The family authority on the Balfour Declaration

September 15, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- ''Willy,'' said my father to my son over dinner the other night, absolutely out of the blue, ''can you fill me in on the modern history of the state of Israel?''

Only other parents will understand some of the things that went through my head as I sat there in silence for the next few minutes, listening to the concise and confident summary that followed this request. As my eldest child traced major related events occurring over the half-century between the Balfour Declaration and the Six-Day War, it was very clear to me that I'm now the parent of an adult.

With this particular adult about to go off for his third year of college, this was not, I suppose, an unexpected transition. There have been implications for years that it was on the way. But it did seem, that evening during the conversation about the Middle East, that an important corner had been turned -- in my life if not in anyone else's.

Dinosaur experts

It wasn't the recitation of facts in Willy's response to his grandfather that caught my attention. Most children start dropping facts that their parents don't know, or have forgotten, at an early age, and ours were no exception. There have been first-graders of my acquaintance who have seemed to know more about dinosaurs than anyone without an advanced degree in paleontology.

But an adult mind, no matter the chronological age of the person it belongs to, is capable of more than the retention and regurgitation of interesting facts. It can organize information, interpret it, and make projections from it. Sometimes it can even put 50 years of complex history into a clear and helpful narrative.

Watching conversation

As I never knew either of my own grandfathers, it was especially satisfying to watch my grown son and my father in conversation the other evening.

Dinner tables with three generations around them used to be commonplace, but are now unusual except perhaps during holidays. It strikes me that this is a great loss.

It's my impression that this is not a widely-held view, although it gets a lot of lip service. Most college-age people, it's said, can't wait to get away from their parents, and most parents can't wait to have the kids gone so that they can remodel the house or -- in a strange new trend -- buy a bigger one.

But my parents were my favorite people until I had my own family. I still prefer family gatherings to most other kinds. And even now I really can't see any better use for the kids' rooms in our house than having kids in them.

I've heard it said that you don't know whether you've done the right things in raising your children until they have children of their own, at which point it's too late to do anything about it. So once that happens, you can stop worrying about the children and begin to concentrate on your own life -- going on cruises, taking up golf, that sort of thing.

And I suppose on a strictly biological level there's something to be said for that point of view. If we've reproduced ourselves, we've then helped our species pass on the baton, and have done that which nature intended us to do. (There's not unanimous support for that position, I know. Some people think that human reproduction is close to criminal. But that's an issue for another day.)

Still, as I sat there the other evening listening to the conversation about the Balfour Declaration and related events, it seemed to me that for most of us who are parents, our sense of responsibility for those coming after us never really ends. As long as we're still on the scene, we never get off the hook.

We not only want our children to grow up and become responsible adults, we want them -- then and not before -- to have children of their own. (I know plenty of parents of determinedly single grown children who say they don't care if the kids reproduce. But I find that incomprehensible.)

Then we want to make sure that those children grow up to become responsible adults, and that they have children, who in turn we hope will . . . Anyway, it never ends.

A mother's wish

Some of that intense sense of responsibility we have for the lives of our offspring can be comical, because it's based in part on ego. The humorist Sam Levenson, with that in mind, used to quote his mother as saying she wished she were dead so she could find out how her children were getting along without her.

Anyway, in the shorter run, it's going to be fairly quiet around our house for a while, what with the oldest member of the younger generation out of town. Now, if we want to know about the Balfour Declaration, or the politics of the current Italian government, or chairman of a certain Senate subcommittee, we'll have to look it up ourselves. I'm not looking forward to that.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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