Thursday, December 08, 2016

When It's Too Late to Ask

A good friend of mine is leaving the country, going home, and she might never come back. She isn't leaving because she fears deportation, rather, she hasn't seen her mother in many years. The older woman is getting on, is in her nineties. 

The younger begs her friends to understand: "I have to see my Mommy. If not now, when?" 

We know what she means.

The littlest things can make you think about parents when they're no longer with you, when you can't just call or visit anymore.

FD and I used to have a tradition, inspired in part by my mother. In December she would give me money in a birthday card (out of her social security), and I was to take FD to the opera. Mom, a Dancing With the Stars person, knew we loved the Lyric, but in those days it was cost-prohibitive; we didn't go very often. The idea, to get us out of our work-til-you-drop rut, was a good one. The subtext, maybe, think of your mother while you marvel at the theater, the people, the production.

How do you not honor someone's request that you go to the opera?

It is that time of year, the season and we're opera hungry. So I checked Groupon, found a great price for front section, main floor seating. Not trusting the system and worried that in all probability we might not sit together, I called before booking. (Having that symptom of OCD, being a checker, isn't the worst quality). The nice lady at the other end of the line reassured me that our seats would be together. So we're going. In a way, it's a gift from Mom, an honor to her memory. She would have loved that I checked.

Because of my friend's imminent departure, I thought the best gift for her might be a photo album. Looking through stacks of pictures, I found it impossible to stay focused, hard not to linger over the hundreds of pics that my parents had left behind, memories of us, of themselves as children, as young adults, parents. So many photos of themselves as friends. They had these roles, you know, and sitting on the floor in that walk-in closet, snapshots everywhere, I would ask aloud, nobody there, What is the story behind this one? Who is that? This really is us.

Whatever happened to that dress?
Who is in the way back? Where was I? Is this Logan Square?

There are other questions you have when you divest of your parents things, or decide to keep them.

Like: Where did you get this metal retractable100-ft tape measurer, and why have I never seen it before? It looks a century old! It might be.

Or: When you used that pinking sheers, when you sewed that dress you wore for my wedding, that long, cream, lovely dress that enhanced your Jackie Kennedy looks, what did you think about? Did you think of my brother, the one who didn't live to have his own?

Is that guy in the back of the picture a long lost cousin or a photo bomber? Where was it taken? Was I a happy baby? Did I laugh a lot? How did you forgive me when I crashed your first car, that Studebaker Lark, in the parking lot learning to drive? And when I lost that ring?

A person feels so powerless. How could so few people, only two, have this information? Your questions aren't something you can Google. No search engine is as informative as your mother, your father, not when it comes to something about their house, their reactions to things that happened, their lives, the lives of their relatives, friends, and yours.

Most of us have time to ask, time to get information, those extraordinarily important details, the ones that fill in the blanks. But we don't think to ask them because at the time, it isn't important, not then, not while we're middle-aged and our parents seem immortal.

And if we lose a parent young, it has to be worse. That parent isn't around to answer the simplest questions of youth, like, Should I date this guy? Should I marry that one? Can I just fail this class, because I hate my teacher?! A surviving parent might have answers, but might not be as approachable, or might become sad with your questions. Or you, a young person, simply don't know to even ask. What little kid thinks to ask?

When my younger brother and I spoke together for a few delicious hours on the night before Thanksgiving, we relived the last few years of our parents' lives. Thinking back, we had regrets, sure, but considered ourselves so lucky. We could make our own hours as professionals, and when the folks became physically vulnerable and needy, we could rearrange our schedules to help them. We spent some of that time trying to jog their memories on those drives to see doctors, or while checking their meds. The answer, inevitably: "So long ago. Who can remember?"

Those years flew by, the ones that might have been informative. And we, as the middle-to older-middle-aged generation, fall into the trap that our parents set. We talk about us, not them, when they catch us. We do it in short snippets, for that is all the time we have, and they settle for that. They catch us on the phone, between first and second shifting, or as we make lunches for the next day, or  drive an afternoon car pool, maybe run to a basketball or baseball game, varsity basketball. We could be trying to concentrate while filling out the parent portion of a student loan application, and the phone rings. There isn't much time to talk. And when they catch us, in those lucky moments when we are caught, when we're able and willing to give them the time of day in real time, on the phone*, it is about us, and about our children, because they direct the dialogue that way. Most probably, they do.

Not to give advice to anyone, gentle reader. . . but

assume that one day you will want to know how they kept that 100 foot metal tape measurer from you, the one from the Navy, probably. Or that the pinking sheers has some kind of history, and you don't know when or why your mother decided to sew her own clothes, and some of yours, only that they would be beautiful, an improvement over whatever one could buy retail. And your parents won't be there, probably, when these things occur to you, to tell you anything, and all you'll be able to do is assume, that at the time, whatever they did, they did with you in mind. Probably.

And you'll want to know how it felt when they bought their first major appliance, or a building, and how it felt to have to sell that building to make you a wedding. How did they cope with their in-laws, how did they make it work, if everyone seemed to get along, and how did it feel if it didn't work, if nobody got along.

Make it about them, this season, is my thinking. Ask the people who raised you to tell you the story behind the picture, because pictures jar the memory. Ask them about their transitions, how they handled the move, the first job, the first child, or their health crises, deaths of their parents, alcohol-addicted siblings. Ask about any firsts and lasts, because these are what we remember best, and these are also in the photographs in that big plastic Target container. Bring it out sometime before opening the presents this year, so the kids can hear the stories, too.

My friend, the one who is going home, is going to do that, too. And it is likely her mother will say, "I don't remember. It has been so many years."

But maybe, because her family was so far away, and they know how to use the phone, maybe even, she knows.


*The telephone is this amazing appliance. You talk into it, hear someone talk back, no typing required.

P.S.  Below, a copy of the cover of the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band vinyl album. My oldest brother shared it with me the day it came out; he brought it home. We were 15 and 17, and I was delighted that he wanted to share it. He hadn't been a talkative brother. The questions for that guy, innumerable.


Mound Builder said...

Therapydoc, this post of yours resonates particularly for me right now. I am coming up on the fifth anniversary of my father's death. Both of my parents are gone at this point. And as you've described, since they are no longer here to ask I'm so aware of the many questions it never occurred to me to ask. This is particularly true of my father.

My father served in WWII. Though he was not a pilot, he was with a Fighter Squadron, in what was then called the Army Air Corps. He had a photo album with nearly 200 small photos of his time in the war, some of them labeled, others not. I grew up looking at that photo album but particularly as a child and even into adulthood I really didn't know what to ask about those photos. I loved looking at them from time to time. I knew a handful of stories about my father's time in the war, but he never talked a lot about it. I know the photos meant a lot to him and even with dementia he enjoyed looking at them and knew that those young soldiers had been his friends. So as this fifth anniversary of his passing approaches, I've been looking more and more closely at these photos. He was in the Italian Campaign, moving through Italy to help the Allied Forces liberate Italy from Mussolini. He was there as they moved through to Austria and to Germany. Among his photos is a photo of Hitler's Eagle's Nest. There are a number of photos of captured Nazi planes. There are a couple of photos of my father sitting on the wing of a flying ace's plane. My father was a mechanic, a sometimes medic, and an armorer who maintained the planes guns and may also have helped arm them with bombs. I have so many questions and the time is so long past when I might have asked him and he might have been able to tell me. Most recently, I thought of the obvious ones that never occurred to me before... how did he get a camera and film? How did he get these developed? How did he save them through the war, as they were constantly on the move and it would have been so easy to lose things?

My questions now have had me searching and I've found a couple of other daughters whose fathers were in the same campaign. One of them has published her father's recollections and it was so strange reading it, because her father described places where I suddenly thought of my father's photos and I realize that her father was part of the infantry my father's fighter squadron reported. I seem to be finding a small network of daughters trying to answer these questions. And maybe together we can piece together some answers.

But yes, ask while you have the opportunity to ask your parents, other older family members.

therapydoc said...

Thank you, thank you, what a beautiful illustration, memory, legacy. Just great.