Monday, April 30, 2012

Do We Ever Really Know Our Parents?

Some years ago, Mother asked me to read letters that Dad had sent to her while they were apart, she at home in high school or with her mother in Washington, D. C. working for the government one summer, he left behind in his small home town, a recent high school graduate on his way to San Diego for naval training. Yellowed and brittle, the envelopes spoke of an era past, their addresses further proof of their age. They were addressed with Mother’s name, her home town and the state. No street address, zip code, or defining numbers needed until she and her Mother moved to Washington for a few months. It was the 1945, the year the war ended, a simpler time--at least for the United States Post Office

Most often the upper right corner carried the word “Free” because Dad was in the Armed Services, according to the return address. He enjoyed the benefit of sending letters without any cost. The cancellation stamps proved that Dad wrote to Mother at least every other day, sometimes twice in one day.

And that was good enough for me. I didn’t really want to read them. I somehow felt that reading his letters invaded their privacy, but their contents delighted Mother so finally I found the time to read them. I’m still not sure what to make of what I found.

Dad began and ended every letter telling Mother how much he loved her. Many letters repeated his vows of love in every paragraph. Several times each month, he promised her a future with him, vowing to work hard to make a good life for her.

A few letters offered glimpses of him that informed and amused me. In one, he describes learning to fly by renting an old “oil burner” from an airfield. The owners told him not to “gun it” and he’d get back home just fine. But Dad was a dare-devil. He rode motorcycles and pushed the speed around hair-pin curves. In one of his letters, he apologizes to Mother and wonders if he scared her so much that she never wants to ride with him again.

So Dad “gunned” that old plane and ran out of oil several miles from the field. He landed in someone’s field, called the owners, and told them to bring him nine quarts of oil. They did, but they were furious, probably working up more fury with every dusty mile they had to drive. After they’d poured the oil to the old engine, they told him to bring it home without “gunning” it again.

But I guess telling Dad what to do grated on him so “gun” it he did, landing that plane on the home field, the engine hot and again in need of several quarts of oil. The owners told him not to come back, but he had his revenge by stomping off across the field to buy an old plane for $1,125.00, one that he could “gun” as much as he pleased.

While I was growing up, Dad didn’t own planes or drive motorcycles, but when my sister and I were on our own, he bought big Hondas to ride around curving roads in the Arkansas hills. He also bought a couple of planes, one at a time, of course, to commute between his new home in those hills and his daughters’ home on the flatter lands of Oklahoma. I never had first-hand experience with “gunning” planes, but remember enjoying the colors of Arkansas as he took us for flying tours.

In a few letters, Dad told Mom to have a good time while he was away, not to cloister herself, but to believe that when he returned home, he wanted her to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him even if her grandmother stood close by. He made it clear he meant to make a life with her and for her. He often begged her to tell him if she had changed her mind about him so that he could try to let her go.

Yet in all those letters from 1945, she wrote to him fewer than ten times. He mentioned each time she wrote and was overjoyed to receive word from her. I’d call her effort a half-hearted, lukewarm response, but his devotion never waned.

In some letters, he told of going out with friends, including female friends, to drink or dance, but he professed that he pretended that his date was Mother. He confessed that he wanted to see her wrinkle her little nose--proof positive that love is utterly blind because none of the women on her side of the family, including me, have small noses. Ours are prominent and hard to miss. By no stretch of any imagination except Cupid’s could our noses be called “little.”

One of Mother’s letters apparently challenged Dad’s definition of fidelity. As many fifteen and sixteen-year-old girls would, she doubted that she could trust the words of her man. He was hurt but did not in any way back down. He reminded her of “their bargain” that seemed to require they tell each other the truth if their hearts had grown cold. His had not, he said; he was in love with her and could not stop thinking of her. He worried that hers was stone, however, because she wouldn’t write and because she accused him in snips and barks when she did write.

These revelations that Mom invited me to read still baffle me. From my vantage point as their child, I would have told you that Mother was utterly devoted to Dad, smitten with him no matter what he did, yet he stood apart, reserved. He earned the money and decided how to use it. He determined where they would live and travel. He advised her for whom to vote, and he tried to insure that she could live comfortably once he passed, but failed to teach her how to balance a checkbook or read invoices.

To discover that he was such a passionate boy and she so reserved makes me wonder what happened. Did life conspire to turn his flames into warm embers? Possibly. He did turn to alcohol, after all.

Was he simply just the most private man imaginable, revealing himself only to her? Quite likely. I'm n introvert myself, known best by my dear husband.

Or did life together disappoint him--so much so that he became a dutiful if taciturn man, unable to reciprocate or show affection? Yes. He even signed the rare letter he wrote to my sister or me with just his first name, almost never under the common family closing: “Love,” and once when I told him that I loved him, he answered, "That's nice."

Mother offered no answers to my questions. She simply basked in the testimonials of love that she seemed to have forgotten until the letters surfaced. Now she has forgotten the letters ever existed as dementia steals a little more every day. She just wishes that she had died the day he did.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Babe in Arms

Even as Mother descended into dementia, she wanted to become a volunteer at the church nursery or the hospital's intensive care unit for infants. She longed to hold a babe in arms. That is surely one of the greatest joys in being a grandparent.

Parents, be they step, foster, or loving aunts and uncles, remember tiny fingers holding tightly to one proffered pinkie, its warmth comforting, its touch velvet.

They remember the featherweight of an infant lying upon their chests, relaxed, breathing effortlessly, one heart speaking to another.

They recall the dewy glow upon skin untouched by sun, wind, or cold.

They summon the faint scent of clean, pure snow wafting from a heart untroubled.

They imagine delicate lashes resting upon full cheeks, tiny nails so delicate, so perfectly shaped.

They follow a baby’s gaze, sharing first discoveries and recovering their capacity for wonder.

They marvel at life itself, strong enough to thrust itself into existence, fragile enough to be wounded by coarse cloth.

Yes, a babe in arms is one of life’s finest joys, especially because, as grandparents, we know how fleeting such moments are, and unlike parents, we now know better than to rush through them. We are not called to careers, routine, chores, or futures. We are called to joy alone, and we open our arms for it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rites of Passage: Becoming Grandma

We look forward to them--those watershed moments by which we judge how we’ve grown and changed. A first is becoming an all-day student; another is numbering our age in double-digits. Next comes the new name: teen. We are no longer the child, the kid, adolescent, little one, or “Hey, you!” We are a teen, one among those of a new generation: Baby Boomer, X, Y, or Millenium.

At sixteen, we can claim more independence if we qualify for a driving permit; thereafter, incrementally, we become more and more able: able to drive alone at night, able to hold a part-time job, able to buy a ticket for a movie rated “R” without an adult nearby. At eighteen, we can sign contracts and get ourselves into all kinds of weighty trouble if we have not learned to go slowly, accept advice, and work hard.

Finally, we enter our twenties, and most of us, toward the end of that decade, have married or begin to panic about marriage. Many who marry in their twenties spend time together, traveling, building equity in homes, and adding titles to their résumés before beginning the life-altering, forever-after family.

Those of us who have gone ahead zip our lips and summon great sympathy for parents-to-be. We know that they wouldn’t believe us if we tried to tell them how much their lives will change. Oh, they might listen politely while still believing that they alone will manage the changes better than all the rest of us. They tell themselves that

§  They will never be too tired for “date night;”
§  They will never pretend to be asleep in the hope that their partner will rise and change that diaper;
§  They will never be the parent with a child screaming and wailing about being confined to the kiddie seat in a grocery cart;
§  They will never be the parent of a toddler who throws himself on the linoleum when he hears “no” in relation to some cheap toy or piece of candy;
§  They are wiser, more patient, and the greatest multi-taskers ever to walk this earth.

Parents everywhere know that there are few things more humbling or exasperating than parenting. They also know that there is little else on this earth that they can love so completely and selflessly. Parents-to-be will discover these truths just as we did: one stumbling, exhausting day at a time.

Now, however, I am about to experience another rite of passage: I am about to become a grandparent. And I enter this phase as blindly as I entered all the others. Others who have gone before me tell me that “there’s just something special,” that “there’s nothing like it.” They ask me if I’m excited, if I’m going to move closer to be near her, and I answer “Yes, I’m excited,” and “No, I don’t plan to move soon” because truly, I don’t know what this next rite of passage will bring any more than I knew what all the others would bring.

As with other rites of passage, I’m sure some aspects of being a grandparent are sobering, even frightening. Remember when you earned your driver’s license and stood a little taller? Then you realized how much responsibility that little plastic license represents. You held a weapon of mass destruction beneath you and arriving safely with all fenders and limbs intact was up to you--to how well you paid attention, to how well you obeyed the rules of the road. Well, grand-parenting carries tremendous responsibility, too. You are a role model, a safe haven, and a fine playmate charged with protecting every molecule of that precious life. You must be your absolute best self, never letting your focus fade or your attention lapse.

Still, I think the miracle of life will outweigh every sobering, frightening aspect of grand-parenting. A grandchild is life asserting itself, hope reborn, and a promise of futures untold. As we age, we celebrate youth through that child, knowing that we must let go and leave this world to them, trusting that they are capable and wondrous.

Yes, I believe I’ll enjoy this next rite of passage, one of the last I’ll face, but I’ll remember fondly my passage and my dear child’s passage through that grandchild, and those will be fine memories indeed.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Blindside and Blind-Sided

A Twitter connection asked a question that parents, throughout time, have asked: Why do children always get sick in the middle of the night? Of course she knows, as I do, that children don't always get sick in the middle of the night. Sometimes they prove sick after you have rousted them from bed, and they have struggled to dress and present themselves at the breakfast table. And sometimes you receive a call while at work, the school secretary reporting your child’s temperature or an incident of chucking up at the wrong time in the wrong place.

No matter what the time of day or night, the illness comes on at the most inconvenient moment--for you, the parent--those moments when you had almost caught up on that long-term project at work. You could see the finish line, but suddenly it withdraws incrementally as you realize you must be absent from work for a day or two. Or you had a great weekend planned, one wherein you would find time for adult beverages and adult entertainments. Now, you realize, that weekend is like a dandelion blossom in a high wind: gone, obliterated, leaving only the root feeling of longing behind.

Dear Parent, you’ve just been blind-sided by Life’s unexpected, poorly timed slaps. Once the sting fades, you begin to regroup, rethink, and reassess. You adjust your calendar and plan for that project. You dream of another weekend, one not too far into your future. You adjust.

As I replied to my Twitter contact, the answer to “why children become sick in the middle of the night” is: to remind us that we are vulnerable and that we are simultaneously resourceful and strong. Nothing is quite as humbling as asking for an extension on a deadline at work. You know you are letting down many people in line to receive the finished product. You know that your inability to meet the deadline will require that others adjust as much, if not more, than you, and you hope they will understand, that they will walk in your shoes and remember when they too have had to juggle work and personal responsibilities.

Besides being humbled by stuff at work, a sick child makes us vulnerable in other ways as well. When the temperature climbs above 101°, when the fever is so intense that your dear child begins to shiver, and when she cannot keep tiny bits of crushed ice on her rebellious tummy, you worry about doing the right thing. Is it time to rush to the emergency room, or is there time to wait for the pediatrician’s office to open? Should a fever be fed or starved? Is a fever-reducer a friend or the enemy for this condition? How quickly does a child of a certain age dehydrate?

We rush to our trusted resources: books, the Internet, grandparents, neighbors, and partners. We steal precious minutes from our child to determine the next step and to calm our fears. We are the quarterback in a sudden-death overtime, and we need someone to watch our backs, a left tackle on the field, but there isn’t anyone else. It’s just you and the night and the child. No matter how many people you ask, how many sources you consult, no matter if the one you love stands beside you through the night, watching your sick child with you, it comes down to mother. She is her own left tackle for the real quarterback of the game: your child. It’s Mother’s job to shuck off all opponents: the viruses, bacteria, wounded hearts, and dangers.

My own mother could not be the left tackle for me when, at the age of four, almost five, I forbore Scarlet Fever. She had a new baby in arms so I was confined to a bedroom where she could not go, where I was visited by a parade of stand-ins, mostly cousins and neighbors. I have never forgotten the hope each time the door opened and the sadness when someone else came to my bedside.

My own child was quarterback through her ordeal with breast cancer at the age of 24. Never had I felt so vulnerable; never had I, the left tackle, performed worse. I had no power over the opponent and its minions: chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, fatigue, surgery, and radiation, but she performed brilliantly, scoring one touchdown after another as she refused to dwell in the night of her disease. She rose with every dawn to greet another day, convicted, determined, and strong.

And that is the rest of an answer to “why children become sick in the middle of the night.” Those unsettling, frightening nights and days prove to us that we can not only persevere, but also triumph. We can pool our resources and marshal our strength to overcome the setbacks, dread outcomes, and terrifying moments. We can celebrate in the knowledge that we are not as vulnerable as we feared. We can rise above and soar.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Flair for the Dramatic

Mother grew up in dusty towns that are now unrecognizable. The home of her grandmother to whom she fled each weekend by train, riding alone, was Broken Arrow; the home of her high school alma mater is Coweta. Both are now extensions of Tulsa as that big city sprawls in all directions. Asphalt, multi-lane roads now carry commuters to and from work with Coweta and Broken Arrow serving more as bedroom communities than as thriving, business-oriented ones.

But these little towns did not lack a movie screen, and Mother saw as many as she could. Even after she married and had begun her family, she still saw the latest films. She attended an afternoon showing, then returned home to care for me while Dad saw the same show. They couldn’t sit holding hands, as I like to do with my husband, but they could discuss what they’d seen over dinner later.

As a girl, Mother studied elocution in addition to piano. When last she asked me to help her organize her papers, she still had the yellowed, brittle pages of poems, plays, and prose that she had learned to read with precision and flair. Thus, it was only natural that Mother encouraged her own children to pursue all things dramatic.

One of my early memories is of calling the Jerry Lewis telethon in behalf of children afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy. My friends and I wished to donate the money we’d earned by “putting on a show” just like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in “Babes in Arms” (1939). We used the raised concrete-block patio that Dad built as our stage and invited neighbors to attend for the low, low price of five cents. They applauded as we sang, danced, and tumbled.

Any comedian, actor, and singer will tell you that laughter and applause are addictive so it’s only natural that I enrolled in Drama or Speech throughout junior high and high school, starring in several plays, always to much acclaim--well, at least, that’s how I remember it. I learned to plumb the depths of emotions as the widow in All the Way Home and score laughs in Light Up the Sky.

In college, speech and drama were the courses I chose for a minor field of study. As a freshman and sophomore, I followed the debate team across the country from our home campus in Iowa, west to Montana and south to Memphis. I orated, extemporized, and reasoned, then as a junior and senior, I devoted myself to drama, playing tragic Hecuba in Sartre’s The Trojan Women and scoring laughs as Veta Louise Simmons, the long-suffering sister of Elwood P. Dowd and acquaintance of Harvey, a giant, invisible rabbit.

I earned my share of critics when I agreed to play Olivia in a rock version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The director was a notorious drunk who exercised absolutely no control over the seniors portraying Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. Trust me, the show was crude, rude and socially unacceptable in many places. But, in other roles, including three during one summer in a dinner theater, I earned my share of praise.

Lines from plays in which I performed or studied closely bubble up and out of my mouth unbidden. Once I told a student who had saved me from plopping onto my behind as I knelt beside her desk to help her, “ Thank you; I depend upon the kindness of strangers.” My student was not fluent in Blanche DuBois; in fact, no one in that freshman composition class knew the dismal world of Tennessee Williams so my line fell like the proverbial lead balloon. That didn’t stop me though. I continue to find phrases and lines useful in making my points.

Perhaps this is why my daughter, from about age 12 through 19, occasionally asked, “Who talks like you?!” My mother, that’s who, and I am just like her.