Friday, February 11, 2011
Yesterday was my husband's mother's birthday. Cathy passed away only a year after we married. I think of her so often, of her smile and her laughter. I wish my children had experienced her as a grandmother. I wish she could teach me how to make French Toast. I originally posted this story in 2010 and want to honor her again for the life she lived and the son she raised.
One evening my husband asked me to recount my earliest memory. I suspect that many of the events and moments I recall are colored by the photographs and home movies I’ve viewed time and again. But there are a few that I know exist independent of any documentary evidence. Like I have a memory of a terrible ear infection when I was around five. And I remember one time when I was in preschool some friends and I were playing outside in a group of metal barrels. When we emerged, we discovered that the entire class had gone back inside the school building. We were all alone. And scared. I suppose roster checks weren’t The Thing back then.
My earliest memory, though, is very distinct. It is a memory of the day my parents brought my baby brother home from the hospital after he was born. I remember the house. And I remember all the people. Our teeny little frame house was packed with family, and lots of love, awaiting his arrival. In an effort to make sure everyone knew his/her place, I announced loudly to the group that my brother had very special diaper cream. I knew this because his name was Dustin. The cream was labeled Desitin.
I was a precocious 3 ½ year old.
I recounted several other memories of things like family trips to the lake and my church and large family gatherings and ballet classes and gymnastics and learning to read. And then I asked my husband to tell me the earliest memory he could recall.
Here’s the story he shared:
My earliest memory is from around the time I was three years old. I was the youngest of 4 kids, with my nearest brother exactly seven years older than I am. The oldest two never lived at home with me – they were Mom’s kids from two previous marriages.
Mom became pregnant with me when she was 41 years old. Undoubtedly everyone was surprised, though she never told me that. She and her husband – my father – had adopted my older brother when he was a toddler, and he was six when mom became pregnant with me. My brother and I share a birthday.
My mom and dad divorced when I was only two. My father was an alcoholic. I don’t remember much about him living at home with us, but I know it wasn’t good. He wasn’t physically abusive. He was just a drain on the emotional resources of our little family. My mom was a hard worker, managing a local branch of a national finance company, and worked full time during my entire childhood. My dad? He was a cowboy, figuratively and literally. Dad broke horses, rode bulls, and traveled the country chasing the rodeo scene. A caricature of himself.
After my parents divorced my father lived with his mother, my grandmother, in our same little town. For some time, though, he would still come around the house quite a bit. I understand that I saw him fairly regularly until I was three.
And then one day I remember my dad came to visit Mom and me. It wasn’t all that unusual for him to hang around the house on a Sunday afternoon. I remember climbing on the back of my mom’s dusty blue leather recliner like I did so often when she sat there.
I had a favorite spot on the recliner, on the well-worn arm that was just the right size to hold a wiggly little boy. I sat on the arm of that chair so many times as a child. From that chair I stole sips of my Mom’s instant iced tea, because tea out of Mom’s glass always tasted better than my own drinks. I remember listening reverently and cheering wildly during Oklahoma football games as the announcer called the game from the transistor radio that sat on the coffee table, while Mom and I watched the game on television. I was always dressed in my Sooner jersey, perched on the arm of that chair. No matter what was happening in our world, there was always room for me on Mom's blue leather chair.
And so as my dad and Mom visited that afternoon, I climbed on the chair like I always had done. My space on the chair made my presence in the conversation seem natural, appropriate.
And then I heard my dad ask Mom to marry him again. And everything around me paused for a moment.
How my mother answered that proposal so confidently and quickly, I will never know. Today I can’t fathom what it meant to face such a question. Continue to raise two boys all alone? Or give dad Just One More Chance to get it right. To live in our home sober. To be a husband. To be a father.
What I don’t remember is having any particular desire for her to answer the proposal one way or another. When I think about that day, that moment, I don’t recall emotions of anticipation or hope. I recall a curiosity.
What would she say? And what would that look like?
If she said yes, would that mean he was going to hang around more? Would that mean he would play catch in the backyard with me and my new glove that Mom gave me? Would that mean he would come to my tee ball games and coach my teams?
(Later in my life he did come to my games. He never watched from the bleachers. Instead he sat in his truck in the outfield and drank whiskey. But he was there. I knew.)
I snapped out of my day dream.
She said no.
And in that moment, I remember knowing in a very matter-of-fact sense that Mom had made a choice.
In that moment I knew that I wouldn’t have a dad around.
And in that moment my three year old heart realized that Mom must like playing catch with me.
And she must not mind that I use her broom stick as a baseball bat. And she must enjoy making Nana Eggs and purple Koolaid and mowing her own lawn and working so hard at her job every day.
And she must think that we’ve got a pretty good thing going.
And surely she’s right.
It seemed like my dad didn’t come around much after that. It was okay, though. Mom had decided we were good just the way we were, and so I believed her with all my heart.
Plus, I could keep sitting on the arm of the blue leather chair.
That’s just how things were for us.
Through welling eyes I listened. I listened to my husband travel back to the arm of that blue chair. I listened to the mind and thoughts and curiosity of a three year old navigating some big talk. And I saw a tinge of sadness. The kind of sadness that can only be experienced by a child who can’t know how things are supposed to be, but can sense that they aren’t supposed to be this way.
And then I spent a moment in awe of my husband’s mother. How tempting would that proposal have been? Working twelve hour days, raising two boys – 3 and 10 – to become strong men. And now, standing in her living room, was not just any man. It was their father. It was a man who once had made her swoon. Who she had loved with all her heart. I mean, he didn’t really abandon them, she must have thought. He’s been hanging around. And now he’s asked to come back. Back into our lives. Sure, he has his faults. But wouldn’t this life be just a little bit easier if I had another set of hands? If my boys had a man in the house all the time? Not just any man – their own father was asking to come back. Asking for permission to raise them. To love us.
And so I closed my eyes and thanked God for my husband’s mother. For the choice she made that day, and every day after that. For going to his baseball games after work by herself. For playing catch with him in the backyard, and raising up a man who didn’t leave his own wife and three children. For making lots of grilled cheese sandwiches and lemonade. For inspiring a man who is exceedingly careful with his personal choices because of his father’s history.
I hold her personally responsible for a man who doesn’t care for my French toast and has little tolerance for bad moods, but loves me with a ferocity that is impossible to assign words.
And for a man who demands so much of me because of the example his mother set for him.
She loved her little boy when she refused his father’s proposal.
Her choices taught him how to love me. How to love all of us.
photo by ^@^ina
Posted by jaime at 9:00 AM