The issue of expectations parents or other relatives have for their growing up children, who are on the verge of becoming adults, is not new. The issue is not simple, as often adult’s desire for the youth to obey is dictated by the desire to shape and guide them, to help them reach their full potential. Usually, the intentions of the older people are right, and it is correct that young people should follow the expectations. However, there are circumstances when following this rule is not a right thing to do.
Where I am from it is expected to follow biddings of the elders. There are many reasons for it. We are expected to obey elders out of respect for their life experience. They love us and wish us well. They teach us how to live, and how to do that efficiently.
Soak salt fish overnight before you cook it… You mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions… This is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard… This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much (Kincaid).
Sometime it seems that lectures and corrections never end, just like it is in the short story “Girl”. There hardly any words that the girl speaks. Except for one or two remarks, the novel is constituted of constant instructions on the various topics or explanations on different subject in life. Sometimes those remarks are somewhat degrading: “On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming”. But ultimately, the goal is to shape the girl to be a wonderful woman: “You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread”. If you follow all the instructions, you will be a descent and honorable woman. Often the instructions are very practical and there is nothing to ask about or there is no time to ask questions. The opinions of adults are not questioned. And this is the way it should be. Otherwise, the practical and other things in life would have to be learned anyway, it just might be harder to learn from personal experience and mistakes.
However, there are times in life when it is difficult to know whose advice to follow, and not everyone can be pleased. It is at that time in life the young person needs to make his own decisions. Like in the story “The writer in the family” Jonathan found himself in a very uncomfortable situation. His father died and, without considering their opinion, the Aunt Frances told grandmother that he is still alive, but that he moved far away. Her reasoning for lying was to spare old woman the heartbreak of knowing her sin had died. However, his whole family was immediately put in a strange situation – they had to cut off contact with the old woman, although none of them missed the fact, but they did not like how it came about. In addition, to support the lie Jonathan is asked to write letters as from his father. The first time around Jonathan wrote a letter without giving it much consideration. He just did what was expected of him, even although he did not like the situation he and his family were put in by his Aunt. Young man felt for his Grandma and that is why he compiled the letter, trying to imagine what his father would write if it truly would be from him, especially taking into consideration that his father “never traveled anywhere”. However, when his Aunt phoned Jonathan few days later, she commented that his father “loved to go places”.
Evidently, the father brought many kitchen appliances to the home, which mother never used, it was not appreciated. Those appliances cluttered the home, and the time came to get rid of them; it also was the time to get of any other inessentials that belonged to the father, such as suits. Mother wanted her sons to try them on to see if they can be fitted. Jonathan hesitantly tried one on, and his brother refused doing such a thing. Here, maybe, young men were expected to obey, however: “We refused to try on anything more, and my mother began to cry”. When the second request for the letter came, the mother got upset. She did not find it right to keep hiding the truth from the old woman, trying to spare her feelings. This time it was much more difficult for Jonathan to compose the letter. This time his older brother Harold flatly offered: “You don’t have to do something just because someone wants you to”. This time the story had to be even more untruthful. But when Aunt Frances phoned, she was just elated over his writing and commented he came up with the clever plot that could be continued. However, the young man was not happy to continue the lying game: “I hope I don’t have to do this anymore, Aunt Frances. It’s not very honest”. However, Jonathan’s Aunt expected him to continue, even though he was not comfortable with it. She thought it is Jonathan’s mother’s idea and the way of getting back at her husband’s relatives, who, from her perspective, have never accepted her into the family. Aunt Frances, though, had a low opinion of his mother and considered her an outsider. Therefore, Jonathan unwillingly became the “middle man” in the family rivals. “Each side defended its position with rhetoric, but I, who wanted peace, rationalized the snubs and rebuffs each inflicted on the other, taking no stands, like my father himself.” This is a perfect example of the situation where young man has to choose who to obey and whose expectations will be in vain. The author argues, that it is this indecision who to let down that led the father being unsuccessful in business. “Who was responsible for the fact that he had not lived up to anyone’s expectations?” Although, the father was always willing to be of a help, “it was a matter of pride to him to be able to do things for them…to have connections”.
In a meantime, Jonathan is requested to write a letter again, and this time he does not tell about it to his mother. Here he chooses not to meet his mother’s expectations.
Obviously, the subject of letters was a controversial issue and the Aunts right to expect compliance was questioned. Young man was of age to make judgments for themselves. Jonathan brother “had pointed out something: the letters from Jack weren’t really necessary”. He argued the Aunt Frances is simply using Jonathan, having found someone, who, like his father, will be serving them, without giving consideration for his own feelings “they never thought every favor he got was one he had to pay back”. And this is what was happening to Jonathan as well, to an extent. His Aunt did not understand that writing the letters cost him something. He had to compromise his conscience; to go against what he thought was right. Finally, to escape the situation, Jonathan does something, which Aunt Frances did not expect from him. He wrote a letter, telling Grandma that Jack was dying. Aunt met him to return the letter and also to give her pieces of information on Jonathan’s mother. That was the last letter Jonathan had written. Although he disappointed his Aunt, he felt liberated. It is after this incident that Jonathan gets another insight into his father’s life, which gave him a lot to think about.
When mother returned home that evening, she mentioned father being in the Navy. If that would have a documental confirmed proof, the family could count on small pension. So they looked through the fathers papers for any proof. They found a photograph, where Jack was pictured with his shipmates. Only later Jonathan started to realize that his father had given up the dream of his life, because he had a family and relatives to take care of and who had expected it of him. The realization was shocking to a young man. “I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been never to have understood while he was alive what was my father’s dream for his life had been”. It seems that abandoning the dream and trying to meet everybody’s expectations is what led his father to being unsuccessful in life and, although trying to please all his loved ones, having many of them only using him for convenience, so much so that “He can’t even die when he wants to!”
It is important for a young person to meet reasonable expectations of the older people. There is a lot to learn. However, there are situations in life when it is impossible to please all, therefore, as hard as it may be, personal choices should be made, considering consequences it might lead to. The short stories are almost like parables, helps seeing the idea illustrated and issues highlighted and open for reflection.