A child's relationship with his parents is essential in the formation of future relationships and behaviors. John's parents seem out of touch with him because of their age (his nickname for his mom is "the old lady"), health issues (his dad has sclerosis of the liver) and outside stressors (work and housekeeping). As a result, John makes decisions that may otherwise be discouraged if he had a better relationship with them.
John drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, cuts school, and hangs out in the cemetery. Lorraine muses that John's father may have set a bad example for him at a young age; "I think his father made it seem as though drinking alcoholic beverages was a sign of maturity," (12). Furthermore, John's father works a lot, and his job is stressful. Most days, to keep the peace, his mother ushers John out the front door as his father comes in the back door.
When they are in each other's company, John's mom is nervous and his dad is grumpy. They often disagree with John on most points, especially his plans for the future. When John tells his father that he'd like to be an actor, his father responds with, "Don't be a jackass," (65).
It seems their older son, Kenneth, is on a path in life that they approve of, and they'd like John to follow in his footsteps; "Your brother is doing very well at the Exchange. He makes a fine living, and there's still room for you," (65). John's dad confides that he "can't take the strain much longer," (65).
John is aware of his father's failing health and the fact that they may never have a chance to form a healthy relationship. In fact, it's something he thinks of often, and it's upsetting, "He's almost sixty years old, and I know he's not going to be around much longer," (65). This may be part of the reason that John befriends Mr. Pignati.
Mr. Pignati enjoys John's and Lorraine's company. He's always happy to see them, treats them like peers, and joins in on their fun. This is opposite of the way John's parents behave. As their friendship grows, John becomes more attached to Mr. Pignati, and in the end, is very affected by his death.
After Mr. Pignati's heart attack at the zoo, John has a moment of clarity. He admits to himself that it bothers him that Mr. Pignati would have died alone if they hadn't come along. "Didn't she know how sick to my stomach it made me feel to know it's possible to end your life with only a baboon to talk to?" (161).
Moreover, the similarities between Mr. Pignati and John's father make him very uncomfortable; "The position of Mr. Pignati's head on the floor made his face look a little like my father's, and I didn't like the feeling it gave me," (162). In the end, John's connection with Mr. Pignati is what prompted him to participate in writing the memorial epic.
If John's relationship with his parents had been different (read: better), he may have never let down his guard enough to realize how fulfilling befriending a lonely person can be. And he learned the most important lesson of all by doing so, "Our life would be what me made of it--nothing more, nothing less." (166).