On this Mother’s Day, I pay a tribute to both of my parents and to my in-laws as well. Nancy and I come from long-lived stock, all having made it beyond 85 years of age. Out of our four parents, three are still living.
My father died nine years ago, after several years of declining health. But he had worked until well into his seventies—physical labor, cleaning carpets—until Alzheimer’s robbed him of the capacity to manage himself out in the world. Two traits characterized my father: hard work and diligence. In my childhood, before he was self-employed, he would come home from his eleven-hour day, then, three nights a week, be off again to a meeting at church. He was a servant leader, selected not for charisma but for his faithfulness at getting the job done. For a number of years, his regional church duties included attending the annual national convention, requiring punishing 600-mile-a-day drives to and from the convention site in order to cram it all into his single week of vacation. My brothers and I, who were his helpers after he’d left the office job to be a self-employed carpet cleaner, remember with no great fondness longing to call it a day, while he would scan his work for spots no one else could see and work them one more time.
Having grown up on a farm, he’d done a little bit of everything. From him I learned a little about building fences and simple structures, keeping baby chicks alive on cold early spring nights, saddling and riding a pony, hoeing a garden and staking tomatoes, and that an electrical connection is no good unless you first have a solid mechanical connection.
My mother worked a full career as a school teacher (first and second grades), retired at the normal age, and has lived almost as many years post-retirement as she put into her working life. At age 90, she was still living alone, driving, and visiting “shut-ins,” people often younger than herself who could no longer get out of the house for church and socializing. That independence came to an end a few years ago, but even within the confines of her nursing home, the constant stream of visitors and the interactions with fellow residents testify to her social and nurturing nature. When Jay was born, Nancy’s mother was not available, so mine came to stay with us for a few days. Nancy still tells how my mother quietly, almost invisibly, kept the kitchen and laundry going, was there when asked for advice, but carefully allowed the new mom take the lead.
Mother, too, was a farm child. My childhood summers included “putting up” large quantities of food for the winter: shelling peas, stringing and canning beans, shucking corn, picking blackberries (and scratching chiggers), making jams and tomato juice and pickles. We almost always had dessert with our meals and, until her move to the nursing home, most of my adulthood visits with her included bringing back with me some homemade cookies or cake or pie.
Nancy’s parents have had some medical ups and downs, but are currently healthy—still driving and living independently, snowbirds making an annual migration between homes in Florida and Tennessee. From her mother, Nancy got her artistic eye and ear; from her father, mechanical aptitude; from both parents, the gifts of curiosity and a sense of adventure. From her mother, Nancy learned to question medical authority and get a second opinion (today they refer to her affectionately as their “medical director”); from her father, how to be a good assistant and anticipate the needs of those around her (a much-appreciated attribute when we work on projects together).
When Nancy and I were dating, her mother would carefully tell me how she prepared various dishes; knowing Nancy’s disinclination to cook, her mother assumed it would be up to me to keep us fed. Her mother is highly organized, and as our wedding date approached, she prepared detailed to do lists for Nancy, Nancy’s father, and herself. She was careful not to presume, but when she offered to do the same for me, I gratefully accepted.
The house we bought was a handyman special—still structurally OK, but sadly bereft of basic maintenance. I was out of town on business during the pre-signing inspection, so Nancy’s parents accompanied her. They pointed out broken locks and non-functioning electrical switches and outlets, while sellers’ realtor appeared disinterested and unsympathetic. Then Nancy’s father touched together the bare wires that once fed an over-sink light. The resulting flash and pop were marvelously effective at getting the realtor’s attention.
Among the deficiencies of the house was a rather grubby laundry area in the rather grubby garage. Shortly after we’d moved in, I got a call at work from Nancy, telling me that her dad was tearing out a wall, in preparation for constructing a proper laundry room. To this day, our laundry/utility room is affectionately called The Walter Room.
To our parents, and to parents everywhere, thanks.