James Wood, the eminent book reviewer of The New Yorker, has in the current issue (subscribers only) a memoir about how we grow to resemble our parents: “Becoming Them.” The reflections are elegant, bemused, poignant, and by the end, grieving.
Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, you are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did. And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion. Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons. Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization. I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s and can be mistaken for it. But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.
But the reflection moves beyond bemusement to poignancy:
I could hardly imagine my parents’ life without thinking of him sitting in an armchair, while Haydn or Beethoven or Schubert played. But, of course, this idea of him is an old memory of mine, and thus a picture of a younger man’s habits — he is the middle-aged father of my childhood, not the rather different old man whom I don’t see often enough because I live three thousand miles away, a man who doesn’t care too much whether he listens to music or not. So even as I become him, he becomes someone else.
And, by the end, the music becomes G-minor mourning:
“How shall I mourn them?” How indeed? For it sounds like the title of a beautiful song, a German lament, something my father might have listened to on a Sunday afternoon, when he still did.