I missed the memo about guilt, gratitude, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
In case you missed it, too, it’s an Oscar-winning movie from 1967, starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. It’s the story of what happens when a young white woman brings home her black fiancé, played by Poitier, to meet her parents, played Hepburn and Tracy.
Man, where to start. I was born a few years after this movie came out, so it’s not a wonder that I didn’t see it until I was in college. And from the opening scene I was agog at how amazing it was. There’s an extraordinary tenderness between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that undoubtedly mirrored their real-life love. But intermingled with that sweetness were little moments of exasperation, impatience, anger, and very real and serious disagreement. In my own life, I hadn’t seen many married couples disagree without being disagreeable, so the way these characters connected gave me hope that marriage really could be a transcendent, safe place where your spouse would love you and you would love your spouse, no matter what.
Beyond the glorious love of Hepburn and Tracy, there was the extraordinary dignity and shimmering intensity that was Sidney Poitier in 1967. I was nearly weeping with admiration for him as I watched the movie, and this scene just about did me in:
Because, you see, my parents were both 19 years old when I was born, and I was unplanned, but by no means unloved. And despite some fairly humble beginnings, I was upwardly mobile from my earliest memory and consequently I put a lot of demands on my parents to give me the biggest boost they could to help me build a better life for myself. I felt they owed it to me, and my sense of entitlement was the catalyst for some pretty bitter fights. I was made to feel pretty guilty about my strivings, and I struggled with myself a lot, thinking that I was somehow terribly ungrateful or insufferably demanding for wanting…more.
When I saw Sidney Poitier let his father have it, there was a nearly audible click in my brain when the following point was hammered home:
Kids don’t owe their parents anything; parents owe their kids everything.
My parents didn’t always provide for me in the emotional and material ways that I wished they would have—whether they couldn’t or wouldn’t is something I no longer quibble about. It was liberating just to know that maybe I wasn’t a bad kid for wanting to get my teeth fixed, or wanting a college education, or even for wanting a pair of designer jeans. My parents weren’t bad people and they did what they could, but I could always feel the struggle. It was good for me to appreciate that my parents worked hard to provide for me, but sometimes their sacrifices were made into a spectacle of sighs and eye rolling, and this made me feel like a monster.
Now that I am a parent, I am thinking about what it is that I owe my sons. I’m not totally broke, but I’ll likely never be rich, so there will always be limits to what kind of toys, clothes, schools, etc. I can afford. So it can’t just be about money. I think what I owe my sons is a bit of cheerfulness. I owe them the constant and unshakable knowledge that whatever I’m investing in him, it’s always worth it. I owe them the reassurance that no matter the burdens I bear on their behalves, I delight in them, and that I revel in the good fortune I have in being their mom. And just in case I ever misplace this memo, when they’re a bit older, I owe them a ticket to a screening of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Memo received.