woman in a booth
Photo: Gregg Segal
Our parents may pass on their worst traits (bad knees, stubborn streaks, premature gray), but Amy Bloom is determined to make the most of the good stuff.
My orthopedic surgeon took a few Pringle-like bone shards out of my knee this summer. I made a good recovery, and at our knee-review appointment I asked him if I could go back to playing tennis. "Well," he said, "that depends on whether you have your mother's knees or your father's knees." My father played doubles until he was 80; my mother suffered so from arthritis and stenosis that she spent her last years shuffling with a walker. I peered at my legs. The general shape was my mother's, but I didn't know to whom my knee joints really belonged. "You'll find out," the doc said cheerfully.

This is what it comes to, in middle age. What do you have that you're stuck with and what do you have that may prove useful and how much room to grow and change and mitigate will you give yourself? When I was around 10, I had an ongoing fantasy of my grown-up life. I lived in a white farmhouse on a hill. Every room was filled with books, and my beautiful English sheepdog, Sydney, lay on the living room window seat. There was no drooling and no shedding. There was also no visible or audible husband, although I had a couple of cute, nearly silent babies. The house was immaculate, and no one did any housework. In real life, my parents also had a lot of books, and the resemblance ended there.

Forty years later, I have a nice house—not as pretty as the one I imagined because I had not, at 10, figured on mortgages, recessions, and the cost of college tuitions—and no dog, and no wish for a dog. The children are still cute, even beautiful, and grown and rarely silent, and my husband is visible and talkative and not at all what I expected. So, what now? Just as I once saw a life that was as close to Not-My-Parents as possible, I see a future in which my parents' habits and strengths and weaknesses poke up determinedly like weeds through the sidewalk of the next ten years.

I hope I wind up with my father's cheerful, if impenetrable, view of himself. My father thought, until the day he died, that the way he was, was just fine. Unable to read the newspaper's small print and memory failing? My father declared that as many people got older, they became less interested in world affairs, and he was one of those people. He found it harder to walk around and harder to hear, so he improved his relationship with Bev, his aide at the assisted living facility, and decided he was tired of the dining room hubbub. He said—and he knew—that he had been a lucky and successful man who made his life as he wished it to be and refused to feel diminished by the losses of old age. I'd like that staunch satisfaction, for me.

"Everything I saw in my parents—the good and the bad—has given me something"
I would not like his inability to sustain relationships—for the relationship gene, I turn to my mother. My mother had friends from the third grade. When she was maybe 70, we were walking up Madison Avenue and a man about her age hailed us from across the street. "Dellie Cohen! James Madison High!" She didn't really remember him, but he remembered her. They caught up. "Everyone loved your mother," he said. "They still do." ("Ma," I said later, "you were the rock star of James Madison High!" She smiled.) My mother had weekly conversations with at least six friends. She went on vacations and all-girl getaways about twice a year. She wrote long, fond letters to her grandchildren, bought things that I didn't need and foisted them on me regularly, and kept up with everyone who mattered to her—in a meaningful way—for 80 years. I would like that for me, too.

Neither of my parents complained about their physical health or other problems, and I am hoping to copy that as well. But there are other ancestral traits I have to watch out for, and I can sometimes feel their ivy twining around me. All my aunts, and my mother, began dyeing their hair as soon as it had more than a sprinkle of gray, and I do, too. But I check in with my daughters, regularly, to make sure that I have not followed in the suddenly-ash-blonde delusion that my mother was so fond of. Most important, my parents were not, for much of their marriage, happy with each other. Even when I was 10, and even with their dance trophies, I could see that. Their troubles led me to a too-early marriage and a painful divorce, but they have also led me to a very happy marriage—and a couples therapist on retainer.

The past is one of our clearest indicators of the future. Everything I saw in my parents—the good and the bad—has given me something. I am cursed with my mother's arthritis but blessed with my father's stamina; his toughness, her kindness. So, ten years from now: no tennis and no whining. Still working, still loving my friends and family. Still dancing (thanks, Daddy, for teaching me the cha-cha).

Amy Bloom's most recent book is Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Random House), a collection of short stories.

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