I must have been 16 or 17 before I wondered about my parents. I mean wondered about them as separate people with their own pasts and psyches. I had heard stories of their childhoods before that, of course. But it took a greater leap of imagination than I could manage to "see" them as they had been at 10, to truly believe that they had once been my own awkward age of 13 or 14.
Only toward the end of the lengthy transition from child to adult did I begin to know them in their own context, in terms of their own histories, as people who had lives before and beyond my own. Now I am the parent of a teen-ager and I find it equally awkward to transmit whole the younger image of myself.
I thought about this when I spent a muggy night last week going "Back to the Future." For once a movie was as advertised, a film for the whole family. Or maybe a fantasy for whole families.
This time science fiction was the tool of psychology. The story touched lightly, whimsically, on some of the dramatic chords of family life. The son in this movie, Marty, drives a car back into the past. He finds himself a peer of his parents. He faces them as they really were, not as they remembered or pretended.
The plot is out of Psych I or Greek mythology. What more primal fantasy for a boy than to discover that his father was a kick-sand-in-his-face wimp and that his mother, young, beautiful and sexy, prefers him.
But Marty is in a position more awkward than that of Oedipus. Having interrupted the flow of history by his time-machine visit, he must be the matchmaker for his parents to ensure his own birth.
The rest is a midsummer night's fun, wacky and delightful. But I was most touched by the final scene. Marty returns to his own 1985 home to discover a family transformed by his tinkering with their past. His parents' sterile marriage is now a loving one; their thwarted ambitions and emotions fulfilled. And maybe this is the greatest fantasy of all.
For every teen-ager who would use one wish to satisfy his curiosity, to see his mother and father as they were in an old rerun, there must be two who would use that wish to fix things.
The fantasy that somehow you could straighten out your family if you could only go back and find the key, that you could make it all work out right this time, belongs to every child of an unhappy parent.
To a certain degree, the fantasy is a power trip not unlike the one that fueled this movie son back to 1955. Today children are routinely portrayed as smarter and more worldly than their elders. In the 1955 media world, television was black and white, and father knew best. In 1985, the colors are more vibrant and the roles are reversed.
I can't name a film or a television family -- with the exception of Bill Cosby's -- where the parents take their rightful place. The burden of that premature power must be as exhausting in real life as it is in the cinema.
But it's striking that this movie son uses his power to rewrite the script of his parents' lives, and give them all a happy ending. It symbolizes the moment in a child's life when he realizes his own vested interest in the happiness of these people who are his parents.
I have seen that understanding, as most of us have, among legions of children who have been through divorce and wish for repair. I have seen it, too, among children whose parents, like Marty's, have stayed miserably locked together. Even as adults, many carry the cost of parental self-sacrifice and the burden of their elders' unhappiness.
We know this, or most of us do. But in the last hazardous tunnel to adulthood, when teen-age kids tug and pull their way to separation, it's easy to forget what this movie remembers: our children wish us well.