the mantle of our fireplace is a boyhood picture of my father with his family when he was about four years old. The family oozes stern, taciturn, German stock in the photo, which is heightened by its Old World feel. Two feet to the right of that picture is a recent picture of our four year old daughter, the soccer star, with a smile on her face. She is the female identical twin of the little boy down the mantle from her, the four year old who turned out to be her grandfather.

I am often struck by their resemblance to one another, but, more important, and especially after last night, perhaps it is the progress made across the span of these two pictures that is most striking. It seem especially fitting that progress should trump resemblances.

From this perspective, perhaps that "childhood" of mine was worth it after all.