On the eve of this year’s Mother’s Day, I have a question to ask you. Do you ever think of your parents as people? Sounds like an odd question, but I mean thinking about them in terms of the times they live through, their private satisfactions, their fears and phobias, the experiences that mold them and so forth. We know the facts they choose to tell us about their lives but not their deepest thoughts and feelings.
We can’t ever really know them, even though we grow up in their home. Most of us consider them as loving to us, making our lives comfortable, caring for us when we are sick, instructing us how to behave, making our favorite birthday dinners. But there is more to their existence than their interactions with us.
I sat down to try and picture myself in their shoes.
I know that my father met my mother when he accompanied his older brother to the home of his brother’s fiancée for the first time. There, coming down the stairs in a red dress, was the sister of the fiancée, my mother. To hear my father tell it, he was struck instantly and forever by Cupid’s arrow. Although he was only 15, the sight of her took his breath away. So we know what my father was feeling, but how about her? Did she catch sight of him and feel the same overpowering love at first sight? Was she coming downstairs merely out of curiosity to meet her older sister’s intended, then to slip away for the afternoon with her friends? Did she have nervous or polite conversation with my father? What did they talk about? By the time she was 15 and he was 17, he had persuaded her to get married during her lunch hour in Manhattan’s City Hall. They prevailed upon two men in a nearby barbershop to be their witnesses and to swear that they were both of age. They then returned to work and to their separate homes that night.
My father was triumphant, I know, because he told us so, for now he had the love of his life as his own. Did he have any idea what that meant? You know, the stuff about making a home, supporting and caring for a wife? And my mother, my always and eminently practical mother? How had he convinced her to do this without telling her parents, her brothers and sisters, especially her older sister with whom she was dearly close? Hard as it is for me to picture, she must have been wildly in love.
Theirs was a youthful marriage that worked. They were seldom apart, only during the workday, and they eagerly reunited in the evenings. I could sense the quickening of her breath as we heard his key in the front door. And they began their nightly nonstop conversations as he entered the apartment. My sister and I fell asleep each night to the hum of their voices coming from the kitchen.
My dad was born in 1904, my mother in 1906, so they had both lived through World War I. My dad was lucky to be too young for the draft, but how did he feel seeing his older brothers marching off to war? And my mother? Was she worried about the fate of her older brother? I never asked them.
My parents decided everything together. My mother was more assertive about her opinions, but if my father didn’t agree she would back off. And while he seldom disagreed with her, when he did he was not reticent to let her know. They lived through the Great Depression, but I don’t know if they worried about money or job security. Were they afraid? There was no unemployment or health insurance then. Did they have nightmares about standing on breadlines? I never asked.
I do know that by 1939 they started their first business with all the life savings they had managed to scrape together. Then came Pearl Harbor and World War II. Once again my father was saved, being just beyond draft age. Did they feel threatened by the attack and the war? What were their thoughts and feelings? How did they cope with the stress? I came along then, but at no time in their lives did I think to ask.
Now, of course, it is too late.