My mother turns 87 next week, and in her honor I want to share a story I wrote fifteen years ago.
Mom still can’t eat raisins.
Raisins, and whatever else the local Catholic church could spare, kept Mom and her seven siblings from starvation on a windswept North Dakota farm. When Mom’s father died at forty, her mother moved the family to a two-bedroom rental in town. The kids slept two or three to a bed. They got their clothes from the donation bin at the church, but this was during the Depression. Mom will tell you poverty isn’t as bad when everybody around you is just as poor.
Meanwhile, Dad was struggling. His mother had divorced his father, and she was prone to nervous breakdowns and hospitalization, so as an elementary-school kid, Dad was passed around among distant relatives. These people resented him, since this was a time when nobody had enough food for their own families. He lived in an orphanage for a while, and in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a teen. He grew up with no family.
In spite of their harsh beginnings, Mom and Dad carved out a life that included almost sixty years of marriage. They relied on themselves, and had a hard time accepting anything from others. They taught me to be tenacious, so on that long-ago spring day on their patio, I held out tickets for a Caribbean cruise, refusing to back down. Dad’s mouth set in a straight line. Mom looked pained, her face wrenched in my direction. My jaw clenched, knowing the likely outcome. Bill and I were determined, but so were they. Seconds passed.
Suddenly, Dad jumped up and pumped Bill’s hand. “By damn, son-in-law, I accept!”
I was excited, but a little worried. Could I spend a week with this bull-headed old man who had ruled the roost as I was growing up? He was a good dad in so many ways, but all through my childhood, he was sometimes violent, and subscribed to a scorched earth policy in winning any argument. As an adult, I felt I had moved on, told myself he’d been under a lot of strain as a young father with a big family, blah blah blah. So it was no longer an issue.
(Now that I read this, I sound codependent. Yeah. Okay.)
The first showdown came early. Dad gave Bill half the fare for a cabbie that had brought us to the ship from the airport in Puerto Rico. When Bill tried to wave him off, Dad got mad and paid the entire fare for all four of us. Later in our stateroom, Bill asked me for advice. I decided to appeal secretly to Mom.
The next day, on Barbados, Bill picked up four tickets for the Flower Forest, an exotic botanical garden. For one tense moment, Dad stared at us, his bushy silver eyebrows knit together. Then he grinned. “I got the message.” Grabbing Mom’s hand, they headed down the path into the forest.
The rest of the cruise was relaxed. We visited St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Vincent and St. Martin. We shopped, toured and feasted on exquisite meals, both on the islands and on the ship. I wanted to give Mom and Dad a nice vacation, something they couldn’t afford on their own. I guess I also wanted to show them something else: their urbane, sophisticated daughter. Well, that was pointless.
I began to see things differently during the cruise. Such as, without the baggage of my childhood, my Dad was just, in Bill’s words, “a sweet old guy.” From observing my parents, I realized where I got my gift for Olympic-grade worrying. And I realized that mutual disarmament is maybe the best gift family members can give each other as we age.
I had wondered if I could manage a week of togetherness with these people who raised me, against whom I had rebelled in my young adult years, and from whom I had been striving ever since to become independent.
I’d do it all again in a split second, just to see them strolling on powdery white sands under the swaying palms on a beach in Martinique, still holding hands after a half- century of hardship and happiness.
Epilogue: as you know, we lost Dad in July of 2008. I’m grateful he never had to see the Great Recession, after the kind of childhood he had. He apologized to me, in his own gruff way, a few years before he passed. “I’m sorry you had to carry that around all those years,” he said to my then-fifty-year-old self. I knew it was all he was capable of, and I was immensely grateful.
Mom now lives four blocks from me and in spite of health challenges is going strong. She’s a living lesson for how to live a good life in old age. We’re blessed, and I’m grateful.