Thanksgiving is tomorrow and for the first time in my life, I will be spending it alone. I really don’t know anyone on Maui except for my kids and ex-wife, and they are spending the day with her. Needless to say, I didn’t go out and get a big turkey to cook.
But instead of feeling lonely, I feel it’s going to be one of my best Thanksgivings ever. Instead of getting caught up in all the cooking, visiting, drama, travel and endless TV watching with a bloated gut, I am going to spend the day remembering my family who are no longer here. I am going to spend the day with my Mom and Dad, honoring and remembering them, and giving thanks for the absolutely wonderful life they have given me.
It was a rainy start to the spring of 1991. I stopped at my parent’s home on my way home from work to take care of their two cats.
My Mom was on a trip to Arizona visiting relatives with her sister, and my Dad was on a fishing trip with my sister’s husband. I used to be the one who went fishing all the time with him, but when I grew to adulthood, I lost interest in the sport and was too busy anyway. He surprised me when I opened the door to find him reading the paper in the recliner. He had just gotten back from his trip the hour before and just catching up on the news. I was happy to see him. Not only was he my Dad, he was also my best friend. I stopped every morning for a cup of coffee on my way to work, my Mom would have it waiting since I got my job selling cars. He was very interested in my job and very proud I could tell.
I went to my home after that, which was about 10 blocks from my parents. Within 2 hours, my Dad passed away. This was May of 1991. He was born in 1920. He was 71.
This took our family completely by surprise. We were an extremely close family. None of us had kids, and our lives had always been intertwined with my Dad as the glue. With the exception of my Grandparents who had passed many years before, most before I was born, death had never touched our immediate family unit. We were devastated, and it changed our dynamic. The funeral was a blur to me, and he was buried in a small cemetery close to where we grew up on the farm. All that we had been through, all that we thought was yet to come, was over. Camelot was gone. (That’s what we called our idyllic life growing up).
My Mom stayed in the little house my Dad had bought for her, but I no longer stopped for coffee on my way to work, it was too hard for me. I couldn’t even go in the house if she wasn’t home, didn’t feel right. They say time heals all wounds. Never really has. In fact, it took me over 10 years to visit my Dad’s grave. My soon to be wife finally convinced me I should go. She knew what I needed more than me. It helped the healing process.
Mom was 69 at the time, funny to think about now that I am getting close to that, and never wanted another man in her life. “I took care of one for almost 50 years, why would I want to do that again” she would say. I would come home late from work, drive by her house, and see her sitting in the recliner by the window reading, or sometimes sleeping, in the light of the table lamp. I would cry.
Now what I find interesting is that I feel the same way she did about getting together with someone else. If you have a big scale, and on one end was a caregiver, and the other caretaker, I would be off the scale on the caregiver side. I believe that a big reason why a lot of my relationships failed is that I was too smothering in all the things I wanted to do for them. I lost my identity trying to fit into the mold of what I thought the other person wanted. So I’m taking a break and will be much abler to have a balanced relationship when I am ready. I like taking care of my kids right now, it satisfies the need for caregiving, and they have come to expect this of their Dad. I will, however, have to adjust when they get older and strive for more independence.
We continued to have our holidays together, with the only change of people the person I was dating at the time. We all knew it wasn’t the same without my dad, but we never talked about it. Eventually, I got married, opened up a gift shop, moved away from their neighborhood into a different part of town, and had my daughter. Mom worked in my sister’s shop and mine to stay busy, and I really think she enjoyed her alone time. I don’t think she was ever prepared to have the life she did. She was a college educated big city girl from Milwaukee, and never expected to end up a farm wife in the middle of nowhere. She did enjoy traveling and took me all over the US when I was young, just her and I, and I have a thousand wonderful memories because of it.
When my daughter was 9 months old, we moved 200 miles away to be closer to my wife’s parents. It was hard to visit from then on, I worked so much, had a son, and time was in short supply. We used to drive up for the day, 4 hours of driving each way and visit for a few hours every other month. She loved the kids, and always had big bags of presents for them whenever we came to visit. It was hard to see her getting older, which stands out more when you don’t see someone every day.
My Mom lived to be 87. She was born in 1922 and passed away in October of 2009.
At the funeral, I learned something about her that I never knew. She loved opera. In fact, My sister said she had a beautiful voice and she would catch my Mom singing opera by herself in her house. Unknown to me, or anyone else, my sister arranged for an opera singer to sing at my Mom’s service. It was beautiful of course. After everyone was gone, that’s when she told me about my Mom’s secret opera singing. I wish I had heard her. My Mom was also a big bowler, not professional or anything like that, but just loved the sport. She would travel around with the bowling league around the country and bowl. We even owned a small bowling alley in our town for a few years. Because of that, she came up with her own life philosophy. “It’s not about the strikes you get in life, but about the spares.” Meaning it’s not what happens to you, but how you handle it afterward and pick up the pieces. The name of her team was Black Diamond Fur Farm, the name of our mink ranch. They had these beautiful black bowling shirts made up. Many years after, she had saved a few shirts and had them framed into a picture for each one of us kids. Mine still proudly hangs in my house.
I had the perfect childhood. I guess when it was time for me to come back and have another human experience, I must have earned this spot. (My ex-wife says I must have been a slave in a previous life because I work so damn hard). I think I was an oop-see kid, coming 5 years after my sisters, but I was certainly never treated like that. There has never been a day my whole life that I felt my parents didn’t love or support me 100%. My Dad gave me everything I wanted, and if he was displeased about something, never said a word but just gave you one of those looks. My Mom was loving, and being Greek showed lots of attention. We spent countless hours in the evenings playing Smear or Yahtzee. I think it really helped me develop a math brain. Every night at 5:00 sharp, dinner would be on the table, and we ate together as a family. She loved to cook, and had ton’s more food than what we could eat, which came in handy if you wanted a friend to have dinner with us. I really don’t ever remember being disciplined, certainly not physically, and they raised me in the belief I could be, or do anything I wanted in my life. They instilled in me confidence, imagination, respect, and a hard work ethic.
My Mom and I traveled and did a lot of stuff together. My sisters were almost or were teenagers, and you know they don’t want to be with their parents. I loved to be. One year we took a trip to the Wisconsin Dells, Mom and I, and went to one of these tourist traps that had all the weird stuff set up. One of the things was a cave you could go in. We went into the dark cave, and about 50 feet in was a stuffed bear. My Mom thought it was real and knocked me over running out of the cave. Only when she got outside that she realized she had left me inside to be eaten. We laughed about that story for years.
My dad loved to hunt and fish. My Mom loved to travel. They never entertained much or had close adult friends, so my two Sisters and I were it. I did everything with them. As I grew up and was out finding an identity of my own, I always knew they were there for me at any time. When I rebelled and went through my party days, they gave me my freedom to do what I wanted, relying on the hope that they taught me to do the right things, and knowing that I would get it out of my system someday. Must have taught me right, I never landed in jail, hurt anyone, stole anything, or did anything I would really regret. Eventually, I came back down to Earth, they were right, and when I did, it would be to go into business with my Dad until he retired.
To be honest, I took them for granted. They were always my safety net, my rock, my safe place. I always knew that I could always depend on their help no matter what. Of course that all changed when they died. Your solid ground was gone, and now you had to make your own way on the shifting sand.
Of course, there comes a time when the parent/child relationship changes. When they finally see you as a person. Mine wasn’t one of those ah-ha moments but changed slowly over time. From our being partners to my going out and getting a very well paying career. By the time my Dad passed, he knew that I could take care of myself in the world. I imagine he felt some comfort and pride in that. And after he died, my Mom looked at me for all her big decisions. I was now the man of the family.
Until you have children of your own, I don’t think you can fathom how many sacrifices your parents made for you. I know I didn’t. Having kids now puts them in an entirely new light. I wish I would have known this sooner, I would have liked to thank them for all that they did for me. I think I am a pretty good Dad, that my parents would be proud of the person I have become, and the parent I am. I like to think that somehow they know that.
I was lucky as a kid, before the days of divorces and mixed families, where the lines of parenting get stretched thin. My parents lived their lives with dignity, and that’s how they left this world.
When I look at some of their old faded photographs, which I left behind in storage in Minnesota, I see my Mom and Dad. But I know they are more, much more than that. They were people with dreams and hopes and lives. I can’t even begin to fathom all that they did, and saw, and felt, nor should I. The thing that makes all of us unique is our experiences, and in that, they were the richest people. Their lives were filled with love, and kindness, and giving, and sharing, and most importantly, they enjoyed their lives. They lived incredible lives. The biggest thing I can do to honor them is to enjoy the life I have. That would be their legacy to me.
My kids don’t remember my parents very well. And I don’t remember my parent’s parents and their parents before them very well, if at all. That’s the circle of life. I will pass on my memories of them the best I can to my kids, but they have their own lives to live, and someday they will remember me. They don’t need another big meal to remember their Dad. I hope they remember the unconditional love I give to them.
So tomorrow when I sit down for my Thanksgiving meal, I will be eating it for three. I will remember my life with them, and give thanks that I was so fortunate to have them for my parents, my best friends, my mentors, my teachers, my protectors, and oh so much more. I think it will be a great day.
“ I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.” Maya Angelou