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Alice Trillin

“There was no doubt about [my wife’s] priorities. While our girls were growing up, she hated being separated from them; after a two-week trip to Asia, when they were about ten and thirteen, she decided that one week was her limit. Concerning children’s constitutional right to sit down to dinner with their parents every night, Alice tended toward strict constructionism. When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child — a subject of considerable discussion among some parents we knew — we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.

After both girls were out of college, there was a period when Abigail was living in San Francisco while Sarah was in Los Angeles. Alice said that if they remained where they were we would simply have to live in California for part of the year. ‘If we want to be convenient to both of them,’ I’d say, ‘we could find a nice little place in between — Bakersfield, or maybe Fresno.’ Alice would shoot me the look I associated with a catch phrase from a radio sitcom I used to listen to as a boy ‘’Tain’t funny, McGee.’ By then, though, her desire to be near them was no longer based partly on her need to influence what kind of people they would become. In her New Yorker article about the recurrence scare in 1990, at a time when Sarah was a sophomore at Yale and Abigail was in Teach for America in Los Angeles, Alice wrote:

In the days after that bone scan, I couldn’t find a hopeful way out… I did manage to imagine uplifting conversations I might have with my daughters about how it was O.K. for me to die this time, as it absolutely had not been when they were four and seven, and I had foreseen their adoring but occasionally absent-minded father getting them the wrong kind of sneakers or losing track of their dental appointments after I was gone. Now I was sure that I had told them everything of importance I knew; they had understood it all and figured out a lot on their own, and were as close to perfect as they could possibly be. Then it occurred to me that neither of them was married yet, and I would hate to miss the weddings and the grandchildren. I speculated about which of my friends I would assign to help them pick out their wedding dresses. Then I cried and decided that I really wanted to stay around.

My problem in 1976 would have been much more serious than sneakers and dental appointments, I realized, when I finally allowed myself to dwell on what would have happened if Alice hadn’t survived. The real problem would have been that I couldn’t imagine trusting anyone else to be involved in raising our girls. I not only thought they needed to know everything of importance that Alice knew; I also thought, I suppose, that she was the only person who knew it. When I’m asked how both of our daughters came to be involved in the sort of work they do — Abigail is a legal-services attorney for children, Sarah is a clinical social worker — I, naturally, deny having anything to do with it. ‘I want to assure you that I tried to instill in them the value of selfishness and even rapaciousness,’ I say. ‘When Abigail came down to breakfast during her years in high school, I would tell her the temperature and the starting salary for an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore.’ But they had Alice there as a model. Because she survived, they were exposed every day to someone who (as a friend wrote after Alice died) managed to ‘navigate the tricky waters between living a life you could be proud of and still delighting in the many things there are to take pleasure in.’ Sneakers and dental appointments are the kind of things you can figure out, or find someone to figure out. Exemplars are hard to come by.”

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Excerpted from chapter seven of Calvin Trillin’s 2006 book About Alice.

In a recent interview with Olivia Gentile, Trillin offered a few simple words that illuminate the above point, only this time from the perspective of grandfatherhood:

Do you feel [your daughters are] raising their kids with pretty much your values and techniques?

Yeah. Alice used to say that we were easy about the small things and strict about the large things. By large things, she basically meant values…

I’ve always believed that parenting essentially boils down to one thing: Your kids are either the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.

So, the question of which childrearing book you read or something like that is really not relevant. It doesn’t make any difference because, in the first place, you’re not going to act against your own nature anyway, and the kids see you in so many different situations that you can’t put in some kind of artificial system.

Trillin dedicated About Alice to those grandchildren. Picture above: Trillin and Alice.

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