Mom and Dad

I had two stupendous bits of early good fortune in life: my mother and my father. I was well into my teens before it dawned on me that not all marriages were happy.

We lost my mom far too soon, to early-onset Alzheimers, a cruel, cruel disease under any circumstances, but particularly painful to watch in such a vivid personality. My dad died on Easter morning five years ago, so I’ve been thinking of him particularly these days. Which, of course, makes me think of mom too.

She once told me that she had early on said to my paternal grandmother, “Dick has such wonderful manners.” Nana gave a characteristically waspish reply: “Of course he does. He was raised at my table.”

Partly because of those manners, and partly because of the luck of the genetic draw, my father was a popular young man. He captained the football team, was elected class president, and as his high school yearbook had it, “Dick’s fascinating charm and bashful manner have caused many a female heart to flutter.” Even a half-century later, the newspaper article about his class’s 50th reunion led with quotes from female classmates gushing about his handsome wonderfulness. (All of us, naturally, razzed him silly.) 

My mom, a class younger, once purposely dropped all her books in the school hallway just as he was passing. “He picked them up, I said, ‘thank you,’ he said ‘you’re welcome,’ smiled, and went on his way. I could have kicked him.” She eventually broke through that bashful manner, and dad spent the rest of his life believing he’d won the lottery.

Neither of them went to college. Dad could probably have gone on the G.I. Bill, but he’d  gotten a decent job and really had no interest. Mom, on the other hand, would have killed for a college education. She made do with reading. She read everything—from poetry to history to cheap detective fiction—everywhere, all the time. She read, for example, at the table. Which meant I had permission to do the same. And my father took it up, too—primarily Louis L’Amour westerns. “Out of self-defense,” he always said.

Together, though, they agreed  that their only child was definitely going beyond high school. They started saving before I actually appeared, using the cost of a Yale education as their guide. In the late 1940s, that came to a breathtaking $1,000 a year. So. Used cars (very used cars), no big vacations, and the cheapest possible house in a town with a good school system. All this seasoned, thank goodness, with love, kindness, and good humor. We laughed a lot. A lot.

Mom and I often played word games. I remember sitting outside, looking at the stars in the summer sky. She’d say a word. I’d say one—preferably a better one, preferably a funny one—that rhymed or that I could make rhyme by pronouncing it wrong. She’d sometimes read or recite to me a short poem, often comic. And in the process of all this, I learned about the rhythmic possibilities of language, not just in poetry, but in good prose, too. And have I said we laughed a lot?

My father was, of course, my model for what a man should be. As a partial result, along with knowing how to go back on a fly ball, I have, and still reflexively deploy, the manners of an earlier time. I learned that men look people in the eye, shake hands firmly, walk on the outside, open doors, stand when ladies come into the room, take off their hats when they enter a building, deflect gracefully any praise that might come their way—and (he was a lower-middle-class man of his time) don’t wear pink.

He may have had something there.


Mom and Dad — 3 Comments

  1. Oh Mark, I loved reading this….thank you so much. Your Dad was so kind to me at Hilary and Alex’s wedding; he and I, 2 single people dancing. Those wonderful manners that somehow have been lost, with a younger generation or do we think that because we are older?

  2. This is wonderful, Mark. Your writing reminds me of my Dad’s…and your story reminds me of my family….especially playing word games (and in Tori’s case, back in the late 80s….number games). I’m sure you still do all of this with your grandbabies, as do I. We can’t sit down to lunch without one or the other saying, “let’s play word games”, or “rhyme time”…I leave the math games to Tor:)

    Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.