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“You’re in charge.”
Friday night in 1979. I’m 11 years old, sitting on stools with my sister and brother in front of the tiny kitchen TV, flipping the knob between Fantasy Island and One Day at a Time. My parents give us each quick hugs — smelling of Hermés perfume, a pre-game martini and scratchy tweed — as they breeze off to the next-door neighbor’s cocktail party, leaving me with a phone number for any emergencies and this looked-in-the-eye directive: “Now, you’re in charge of your brother and sister, okay?”
I remember feeling elated with my new, important designation, but, also, mildly terrified. I looked at my little sister, who was holding her brand-new guinea pig, Frisky, and sticking her tongue out at me in rebellion.
This was the first time my parents had left us on our own, and naturally they needed a point person. That was me. Nowadays, we might pause — or cringe — at leaving a pre-teen in charge, but this was how things were back in my (voice crackles) generation. I know I don’t need to tell you all this. We Gen-Xers know. We were latchkey kids. We fended for ourselves. We rode our bikes in the dark. We invented our own fun. And yes, we survived.
However, it must be said: Leaving an 11-year-old left to monitor her eight-year-old sister and six-year-old brother did result in some pretty creative management skills.
“LET’S MAKE PANCAKES!”
We fired up the stove, spilled flour and batter everywhere and delighted in the maple-syrupy goodness. And while I reveled in my newfound power, I also knew I would take the heat for anything that went wrong.
As time went on, I was often given this “in charge” designation — part of me was a bit resentful, part of me was a little proud. I liked being the boss! But it also meant a hellish resentment from my younger reports who, rather than listen to me, preferred to throw Dansko clogs out the window or cut open Stretch Armstrong to see what was inside (Answer: red jelly). Being the responsible one often meant I couldn’t be the fun one. And sometimes I rejected the assignment and became the over-the-top irrational one, throwing a Dansko clog or two myself.
As an adult, I learned that life can be glorious on the passenger side, too, but something about it feels innately wrong. In a group of people, I’m that annoying person from the Progressive insurance commercial who feels the need to yell, “Okay people, let’s form a single line.” And when walking down the street with a bunch of friends, I find myself pulling to the front. Sometimes I’ve stopped to wonder, Why do I always do this? Is this something I’ve been conditioned to do? What’s wrong with letting someone else lead? Oh, everything is wrong with that. And I move on, to the front of the group.
Was it something about being the oldest and being told I’m in charge that led to a lifetime of finding myself in that role? As a little kid I would organize my siblings — or boss them, depending on whom you ask — into tasks of my own desire: performing highly improvised plays in our attic or commandeering my sister to do aerial disco moves. As an adult, I continue to feel this gravitational pull. There’s a certain comfort in corralling,but it is more nurture than nature?
At the newspaper where I worked in the ’90s, I battled my heart, which wanted to stay a music critic and explore life as a writer, and the part of my brain that said, no, manage this shit, be the managing editor: You, ma’am, are in charge. I enjoyed becoming the managing editor, having a seat with the publisher, editor-in-chief and news editor and being the only woman in the leadership crew. Plus, when you’re the boss you get to discover talent, hire them, give them just the right task, and lead them to make something cool. And while you probably don’t say out loud, “Hey I made alllll of this happen…”, you know, and maybe your boss knows, and way back when, you probably told your parents, who were very proud of you.
For the last 20 years I’ve lived in New York City, and when I moved here from Philadelphia it was like finding myself, my identity. Weird is wonderful, sidewalks and subways are full of stories (and smells) and everyone here is kinda bossy. I was hired to lead a team of 25 editors at AOL’s Digital City and good lord was I over my head. But my boss pulled me aside one day to reassure me that I was a natural manager. It made me smile and also wince. Was I headed down the wrong path? What about my intention to become a writer?
Tombstone: “Margit, beloved daughter, natural manager.”
I did honestly enjoy the work. I just wondered if I was falling back on what came easily to avoid a greater reward in writing which,for me, is so much harder and scarier.
After several other management positions, I launched two businesses of my own (including this one). True bossdomcan be lonely. But by and large it’s good, it works, it’s comfortable. I guess I was born for it.
Fast-forward to 2022. My siblings, who run their own businesses and families, certainly don’t need me telling them what to do, but my parents just might.
My mom is now 84 and has Parkinson’s; my 89-year-old dad’s knees have almost fully given out, to the point he struggles to walk. Only recently have either of them agreed to use a cane and a walker. Stubborn old goats. They live in a small carriage house in the leafy neighborhood where I grew up in Philadelphia, in a house adjacent to my brother’s place.
A few weekends ago I went to visit. We watched three episodes of The Crown together, I helped them with some computer tasks, took the trash out, assisted them as they walked, folded laundry and made a favorite family breakfast we’ve been eating since childhood: protein pancakes. I haven’t driven in years (New Yorker), so I walked to get them their favorite bread.
Both Mom and Dad are still incredibly sharp-minded, witty and engaged, their multi-degree minds FULL of details and information, and STILL working part-time and volunteering.But occasionally they leave the stove on, or they fall and don’t tell us, or they accidentally order multiples of the same item on Amazon. (Heck, we all do that.) We gave them both Apple Watches earlier this year, which have fall detection, since they don’t want to worry us. (That works as long as they keep their watches charged.) But we need to do more. They need more. They don’t even know they need more but we, their kids, can see it.
My siblings and I have started the tireless and sometimes frustrating work to look for supportive care for my parents. Someone else to drive to appointments, help them with household chores, even personal things like toenail-trimming. (Fun fact I’ve learned since interviewing caregivers: this is not something a regular home aide will do. ) You gather pretty quickly that someone needs to actually manage the caregiver. If they don’t show up. If they don’t do what’s expected. My sister-in-law on my husband’s side visits her dad every single day in assisted living, in part to make everyone aware that someone is watching, someone cares.
I’m not sure how we will manage this going forward; right now it’s an everyone pitch-in kind of vibe. But I feel this pull back to my hometown, to care for my parents, to now be in charge of them.
It’s tough. And I would argue sometimes hardest for the eldest. You feel in your bones this is what you’ve been prepared for your whole life, but you also have to be mindful of caring for yourself and letting others step in as well, finding that happy medium between self-care and obligation.
Relinquishing control is not something easily done in my family. Maybe ALL of us Detweilers are just bossy.
But now, having my parents actually need me has reignited the question about how I am meant to be in charge? There’s no 11-year-old sense of “Yay, pancakes!” It feels odd to parent the parents. Uneasy. And definitely a little scary.
In helping my parents have a comfortable, secure final life stage, I’d like to think in all the confusion and change — and them making peace with being slightly less in charge — that they’ll know they’ll be okay. They’re the ones who first threw me into the deep end, having faith I would rise to the challenge.
Back to that first time my parents left me with my siblings in 1979. As we watched Ricardo Montalbon and Hervé Villechaize point to the sky, my sister went to check on Frisky the guinea pig. Frisky, who we all thought was a boy, as we had been told by the pet store owner, turned out to be not a portly gentleman but a pregnant lady — and had started popping out these squirmy little red beings. My sister screamed. I somehow found the scrap of paper with the number my parents had left, used a rotary phone and called the place where my parents were partying.
“Mom, Dad, Frisky is having babies.”
“That’s not possible,” they responded.
But when they rushed home they arrived to meet the new additions to our family: Munchkin, Peanut and Rocky.
I don’t remember exactly what they said to me, but I remember the feeling that I had done something good. Something responsible.
Perhaps at 11, as an accidental guinea pig doula, I was more ready than I realized. Now in my 50s, faced with the growing realization that I may be in charge in a new way, I’m back where I started, terrified at the choices ahead, but ready to take on the challenge.