Most children threaten at times to run away from home. This is the only thing that keeps some parents going. ~ Phyllis Diller
I have a feeling that my own parents found the strength to go on occasionally by the fact that I tried to run away on a fairly regular basis. With any luck, they were also relieved, at times, by the fact that I never completely succeeded.
My family started fairly early collecting spare parents. While that didn’t seem like such a good thing in the very beginning, it took on more positive implications in later years. There was a fairly long line of spare parents on my father’s side of the family though, I suppose, the same could be said to some degree for my mother’s branch of the tree. Perhaps it was just that the tree wasn’t quite as big. Some relatives even married the spares more than once. You know, they say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting different results. Yeah, that sounds a lot like my family. But, like myself, I prefer to think it’s one of their most endearing qualities. If you’re going to be delusional, I believe your delusions should fall somewhere on the most favorable side possible.
In my own branch of the family, my father was the first to provide a spare parent – one I’d already known for many years. My mother, on the other hand, would wait a number of years after that before providing what could only be considered a spare in the loosest possible terms. He was a nice enough guy, I suppose, for someone who wasn’t ever within shouting distance of the truth. Sad, really, thought we all survived it. Many years later, however, she introduced an honest-to-goodness spare parent into the fold. In the end, I was blessed with two step-parents I was proud to call my own. I can only hope the feeling was/is mutual.
Tom, the perpetual smart-aleck, told me when my mother died that I wasn’t really going to be an orphan because I still had a step-mother. I’m not sure how technically correct he was about that from a strictly legal standpoint, but I do know how happy I am to have Charlene around. We’ve had a spotty, sometimes high decibel, relationship over the years. No matter how angry I got with her, though, I’d eventually remember that I’ve always really liked her. It’s annoying sometimes, don’t you think, to discover you really like someone with whom you’re angry?
Families come in all shapes and sizes. One size most definitely doesn’t fit all. One of the tragic things we’ve done to each other as a society is try to superimpose a picture of the ideal family on all of us. It’s tragic because many, many families don’t come neatly wrapped up with a daddy, a mommy, and 2.57 children. In addition, many families aren’t a happy daddy, mommy, and 2.57 children. I’ve always thought in my family that my brother was probably the .57 child – it certainly could not have been me or my sister. I’m also pretty sure he would have disagreed with me – loudly.
For any number of reasons, this neat little view of family has never been a true representation of reality. Admittedly, a family usually starts with a father and a mother – at least somewhere up the line. But even in the most “traditional” families, tragically, children are often left with only one parent – sometimes no parents — in their presence.
And, then, there’s my family. Perhaps yours is a little like this, also.
Looking back, I realize I had lots of extra parents long before my parents began providing spares on their own. As a frightened child who wasn’t even entirely certain why he was frightened, I believe my way of relating to the world and to the people around me encouraged many of them to become psuedo-share parents, perhaps without even realizing it. These were overwhelmingly women. My piano teacher, Ada, was a wonderful example. I was one skinny little kid. I just didn’t have much interest in eating and I’m sure that helped keep me thin, along with a metabolism that burned through everything like a house afire.
Even so, Ada worried about me. One day as I left after my piano lesson, Ada gave me a package of corn fritter mix. I’m not sure exactly what I supposed to do with it, though I’m sure there were instructions on the package. I hate corn, but will eat all sorts of things made from ground corn. Don’t ask. I feel pretty certain Ada didn’t think my mother was starving me, just that I might need a little extra to keep me from disappearing entirely. I already felt like I was disappearing and my body seemed to be trying to reflect that impression.
My step-mother, Charlene, tells me when I was around ten, I used to drop in at the Chamber of Commerce office where she worked downtown. This was, of course, long before she actually became my first official spare. She says I just dropped in to talk. For people who know me, they know talking isn’t something I generally shy away from on any regular basis. She tells me, however, that I didn’t drop in to talk about things other ten-year-olds were likely to talk about. That should probably come as no real surprise. I suppose I dropped in to talk about the sorry state of the world, the price of Mattel stock perhaps, and generally attempt to solve the ills of the world. I’m almost sixty now, Charlene is, uh, older than that, and we’re still stuck with the ills of the world. Perhaps we should have talked more often and planned more vigorously.
My parents finally split for all and for good when I was seventeen. Seventeen wasn’t a great year for me – for a lot of reasons. This was one of them, though I’m not sure it actually managed to make it into my top five that year. Take my word for it, it just wasn’t a good year – for any of us. And yet, I believe today some incredibly good things came out of that year. It may sound crazy, but I believe the split turned into a series of blessings for my entire family – not that I (or any of us) recognized that right off the bat. No, it probably took the better part of forty years for me to see that year for its blessings.
My mother came into her own during the years that followed. They were rough, I won’t try to deny that. I made them even more difficult than they had to be and, thank God, had the chance to make certain my mother knew I knew that in later years. Frightened, she gradually came to the realization that she had an inner strength that ran very, very deep.
My father, unfortunately, was unable to release his regrets quite as easily as may have been best for all of us. He and I had a relationship that see-sawed between being able to talk calmly about all sorts of things to screaming at each other at the top of our lungs. I held a lot of grudges against him for the rest of his life and beyond. It wasn’t until some time after I sobered up, and he’d been dead for years, that I finally accepted my role in our tenuous, stormy relationship. I finally realized I’d been waiting all my life for him to reach back into the past and make it all okay for me. Talk about unreasonable expectations! Thankfully, I now believe he knows that I’ve recognized and accepted my part in never quite being able to recapture a relationship. The fault didn’t lie completely with him, of course. A major part of the problem, as I see it now, was that we were too much alike. Neither of us were quite certain how to make the first move — or even, perhaps, why either of us should.
On one thing we could finally agree, though. Charlene was a blessing he presented to me. Oh, sure, she didn’t always feel like a blessing, but I can assure you I didn’t always feel like a blessing to her, either. How could I not like her, though? She thought my father was brilliant and thinks I am, too. What’s not to like? Seriously, I believe she and I are kindred spirits. She sometimes treats me like a son, I sometimes treat her like a parent. The rest of the time, we are simply good friends who love each other very much.
Have I mentioned lately I’ve led a blessed life? Have I mentioned lately what a shock it is to me to feel that way now?
My mother finally ended up having what I believe were the happiest years of her life with my step-father, Buddy. I smiled just now merely thinking about Buddy and my mother. What a pair! I’m not certain I’ve ever known two more kind, loving people than these two. And, I had the privilege of coming back to Texas in time to see them on a regular basis for seven or eight years before they were both gone from sight. Mother had received a “Dear Jane” letter from Buddy while he was overseas during World War II. They were engaged and, I’m pretty sure, she was devastated when he broke it off. He said she deserved someone better. That’s all she knew at the time. She found out very, very much later (like after they finally married in 1995) the real reason he’d broken off the engagement. His family was having a very hard time in Texas while he was overseas. If he’d married, his pay would have been sent back to his new wife. He knew he needed to help take care of his family, so decided he couldn’t marry. By the time he’d returned to the States, mother had married my father. That, though, may give you an idea who Buddy was. Honorable is the word that comes to mind.
It was abundantly clear that my mother and Buddy were happy. Buddy’s first wife died a couple of years before the two met again and started seeing each other. Mother had lived alone for quite a few years at that point. Suddenly, she was like a schoolgirl again. It was the most incredible thing to watch – embarrassing, almost! But mother had made a life for herself over the years. It was plain to see she was completely capable of taking care of herself. After their marriage, however, there were some things Buddy simply insisted on taking care of. It’s not like he didn’t know she could afford to take care of those costs, just that it’s what he wanted to do. So, mother let him. It’s a lot easier to allow someone to care of you when you know you’re capable of doing it yourself. It perhaps also makes it easier to allow yourself to be taken care of later on when you are no longer able to do it for yourself.
Isn’t it sad how many blessings we’ve had in our lives that we’ve failed to fully notice or appreciate until they’ve left our presence?
If you’ve guessed that my father and I didn’t have the best relationship in the world, you would be correct. On the other hand, there were some times way back there when things were, once in a while, different. The family had been to Six Flags one summer and had seen two guys pantomiming to recordings of Stan Freberg’s satirical parodies of songs like “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” Don’t know Freberg? Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Az2rHv57zq4 and listen to “Heartbreak Hotel” for a little taste of what my father and I ended up performing together. We got a copy of one of Freberg’s album and, on several occasions, performed a few numbers from that album in public. I was the mostly silent one on the drums. I don’t remember how old I was, but I wasn’t yet a teenager. We performed on the courthouse steps once for a hootenanny my father planned as editor for a promotion for the newspaper to generate advertising dollars. That was a time when Dad still knew how to have a little fun – to relax a little. If you know me now and you’ve seen me at my silliest and as a deadpan smart-aleck, you also know at least one part of my father. We are all legacies of our parents in one way or another.
There was a time when it felt like two parents were perhaps two parents too many. That has probably been true for all of us at one time or another. Things can change, thankfully. I now know you can be a very lucky person, indeed, if you have lots of parents – parents, in fact, to spare. Look at me. I ended up with more parents than certainly I deserved and I turned out pretty good! Sure, it took fifty years or so to get there, but who’s counting?
The bottom line is this. There’s been a lot of sadness in my life. What’s sadder still is that I held on to that sadness long after it was useful to me. I’ve finally decided it’s time to rummage around in whatever memories I have left knocking around in my head and find the ones that make me smile, perhaps even chuckle. Those, after all, are the keepers. Those are the memories that make life worth living. Those, hopefully, are what ultimately make a life.
I used to fantasize about how I really wasn’t my parents’ child. How could I be, after all? My father has dark-complected, as were my brother and sister. They all had dark hair, as did my mother, though she was more like a really, really white woman with dark hair. I, on the other hand, was fair-complected and a blond with bluish-green eyes. Admittedly, that changed before I was grown, but I couldn’t see how that should change anything at all. My real family, obviously, was from Sweden or someplace like that, more than likely royalty. Oh, and rich. No, not just rich – filthy rich. And even though they were rich and blond, they would understand a fragile, gifted boy such as myself. I’d probably ride horses often and wear riding breeches. Yes, a scarf also, I think. My name was obviously not Ben, it was Sven.
Alas, I’m not that fragile blond boy anymore. When I look in the mirror, what do you suppose I see staring back at me? Mostly, I see my father – with a little of my mother’s fair complexion sprinkled in – my forehead seemingly getting higher each year. I guess that blows my Sven theory. That’s okay. What I’ve described makes a great fantasy, but a fantasy, nonetheless.
A life is made of up lots of things – lots of people. Some of those people are Sybil and Buddy, Ed and Charlene — Mom and Buddy, Dad and Charlene. The memories worth keeping are some of the things they’ve given me.
Whether here with me now or standing next to me seemingly just out of sight, I am still blessed with parents to spare. And will always be.