“Do you remember Mom?” my father quietly asks. We’re sitting together in an open garden off a paved trail at his retirement village.
Birds are singing, there’s a slight breeze, the sky is a huge, spring blue. Time is so relative. Our present moment shared isn’t 2014, it’s as if we are back in 1946. We talk a lot about remembering.
Gazing off into the azaleas, together we are watching an old movie reel. My father is dating my mother on a college campus. She’s head of her sorority, a beauty queen, my father is a young psychology professor, outgoing, plays the banjo. He had to ask the Dean of Students for permission to date an undergraduate. Their life together is just beginning.
My father tells the story often these days, full of details and animation. If I ask him what he had for breakfast today or if he went to the movies, he can’t remember. Not that those details even matter.
During pauses in our conversation, he’s back with Mom somewhere. He tells me the story of when I was a baby and the two of them impulsively got into the Studebaker and were ready to head down the driveway, forgetting that I was in a crib back in the house. Just a pair of sleep deprived young-marrieds having fun.
He talks about going out dancing with my mother – she loved to jitterbug – and having to fend off all of his Air Force buddies who wanted to cut in. His eyes twinkle as he remembers their good times together.
He wistfully recalls their impulsive trips to the shore together, their beloved Atlantic City boardwalk and special nights at the romantic Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel. For my mother’s birthday, they always went into New York with friends and saw a few Broadway plays. He smiles telling me how much fun it was to shop for discounted tickets, never sure what shows they would end up seeing.
The nurses and ward staff take great care of my father; not a big fan of bingo nights, he’s always ready for the sing-a-longs and meal time routines. My mother’s not there when he looks around at his dining companions; it’s been 10 years.
Holidays are big on his hallway, the activity calendar changes daily. Today will be feted with bright pink and yellow posters and photographs. Families will all be coming by. We love our moms, don’t we?
My father will be happiest back in the ’40s with my mother, loving life together on a spring day on a New England college campus.
After my recent visits with my father, it takes me awhile to snap out of it. I, too, am stuck in time thinking about my mother. Did I do enough to make her happy, in childhood, or toward the end when she was in pain? Were there places she wanted to go that she never told us about? She was always so focused on our happiness and our lives.
When I was in college I used to love surprising my mother by coming home for breaks. They lived in New Jersey; I’d be trekking from North Carolina, hitching a ride after exams or final papers. I never knew myself when we’d hit Exit 9. I think the reassuring, shouted greeting must have been a reminder from my elementary school days, riding my bike up the driveway, opening the garage door and calling out, “Hi, Mom, I’m home.”
And she was always there.
I was so full of myself returning home during those heady, college days. With a few child psychology classes in my backpack and a seasoned veteran of campus anti-war demonstrations, I had all the answers. And after months of nobody telling me when to wash my clothes, clean my room or cut my hair, I upset the suburban scene in the Garden State if I overstayed my welcome. As guardian of the status quo and my younger brother and sisters, my poor mother took most of my challenges. Years later she said I once stridently proclaimed that she was brainwashing my siblings. Not my best moments.
Luckily, we had many years after that for me to calm down. I became a parent. And she became a wonderful grandmother, cranking up her home sewing and knitting hobby to a loving, feverish pitch. My girls had homemade cardigans, pullovers, hats, even legwarmers. I helped my mother find special label tags with her name imprinted on them.
One bright, singular Mother’s Day many years ago, we all celebrated our moms, under wisteria vines, at an outdoor restaurant in Chapel Hill, my wife and her mother, my mother and her granddaughters, all dressed up for the extra special occasion. Time to roll that movie memory again.