While browsing through bargain shelves at the book store one Saturday, I spotted a red covered journal with gold lettering on the front that read “Your Mother’s Story”. I have kept journals for decades including one where I specifically recorded all of my daughter’s “firsts”, various milestones, and funny little things she said and did as a child. As I flipped through the pages of this journal, I discovered that each page asked a specific question that a mother could answer about herself, her children’s father and their families for their children. Having loss my mother some years earlier at the age of 75, I’m more sensitive to the fact that we think we have time to get to these kind of questions, and yet – we really have no idea how little time we don’t.
I bought the journal and decided to use it in two ways. One to start making notes for my own daughter, knowing it would take a long time to fill its pages and secondly I would use some of the questions at my Mother’s Tea to help guests recall memories of their mothers. When I reached the page that asked, “How did my grandparents (my parents) meet?”, I thought I kind of knew, but didn’t have a crystal clear story. Whatever I thought I heard, had been told by my mother. I realized I had never heard the story from my Dad’s point of view. Dad has had dementia for some time now, and while his memory fails him on current events, he can usually remember almost anything from the past with shocking clarity.
One day while we were having lunch, I finally attempted to get his side of the story. I could see his mind drift back to the past, his eyes focused in the distance somewhere, he was back in the mid 1950’s. He loved to brag about all of the girls he used to date, and said that Mom as a teenager, operated a snowball stand in front of her house. (A common thing in the South during the 1950’s – and some still exist where zoning laws allow.) He went on to say that large groups of kids used to hang out around Mom’s snowball stand and the same crowd also met weekly at the dance halls. He said they moved around more in groups back then and Mom had a beaux. He was too busy running around with all of these other girls to really notice her, especially because she had a beau. Without much detail of how Mom and her beau ended things, he said eventually he noticed she was smart and a really good person that would be good for him and he started paying more attention to her, she was the kind of gal you got serious about. He has always given credit to Mom for “straightening him out” and says he would not have had the life he did without her at his side.
From my Mother’s version of the story, they had only dated for a couple of months when Dad proposed (photo above).
A small wedding followed and not long afterwards my Dad was deployed to Europe for several months with the U.S. Air Force, leaving my mother behind, separated by an ocean. In 1956 the only affordable correspondence was letter writing, and so they grew to know each other more through letters. Mom was of course miserable, because her parents wouldn’t let her go to the dance (which she loved) with her friends anymore because she was now married.
When Dad returned, his orders sent both he and Mom to Alabama. From there they moved nearly every year from State to State, had two children and in the last 8 or 9 years of his service we lived in Northern and Southern California where he would complete his 20 years of service and return to their hometown in Southern Louisiana in mid 1970 for the rest of their years. I can’t say that we were thrilled about trading in Southern California, for Southern Louisiana, but over time it has become home.
Their years together were not without conflict or challenges. Dad would be deployed for several months at a time on at least two occasions that I can remember, while Mom was living somewhere far away from her family and friends with two small children. He also deployed to Vietnam for a period of a year that would change him forever. When he returned from Vietnam his body had no injuries, but the mental and emotional scars of war have never left him. While stories of marriages falling apart were reported regularly for war veterans, my parents somehow made it through. We heard arguments and threats of leaving (mostly Mom). One minute she couldn’t stand another second with him and the next she couldn’t imagine her life without him. Any marriage that survives the number of years that theirs did would have to weather many storms, and for them it was just a matter of riding out the waves until they eventually subsided.
As their fiftieth anniversary approached I began to plan a surprise party for them. It was such a surprise that my Mom told me a week prior to the invitation date that she and Dad were going on a road trip. This caused me to have to tell her about the party. She was actually excited because she looked over the guest list and asked if she could invite some additional friends and family that I didn’t know.
The Friday before the party (scheduled Saturday night) I was up until midnight forming topiaries with white roses, green mums and limes for the cake table and cherry tomato with lemon leaf topiaries for the buffet. I worked hard to prepare a buffet menu with variety of food choices and thankfully we had enough food.
As a party favor for our guests, I printed their engagement photo on small square labels and adhered each to little boxes of butter mints.
It was a somewhat dangerous rainy night and the route to my brother’s home was very dark. I was concerned about the turn out, but the number of guests that arrived continued to grow. Family and friends my parents had not seen in many years had come and they were more surprised about seeing all of them, than anything else. They were really happy that night and so pleased to have so many show up for them.
My parents loved to dance , after all it’s part of how they started their relationship and the night did not end until they danced to “their song”, sung by Elvis -“I Can’t Help Falling in Love.” To this day, even with Mom in heaven, I usually play a fifties station for Dad in the car when I’m taking him somewhere – and that song never fails to play as if Mom is letting him know she’s there and I can see him holding her in his arms while dancing in his eyes. It always brings a smile to his face.
When Mom unexpectedly became ill, and passed away they had been married 57 years. Her biggest worry was who would take care of my Dad. In her mind and heart, no one could take care of him like she would. The worst thing I’ve ever had to do, was to ask my heartbroken Dad to go tell my mother is was okay for her to go home to the Lord. He promised her he would let us take care of him to ease her heart and mind, and he has.
I remember during the planning of their anniversary party, I realized that only one person among everyone who was invited to attend had grandparents on both her father and mother’s side that had been married for 50 years. That person is my daughter. With about 30 guests present – with families of their own, it shows how low the statistics for a long marriage really is and confirms what a difficult achievement it is -to be admired.
Whether your parents were married for many years or not, it’s worth knowing the story of how they met. Ask them while you can. In fact, ask them all kinds of questions, it’s never too soon – but can very easily be too late. Their stories reveal in many ways -love endures.