It Takes a Village–Or a Friend’s Parents

They’re Not Mom and Dad. In Some Ways, They’re Better.

My oldest friend emailed this past week with a blow to the heart: Joann McArthur had died, of cancer, on her 70th birthday.

It is hard to describe why this news hit so hard. Joann was not exactly my friend, though few people in life have been friendlier. She was not a relative, though sometimes she felt like one. She held a role that, in some ways, was more important than those.

She was my friend’s mother.

There’s no doubt that parents–at least for people like me who are lucky enough to have terrific ones–are the biggest and most positive influences in life. And there’s truth in the cliché that “it takes a village” to raise a child. But in the space between your village and your home, the parents of close friends can be the most valuable of guides and intermediaries.

The power of the relationship between kids and their friends’ parents relies on both proximity and distance. You see a lot of your friends’ parents, particularly if you hang out at their house. But neither side of the relationship chooses the other. You don’t pick your friends’ parents, and your friend’s parents don’t pick you. (True, some parents try to choose their children’s friends, but it usually backfires.)

Joann and Cameron McArthur

Ask anyone who has attempted to coach their own child in a sport; it’s more difficult than coaching someone else’s kids, because your own kids don’t listen to you in the same way that they listen to a trusted outside adult. Your friends’ parents don’t have to live with you, so they don’t have the same obligation to negotiate with you, be responsible for you, or spare your feelings. They are freer to be honest and open. Often, it’s through our friends’ parents that we first learn different ways of looking at the world.

Growing up in Pasadena in the 1980s, I had a wealth of friends’ parents from whom to learn. The Lois, just down the street, taught me about the joys of Vietnamese culture and cuisine–and about the value and difficulties of three-generations-in-one-house living. The Vicks said wonderful things about the law, philosophy, and history, and demonstrated how to care for a disabled child. The Thorells, parents of another classmate and baseball teammate, taught me how Trojan football explains the universe as we know it. And then there are singular acts of friends’ parents’ greatness–such as when Mr. Borovicka took me along to Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, which Kirk Gibson won with the greatest home run in the history of Los Angeles.

But even in this constellation of friends’ parents, Joann McArthur and her husband Cameron shone. Their marriage was like that of my parents in central ways–loving, engaged, and full of laughter–but almost nothing else about their house was familiar. My folks are journalists, as are my wife and I, and one thing about our sub-species of humanity is that we tend to comment on the action as we go about living. This can be healthy, but it can also create distance between yourself and life.

In the McArthurs’ house, there was little such distance. There was more hugging, more unbridled joy, and maybe a bit more yelling. My friend and his siblings had curfews and were sometimes grounded, forms of discipline with which I was unfamiliar.

The McArthurs were passionate, and cool. They were the suburban Southern California answer to Q in the Bond films: they always had some gadget or method for solving problems. Between the two of them, they could fix almost anything. They could pack anything into any container. And they could talk to anybody.

Joann and Cameron with their grandson, Maddon

Cameron worked as a property manager, putting out fires and opening doors for property owners and bank branch managers all over the Southland. Joann was a bookkeeper. Those jobs gave them behind-the-scenes glimpses of wealthy people that taught them–and those of us lucky enough to hear Cameron’s stories–that big shots have the same clay feet as the rest of us.

The McArthurs supplemented their income by buying fixer-up houses, moving into them with their three children as they fixed them up, then selling them once the fixing was done. As a result, they moved about once a year. Their ability to pull this off–while maintaining their equanimity and a happy home life–seemed to me then, and now, to be an act of magic bordering on witchcraft. Their secret, I learned through observation, was to have fun and to laugh at the difficulties of constant movement and home repair.

In this, and so much else, they were ahead of their time–learning to cope with rapid changes before the 21st century turned us all into tumbleweeds. But if you had asked them, they would have told you they were traditionalists. The McArthurs insisted that their kids work in their teens, often in jobs involving manual labor–a now unfashionable practice. It gave my friend an enviable discipline and ability to deal calmly with hard situations.

I should add that the McArthurs were also Christian. Very Christian. Joann’s faith was so profound that I, as an agnostic, lack the words to describe it. She was an evangelical, and she attempted to share her faith with the world (her license plate was TKU JSUS) and with me. It never took, but I was flattered by the effort–and I learned what God, and the example of Jesus, could mean to someone.

People like Joann–religious and conservative–are often caricatured in my profession, the media, as closed-minded and cut off from the world, fighting culture and reality. The McArthurs were the opposite of that. They went everywhere and met people from every corner of Los Angeles. When they had friends over for parties, they gathered together some of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever encountered.

The McArthurs taught me that the world tends to confuse strongly held values with intolerance. When I would relate some vaguely off-color story from the schoolyard or the playing fields, Joann would listen carefully, laugh at the right places, and say something like, “I can’t approve, but I’m really happy you shared that with me.” The McArthurs also demonstrated you could be old-school and new-school at the same time. They were unusually frank about sensitive subjects. The most sophisticated advice I ever received about sex, its wonders and its consequences (the short version: that good, frequent sex was essential to love and marriage, but that sexual intimacy when shared thoughtlessly could be destructive to body and soul) was delivered by Cameron and Joann at their kitchen table. (My own father, perfect in nearly every other way, liked to avoid this topic by suggesting, with abundant good humor, that I “go learn it in the street.”)

The McArthurs’ generosity knew few bounds. I took advantage of free meals and extra beds at their house well into adulthood. They gave me way more than I gave back. Joann always kept in touch with notes and emails, even when I didn’t respond in kind. Even after Cameron died four years ago, Joann remained joyful and full of love. This spring, she got remarried. At the same time, she got her cancer diagnosis. This was rotten luck, but her faith never wavered.

A few years back, when my wife and I ran into our own bad luck as we tried to have a child, Joann offered the best, fiercest advice. “Don’t give up,” she said. “Pray hard.” When I reminded her I was uncertain of a higher power, she told me to pray anyway, and she assured me that she would pray extra hard on my behalf just to be sure.

Those prayers were answered with the arrival of my son Ben. I can’t think of the gift of his birth without thinking of her. And I pray now that Ben and his younger brother Tom will be as lucky in their friends’ parents as I was in mine.

Joe Mathews is Zócalo’s California editor.

*Photo courtesy of JefferyTurner.


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