It doesn’t seem all that long ago although – mercifully –it’s been eons since I swabbed another human’s barf. (Dogs and cats on the other hand – yesterday or the day before. One of our seniors has a delicate stomach.)
We still celebrate our children’s birthdays, but rarely on the actual day. They usually make plans with their friends. I don’t begrudge them, after college I did the same thing – partied with my peers instead of my parents. As wonderful as my parents were, party animals they weren’t.
Celebrating on the correct day – and emphasizing the birthday person’s precise age – seems less important every year, at least to me. Besides, if we want the extended family to celebrate together – aunts, uncles and cousins – the logistics become more manageable if we select an adjacent weekend instead of a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
As challenging as this particular birthday was – and it was far from the only time the birthday child hurled over a birthday cake – my memories are warm, now that the vomit isn’t.
It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe. (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)
It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)
What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself. It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol. All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.
In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse. This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?) However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.
I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”
This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development). What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom. A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?
I remember this dinner, which might be impressive if it was more than 4 years ago. It was one of the last relatively healthy celebrations of my mother’s birthday. There was no way to know it was one of the last although the fact it was an 88th birthday might’ve raised a red flag for some.
Not me. The prospect of my parents not being here was too unbearable to consider. Would occasions like this be sweeter or more painful if we knew it was the last time?
In 2013, my mind was on more mundane matters than mortality. I noticed how differently my children act in restaurants compared to my sisters and I. My parents never suggested we couldn’t afford to eat out, but all three of us intuitively ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and requested water instead of an expensive soda. How did we all receive the same explicit message without words?
My children didn’t receive it. Two out of three never so much as glance at prices. Apparently, they feel worthy enough to order what they want to eat or drink. No crisis has ensued. On the contrary, my father smiled and picked up the tab for the whole group (usually numbering 16 to 20 depending on how many significant others accompany their grandchildren.) He probably would’ve been equally accepting if my sisters and I ordered appetizers, drinks and other extras, but even today I’d call myself a cautous diner. Other people might call it cheap.
It would’ve been fun to rehash these silly observations and memories with my parents, now that it’s long ago and far away and we’re all adults. I wish.
I was the same age as my mother when she gave birth to me when I gave birth to CD (a month after this shower, 16 months after J and I impulsively got married, in case anyone’s counting). Since I was an infant, I cannot testify to my mother’s state of mind or level of maturity but I strongly suspect she was more responsible and together than me at the same age. Living through the Great Depression– as opposed to the Summer of Love– would tend to mature people quickly.
John and I always planned to have children, just not in 1976. He was in his second year of law school and before learning I was pregnant I quit my job at USC, leaving us no health insurance. I doubt many people pay cash to give birth in hospitals today but it was possible then. These financial issues paled next to John and my psychological readiness to be parents.
Our parents made it look easy; we thought we had it wired – even though we lived in a world without children (unless you count USC students as children). My friends from college were appalled when I told them I was having a baby – “Are you crazy? You’ll ruin your life.”
It did cost me the life I’d led until the birth of my son – because the world and my place in it shifted – but my life wasn’t “ruined.” That said, I’d be lying if I claimed things got easier – for a while, everything – including our marriage – suffered from an overload of change and stress. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. No regrets.
My children aren’t rushing into things like I did. My youngest is older than I was after my third child. Statistically, you’d think my odds of grandchildren would be high, with three adult children, but my youngest sister Joyce will soon have two and I have none (Waaaa!). Not that I’d ever want to pressure my children or anything.
Hmmm, “Stage-struck.” Based on the sizzling synopsis, I’m baffled it failed to become an international sensation. Unfortunately, the title – the characters – and the story-line – are all too typical of what I generously considered “creative” writing at thirteen. My oeuvre was stories about junior high girls, one popular and one brainy, frequently involving show biz.
Mr. Uebel was one of my favorite teachers although I was a nervous wreck in his room, I was so desperate to impress him. Mr. Call, our Spanish teacher, was great too, as evidenced by their musical duel. The innocence of these times seems unreal from the perspective of 2017 yet I can unequivocally swear life actually was this innocent, this simple – at least at Jefferson Jr. High.
At thirteen, it never crossed my mind to rebel against a teachers or authority figure – and to the best of my knowledge, none of my classmates did either. Maybe Jefferson got lucky and employed teachers with big personalities who loved teaching.
Full disclaimer – far from being anything close to a radical dissident trouble-maker, I was a kiss-up sycophant who idolized my teachers. I made it my mission to be teacher’s pet (not exactly a fast track to popularity, in case you’re wondering). More often than not I succeeded, not because I was so special or brilliant (although I liked to think so) – I just tried harder.
Looking back, I regret how eager I was to be free of our Friday family nights. Little did I know that once gone, those nights could never be recaptured in quite the same way. I should have treasured and prolonged every last minute.
In my diary blog two days ago, I congratulated myself for being a good mother and exposing CD to new things. It’s ironic that in today’s entry, I chastise myself as a bad (let’s revise that to less good) mother even though I did essentially the same thing for different reasons. In the ‘81 entry, I was all about cramming CD full of life experience and knowledge. In ’07, it was more about getting myself out of a life experience by foisting it on my daughter.
In my defense, treating an adult child to spectacular seats at a Genesis concert hardly qualifies as child abuse and apparently Sam had a good time. I might’ve enjoyed the show if I’d gone – why not give it a try?
Sometimes I hit social overload and fear I’ll die without alone time. In the above entry, my urgency leaps off the page – “couldn’t stand” “just unbearable.” Looking back, it was a weird over-reaction to a rock concert and dinner. Unfortunately – for Sam, not me – she’s even less extroverted than me but at least she’s a better sport.
In the spirit of true confession, my youngest recently recalled my most egregegious bad mother moment. Alex and I were outside when we spotted a demonic possum drinking out of our dog’s water dish. Beyond phobic and hysterical at the sight of anything with a rodent tail, I shrieked, vaulted inside and double-locked the door behind me – stranding Alex on the wrong side of my barricade, face to face with a hissing possum. Alex hurled himself at the door, pounded it with his fists. “Mom! Let me in! Let me in!” I was too distraught to do so until the possum departs.
Alex emerged unscathed, aside from the psychological damage of believing his mother valued her personal safety above his life. First, his life was not in mortal danger. Possums don’t kill suburban homeowners and their children (yet). Second – I’ve got nothing. (Other than sheer terror shot my adrenalin up to fight or flight levels which disabled my higher brain functions. Otherwise, I would’ve remembered possums can’t jimmy a lock.)
Funny how my perception of what constitutes a “problem” changed over the years. Today, for instance, it wouldn’t bother me a bit to be known as a brain – quite the contrary.
My mother telling me I’d be allowed to go to a Jr. High dance was a really big deal in a positive way. I do not want to perpetuate the stereotype of a preacher forbidding an entire town of teens from dancing ala “Footloose.” As a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, I can unequivocally state my father never sought to impose his views on a community – or even a neighborhood. And, to the best of my knowledge, Lutherans have not been “forbidden” to dance in my lifetime.
That said, even in the sixties some stigma attached to dancing at least in the Midwest. I had a major temper tantrum one summer when I wasn’t allowed to go to a dance at Lake Okoboji with my cousins. More importantly – at least to me – because of this unwritten stigma about the clergy and dancing, I never got to go to a Father-Daughter Dance with my dad. He was uncomfortable with the idea.
As far as parents go, mine were the best and I have nothing to complain about. Whining about how I never got to dance with my dad is vain and silly, I know that. Still. I thought he was the handsomest man in the world and I would have loved to show him off and dance with him, just once.
This is one of those vacations that passed without significant incident – no sight-seeing or hiking expeditions, just a few ordinary days in a beautiful environment away from the distractions of home. There was more “action” doing Tahoe with the Rowell’s, in part because there are more of them. John is the oldest of seven and all of them, plus his parents and his aunt Mary, were at Tahoe in 1977 – unlike John, at least for the first two days, who was not. He worked for a maniacal boss and couldn’t get away. When he did escape, he almost immediately got sick.
The Rowell’s were more social – what I thought of as party people. No one would ever describe my family as “party people”. I might as well be gauche and say it; they had more money. They dined out at swankier restaurants than Bob’s Big Boy a couple nights a week. Unless it was Bob’s or we had a coupon, we rarely ate out more than once or twice a year. I’m not complaining; my palate was satisfied with a Big Boy. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by my in-laws more glamourous life-style.
Our relatively quiet brood of five – six including the soon to be Terrible Two CD – were less cosmopolitan. Our idea of a party took place every Sunday night, when my father finished his duties at church. Instead of dinner, we indulged in a weekly “popcorn party” – the popping part involved more ritual before microwaves simplified everything.
Casinos were not on our itinerary but we played every board game under the sun. By 1978, Jani and I no longer burst into tears and accused each other of cheating. There’s something to be said for learning how to lose. Was this an exciting vacation? Hardly. Memorable? Not that much. I’ve shared as much as I remember.
Still, looking back, this low-key time assumes a bittersweet beauty – magnified now that I’ve lost both my parents. What I wouldn’t give for a few more of those beautiful ordinary days with them!
I wish I’d written more about this. Easter was my Lutheran pastor father’s favorite holiday, probably because it’s symbolic of redemption and forgiveness – the most important tenets of Christianity as he practiced and preached it.
I would’ve written more if I’d known this would be his last Easter but – as ridiculous as it sounds – I never believed there’d be a “last” anything for him. Even as he edged into his eighties and eventually turned 89, a world without him was inconceivable – which meant he’d live forever.
I wasn’t alone in assigning him immortality. On one family holiday, he distributed copies of his self-published autobiography to his children and grandchildren. Driving home with Sam and Alex, I told them to treasure their copies because “he won’t always be here.”
“No!” Sam said, genuinely horrified by this possibility. I knew exactly where she came from. There could never be a “last” anything for him, we needed him too much. So how could I have guessed this was his last Easter? And if somehow, I’d known in advance – what would I do differently?
A lot of things although I know he’d absolve me. After one memorable late night dinner, when my cousin Wayne, his wife and mother were in town and we stayed up until midnight talking, the subject of death came up. As a pastor, my father saw more grieving people than most. He said it’s universal – every single person who loses someone they love has regret about things said and done or unsaid and undone. Everyone.
Then he said – very clearly – “When I’m gone, don’t feel guilty about anything you could’ve said or done. It’s all right, exactly as it should be.”
So why do I feel guilty anyway? Not only about him – about my mother, who followed him less than a year later, and Yolanda, who left us a few months ago. I owed all of them more than I gave. I didn’t see the “last time” coming even when it stared me in the face. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I told myself I had plenty of time – I could say “I love you” or do that favor “later”. When it was more convenient.
But time ran out. It’s too late to write down what we talked about on my father’s last Easter. It’s easy to say, “No regrets.” It’s hard to let go of them when I miss him so much. What I wouldn’t give for one more chance to talk to him.