This piece appeared in the WEEKEND section of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.
In Commencement speeches, we thank our parents in fleeting one-liners. “Thanks for all your support.” “I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.” “Sorry you’re out of that tuition money.” I don’t deny the truth of these statements, but I’d like to expand on them.
Last week was Mother’s Day. That morning I texted my mom an old photo and thanked her for being my first (and best) friend. The image shows my mom and Little Chris standing in front of a picket fence with trellised detailing on the top. We’re beaming. My mom kneels down so I look as tall as she is. Her arm extends around my waist; mine is curled around the back of her neck.
She called me later, telling me that was the first day of kindergarten. Like most parents, she remembers the little fingers, toes and, lovingly, “your chubby little face.”
And she remembers the lemonade stands. My mom never drives past a lemonade stand without stopping. “Partly for the lemonade,” she explains, “but mostly to support the kids.” When we spoke, she reminded me of the times we labored over lemon rinds and cups of granulated sugar, painstakingly picking out the seeds with teaspoons and, when that didn’t work, with our tiny fingers. On lazier days, we poured packs of Crystal Light into jugs of water, then emptied buckets of ice into the drink to cool our product. (Crystal Light days yielded larger profit margins. “Young entrepreneurs,” my mom called us.) She told me about our tanned faces, our knobby knees, our squeals when a car slowed and seats of sweaty, tanktopped customers threw a few quarters into our cash register — which was, more often than not, one of the Dixie cups we also sold our lemonade in.
I hear these stories and realize that my mom, in some way, still sees the chubby face of Little Chris even when she looks at me today.
In fact, I don’t think our parents ever stop seeing us as the kid they love in the 4×6” photograph. Part of me always knew this, but I didn’t internalize it until sifting through thousands of photos earlier this year with her. (And there were literally thousands. My parents, like most parents with a first child, never put down the camera. We called my dad “Joe Nikon,” after the camera brand, for years).
We grow up thinking about ourselves as the babies who change, learn and grow. We marvel at our own frontiers and think about our parents’ adult lives as static. They’ve grown up, after all — what could be dynamic in their lives?
For the first time, though, I study my mom’s face in the photograph and see something new. My parents in the photos were babies too, in some way. Their photographed features bear a closer resemblance to mine today than mine compare to the features of my smaller self.
I realize that my parents were never as staggeringly old as Little Chris perceived them to be. In photographs of Greek Orthodox baptisms, first days of school, the rare dinner date, I see a couple that looks impossibly young.
When you’re little, it’s easy to focus only on the huge age gap you perceive between you and your parents, ignoring our ages for what they actually are — constantly changing. But now I study my parents’ faces and see that, while they were taking care of us, they were continuing to mature themselves. They, too, were accomplishing their own new and exciting things. They, too, were opening new chapters.
One of my favorite proverbs is inscribed on the back of Sterling Memorial Library. “Festina lente,” it reads — Latin for “Make haste slowly.” On a day buzzing with happy frenetic energy, let’s remember to pause and appreciate one another. Instead of making Commencement a transactional or a transitional day — trading four years of study for a diploma and a job — let’s slow for a few moments to marvel in one another’s growth. We are all always growing up.
So thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks for letting us grow up alongside you. Thanks for allowing us to feel like stars each time we overcame a new hurdle: for prioritizing our first steps, our finger painting, our little victories over your own achievements. Thank you for allowing us to feel like the special ones while you quietly and simultaneously accomplished your own impossible and incredible feats.
Contact Chris Bakes at email@example.com.