Spending quality time with my parents
August 23, 2014 3:41 PM   Subscribe

My parents, while still active (in their 50s), are getting older and some days I feel acutely aware that time is finite. How can I best spend time with my parents and show them that I care about them and that I am grateful for all they have done for me? This can include gifts they might appreciate, but I'm mostly asking about things I can do to maximize the quality of the time and the relationship I have with my parents.

I understand that taking care of myself and my siblings, and and trying my best at what I do is a way to show that all my parents' hard work paid off, but is there anything else that you wish you did or that you do now that you think makes your relationship with your parents more fruitful?

I'm far from home (basically studying all the time in med school) and don't get to see my parents all that often, but I do call home about 3-5 times a week just to talk about mundane things or to ask about how best to cook something. I don't have an income, so I don't have the means to pay for anything that expensive. I know once I do have an income, I'd love to be able to plan a vacation for them to somewhere that they've never had the opportunity to visit, but this is too far away for me to think about.

Some things I have thought about are cooking meals for my parents when I am back home (although the problem with that is that my mother can be quite territorial of her kitchen), or working on a painting and giving it to my parents (which I already do from time to time). Is there anything else I could do?

Also: I've never understood the "my mom is my best friend" sort of dynamic. My family doesn't say "I love you" and that sort of thing... so saying "I love you" more often or letting them know about overly personal details of my life isn't going to work here. That said, some of my best memories of my parents were when I went on a trip with my dad and we were just able to talk, or when I drove halfway across the country with my mom.

Finally, my father grew up without his father, and my mother grew up without both of her parents. They are both immigrants. ... so I don't know what they're really expecting, if anything, out of parent-adult child relationship because I've never seen them model it for me with their own parents. I do know that sacrifice is a running theme in my family, but beyond that, I don't know much.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Human Relations (21 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like a great kid. I would just spend some time with them and thank them for all they've done for you. Being a parent myself, I know that I'd love to hear that. And, if you still feel the urge to do something for them, ask them what they'd like to do with you. I'm sure they have lots of ideas. Finally, I too lost my father, so I know a bit of what that feels like. If you feel it's appropriate, asking your parents for advice and guidance (even if you don't always take it) will continue to make them feel useful in your life.

Feel free to ignore any and all of the above, as, again, you sound like a great kid. Have FUN with your parents.
posted by learnsome at 3:51 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have children, and let them take care of the kids sometimes
posted by sninctown at 3:55 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do either of your parents have craft-related skills they could teach you so you can carry on family and cultural art? You're already doing some of that with cooking, and that's great. Maybe you could use some of your phone calls to write down family recipes? I've got a family cook book (just a binder full of print-outs in page protectors) and it'll be a treasured possession I'm sure. But beyond cooking, for example, I've learned to crochet and do crewel embroidery from my mother and grandmother, garden from my father, make jam from my other grandmother, sew from my mother, make dollhouses from my grandfather, appreciate opera from my grandparents, and so-on. I'm sure there are things your parents have to teach you that they'd love to share as part of a family legacy. Particularly since you say they're immigrants with few parents themselves, they likely have knowledge they'd like to make into family traditions.
posted by Mizu at 3:57 PM on August 23, 2014

I'm far from home (basically studying all the time in med school) and don't get to see my parents all that often, but I do call home about 3-5 times a week just to talk about mundane things or to ask about how best to cook something. I don't have an income, so I don't have the means to pay for anything that expensive.

So. I'm 45 and have a 6 year old. My dad is 70+ and has Parkinson's. My mom is going to be seventy next year.

I'm halfway between - I can see both sides - my daughter struggling to live her life in twenty years and wanting to hold on to me and her dad, knowing time is short, wanting to be free and live her life. I know my time is short with my parents. I know my time is short.

So I'd say, don't denigrate the mundane. Don't think it's nothing, to call and ask how to make lasagna. It's not nothing, it's highly fundamental. Fuck cruises, fuck anything spectacular, fuck maybe someday. It's the day to day that gives meaning to life. It's the day to day that binds me to Mr. Llama, and to Little Llama. It's going to plant nurseries with my mom when I visit, and wondering whether it's better to buy the catmint or the Russian sage to set off the black eyed susans. It's discussing whether, in the end, it's a better use of your time to make or buy pasta sauce.

is there anything else that you wish you did or that you do now that you think makes your relationship with your parents more fruitful?

Incidental, careless time. It's what I want my daughter to give me. It's what I want to give my parents.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:58 PM on August 23, 2014 [47 favorites]

Ask them about themselves, about their parents, how they grew up, the rest of their family. How did they meet? How did they celebrate holidays? They have your family history and family stories - make notes. It's a good way to show interest, and you may be amazed at the stories they have to tell. Get in the habit of calling regularly, which gives you the chance to be involved in their lives.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Time. Those phone calls home are golden.
Also, show an interest in your genealogy-their history, their stories. Sit around the table after dinner talking about when they were younger.

Good kid, that gemütlichkeit.
posted by SLC Mom at 4:13 PM on August 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've just started doing Storyworth with my parents, and while I've always been the kid in the family interested in family history, they seem particularly tickled at this project and it's already sparked some deeper conversations with both my parents. My genuine interest in them and curiosity about the totality of their selves seems pretty gratifying to them.
posted by megancita at 4:32 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to use the exact same word A Terrible Lama used – spectacular. It doesn’t need to be that. Just being fully present with them whenever you interact will be a gift to both of you.

A few ideas:

1. Games. Did you have any games you played as a family when you were a child? See if they are up to playing them. I have a complicated relationship with my parents, but the few times we ended up re-playing our childhood games were great fun and sparked a lot of reminiscence-bonding. I think active bonding and re-bonding is one of the great gifts a child can give to a parent (and vice-versa). Bonus-points: you sometimes get to hear cool/ funny stories about yourself as a child that you didn’t remember.

2. Massages. I love getting massages, and I pestered both my mum (who hates them) and my dad (who is baffled by them) to allow me to give them a massage when they complain of relevant aches and pains. They ended up loving them and I love giving them. It’s also wonderful to see them walk more sprightly and upright and be more relaxed and energized after getting one. My mum particularly likes foot massages (with long strokes up to the knee) and back massages. My dad loooves the following: whilst he is lying on his back, I move in from the head (no obstacle between me and his head) and insert my hands under him, along his spine, pretty much to my elbows (so his head more or less rests in the crook of my elbows). I lift him up slightly with my underarms and hands, and drag my hands towards myself, along his spine, using them to lift the respective part of his back (essentially, I use my hands to gradually curve him upwards, stretching his spine). When my hands get to his head, I very gently give a shake to his head. Repeat. It’s extremely nice to see him walk around with a blessed-out expression on his face (even though it is extremely hard work – he weighs twice as much as me!). It’s also great if your family is not very touchy-feely normally: human contact is incredibly gratifying and beneficial, and we rarely do it. Massages are a great way of getting that physical contact without feeling awkward-embarrassed about it. You are also very well-placed for this, as a medical student – I am sometimes a bit afraid that, not knowing how to handle their problems, I might do them damage i

3. Let them know about your successes, and ask them for advice where you feel their input would be helpful.

4. Ask them about their thoughts on current things (not necessarily political, more like technology, social mores etc). Where I come from, people who are not of the “current” generation frequently are treated as though their brains cannot process what is currently going on, hence they are used to being overlooked. Why not initiate philosophical discussions about current trends? Where might we end up? What are the pitfalls of the internet/ its great advantages? Where do they see the world in a few decades? What are the biggest changes between now and when they grew up?

On preview, also what theora and SLC Mom say. I did this with my grandmother, and she loved it; however, I left it a bit too long, and when our discussions started she was already quite forgetful and confused on details, so I now feel like I lost a lot of important stories when she died. Even so, we had some amazing story-telling sessions (and she had some amazing stories).
posted by miorita at 4:38 PM on August 23, 2014

Response by poster: Ah. Um. I wouldn't have added this otherwise, but since a lot of history/genealogy suggestions are popping up:

I forgot to mention that both of my parents have had traumatic pasts (which is part of the reason they decided to immigrate) that they do not seem to like talking about. I know they had normal childhoods in the sense that ... they played with pets and went on hikes, but... they'll kind of randomly drop horrifying-sounding snippets of their lives to me, too. I also get the impression that they don't want to or aren't ready to share more. Yes, I would love to know more about how they grew up-- I would love to KNOW MY PARENTS better! But I don't know of any way to bring it up without invoking memories/stories of how friends and family members starved to death on the streets or were beaten to death or orphaned and subsequently sold into marriage or whatnot.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 4:40 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

... they'll kind of randomly drop horrifying-sounding snippets of their lives to me, too. I also get the impression that they don't want to or aren't ready to share more.

But they partly want to, or they wouldn't be dropping snippets. In the end, everyone wants to be *known*. Nobody wants to be pushed into it, though.

Just make yourself available. If you ever want to ask something pressing, ask this: if you had grandchildren, is there anything you want them to know about stuff you went through in the world before the world they live in?

My parents lived in a world, within their lived memory, where black people had to drink from different drinking fountains than them -- that shit is total batshit to me. There was coal in the cellars. The coal man dumped coal into the basement. Milk came to the front door. My grandmother wore a "house coat" all day. A "house coat" was a thing. When my mother was improper in school she had to hold out her hands for the nun to bring a ruler down on her knuckles. This probably made a certain amount of sense when they beat my brother and I with yardsticks.

Point being--I know most of this, except for the yardsticks, accidentally, just by being around.

I'm not around that often: I dislike being around my parents intensely. I am not happy when I am in the room with them. But that said, if your question is 'how can I be closer to my parents at this point in our lives?', my point is the same.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:55 PM on August 23, 2014

Ask about happy things. Ask about their favorite memory of their own parents, or the best time they ever had with their siblings, what their most fun holiday traditions were. If they still find a way to steer that towards a sad or painful memory, then you will know it is one that they wanted to share with you and not one they were trying to withhold.

If there are photo collections, helping your parents to get the photo collections organized and in good condition for display, and labeled properly with the names/dates/places pictured, is a very interesting way to pass the time and is often appreciated as one of those things that they personally probably have always wanted to get around to but not done… another thing is creating digital archives of all your old family photos (there are companies who will do this for a reasonable price if you organize and mail them the photos), or creating DVD compilations of your family VHS home videos if you have them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:20 PM on August 23, 2014

You don't need to buy them stuff. If you're happy that will make them very happy. But you should try to ask them about their pasts because once they're gone, if you haven't done that, you won't know anything about it. Go through old photographs with them, ask them what was happening. Write it down or record it somehow and let them be involved with that - tell them how great those records will be for their future grandchildren.

(on preview, what treehorn+bunny said)

And enjoy the ordinary things. They turn out to be so precious with hindsight.
posted by glasseyes at 5:52 PM on August 23, 2014

Just enjoy the everyday. I just got off the phone with my mom; she prattled on for 10 about what she made for dinner (fwiw it did sound tasty). Whenever I see them in person we split a bottle of wine and just hang out and shoot the shit and it's basically the best thing ever, even though it's as mundane as can be. When they die I know I'll be wishing I could hear about just one more recipe, or share just one more bottle of wine, since that's the stuff that makes us a family beyond simply blood.
posted by gatorae at 6:46 PM on August 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm 50 and my two eldest are 22 and 20 and live four hours away in opposite directions. I still have a 16 year old at home (and I suddenly feel very old reading your question).

Just checking in and chatting is really all I'd ever ask from my kids.

But I will add that me and my kids play a cell phone game we invented called, "My View Right Now," where one of the four of us texts a picture to the rest showing what we're doing, and everyone else has to immediately take a picture of whatever we had been looking at and text it the group.

It's a nice way to feel connected.
posted by kinetic at 7:02 PM on August 23, 2014 [12 favorites]

Old person here (60's). My son lives on a different continent. If we are lucky we see each other for a few days once a year.
I just wish we communicated more. Thats all. Spontaneous thoughts, sharing. Whatever. Whats up. FB. all make a brief communication so much easier now.
I think when people are younger they tend not to realize how much the small things mean. So yes ring or txt or something about that recipe.
posted by adamvasco at 7:12 PM on August 23, 2014

I'm far from home (basically studying all the time in med school) and don't get to see my parents all that often, but I do call home about 3-5 times a week just to talk about mundane things or to ask about how best to cook something.

Dude. You are doing the very best possible thing you could be doing. There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING that makes my mother happier than when I call to chat.
posted by nanook at 7:21 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I do call home about 3-5 times a week just to talk about mundane things or to ask about how best to cook something.

Another 50-something parent here. And I agree, this is the best possible thing you could be doing. Yay, you!
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:18 PM on August 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Staying in touch is wonderful. Asking about your parents' early lives can be a minefield; do take care. The best thing you can give them (wish I'd given it to my parents, wish my kids would give it to me): write them letters, each letter describing something you remember with pleasure. Those trips with your parents can result in more than one letter. Nothing abstract or full of "you were a wonderful parent". Specific memories, scenes, tastes, feelings you had then or that come to you now when you think about it. My dad was pretty locked down, but just before he died we were just talking about nothing much, and I said "Remember on that mountain when you taught me how to drink from my cupped hands?" He didn't remember, but it was clear that he was SO pleased that I remembered it. In other words, show how the way they raised you has resulted in treasured memories, lessons learned, skills used.

And don't stress too much about this. If they're in their 50's you've, god willing, got another 30 years or so with them.
posted by kestralwing at 10:34 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they're in their 50's you've, god willing, got another 30 years or so with them.

THIS. If my kids started contacting me with, "I'm going to miss you when you're gone," undertones I'd be horrified. Not that's what you're doing, but I think your question clearly hit a nerve for me.
posted by kinetic at 5:01 AM on August 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your mom is territorial about the kitchen, making meals for her probably won't make her that happy. How about asking her to teach you some favorite recipes? (With writing them down and practice and making sure you're doing them right.) It's a nice way to spend time together (and nice in phone conversations later when you're able to say you've making something she taught you how to make).
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:29 AM on August 24, 2014

Ask their advice or seek their expertise - parents often love it when you do this as an adult and are otherwise independent, maybe because they like feeling that you still need them. It sounds like you're already doing this by asking how best to cook things - I bet your parents really appreciate this, as well as your mundane chats, which as others have pointed out mean far more to your parents than you think.

Also - post them stuff. Even if they're really good with technology they will still love the occasional piece of snail mail. Nothing makes my parents happier than when I post them photobooks of their baby granddaughter, but before she existed I used to send them random cards that I thought were particularly apt or magazine cuttings or things like that. Doesn't have to be soppy or intense or anything but just shows you're thinking about them.

Finally, my parents love a bit of reminiscing - talking and laughing about when my brother and I were younger (we had a spectacularly happy childhood). And if your family has any special rituals or traditions around Christmas or whatever, do whatever you can to honour them - show that you appreciate the things that make your family unique. (There's a company in the UK that makes spoof newspaper articles that you can fill with little in-jokes - this wouldn't work for everyone, but my parents love the ones I've done for them.)
posted by raspberry-ripple at 6:26 AM on August 26, 2014

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