My dad left Glencoe, Illinois in 1960 to attend Antioch, a small liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He was eighteen. Boyish, with hair cropped neatly above his ears. My grandparents accompanied him on his first day and helped him move in, unpacking his belongings from Nixon-stickered suitcases.
Months later, he returned to Glencoe for Christmas vacation with his hair creeping to his shoulders. He wore a Peruvian cape with a gigantic winged collar, which caused him to resemble what he calls “a stoned, South American Dracula.” A neighbor who spotted him walking down the street called him a communist. (My dad remembers him as the most liberal man on the block.)
My grandmother cried. But my grandfather—whose stern countenance belied a love of race cars and a fondness for eccentricity—reacted differently. In him, my dad recalls detecting—faintly, secretly—a quiet glimmer of pride.
Twenty-five years later, I celebrated my thirteenth birthday. I woke up that morning feeling weighted with purpose. You’re not a child anymore, I thought to myself as I lay between sheets printed with happy-faced clouds.
“I’m going to be the best teenager in the world,” I told my parents, hardly able to imagine that I’d ever succumb to the hormonal turbulence I’d heard was in store for me.
And looking back, I made good on that promise—for the most part, anyway. While I may not have been the best teenager on the planet, I certainly must have been among the tamest. I (hardly) touched alcohol, and never laid a finger on a drug. I didn’t date til my senior year. I never uttered a swear word, and never once fought with my brother or my parents (people never believe that last one, but it’s true).
The funniest part about all of this is that my parents—who have always supported me in every decision I’ve made—did nothing to discourage me from doing the things I thought “bad” teenagers did. They told me they understood the temptation to experiment, and that there was nothing I could do that would ever make them love me less. Their only hope, they said, was that I would be safe. Everything in moderation.
Clearly, their tolerance and sensitivity were wasted on me.
But then I got older. And there came a point when trying to do everything well became impossible. Inevitably, there were job rejections. Failed relationships. Situations I wished I’d handled differently.
But I learned (slowly, the hard way) that life is infinitely more interesting—and much more fun—when it’s allowed to be messy, embarrassing, complicated, noisy. And with high school and college behind me, it’s become less about doing things perfectly and more about doing things, period. Doing them, and feeling them, and thinking about them, and learning from them.
I no longer aspire to be perfect. And I think the people who know me best—my parents included—are happy for me. I’m learning to let myself live life with a full range of experiences. This process could maybe be referred to as rebellion. More accurately, though, I think it’s just openness.
The mother of one of my high school classmates published a note to her son in the senior pages of our yearbook which read, “Be free, and enjoy.”
I understand what she meant, and I’m doing that now. I think my grandfather would be proud.