Recently, I came across a tattered photo of my parents at their wedding reception and found myself wanting to see if I could hop into my pretend Way-Back machine and take a mental journey through Mom’s love life from an objective perspective.
Thing is, I had very little to go on. She was cagey about talking Past, answering my questions with non sequiturs or saying she couldn’t remember, almost as though she believed that if she didn’t rehash it, it hadn’t happened. Plus, one question always led to another with me, and she knew I wrote things down, reflected and asked more questions later. So I had to piece things together with the few facts I had.
At twenty-one, she met my father, a twenty-two year old Air force man, in her home town of Lincoln, Nebraska. Of him she wrote, in a memory book I nagged her to fill out, that he was a fast-talking, good-dressing easterner with smarts and a sense of purpose who her parents liked. He came from some place she’d never been and promised adventure. She described herself simply as an outgoing small-town tomboy whose ambition was to be liked. Combined, these personality dynamics upped the odds they’d hastily marry within three months.
She looked radiant in the wedding reception photo, but then again Mom had one of those here-come-the-sun smiles triggered by simple, little things like a cone of chocolate chip ice cream on a hot summer day or having just guessed a right answer on Jeopardy, so who knows what she was beaming about. Maybe the cake.
Did she love my father or some man before him? She dodged these inquiries too. If so, was he The Love Of Her Life, the next step in a life of limited, predictable steps, or something in between? Which elements of that tumultuous and disappointing relationship defined her and shaped her heart going forward? Why didn’t she talk about any of it?
Years later, I guessed her evasiveness was a self-protective coping skill, a way of burying emotional pain and devastation. Most of us are better at sharing good memories and certainly she’d have been more forthcoming if my father had been Billy Dee Williams or some nice, funny second-grade teacher who called her “Sunshine.” But how do you tell a junior feminist daughter you married someone you’d just met who quickly mistook you for a punching bag when he wasn’t passed out drunk? I can see how these were conversations she didn’t want to have.
Mom also married my father the same year her own father died, and lost her mother the next year, which may have left her feeling like she’d run out of options. Still, men rule, women relinquish is what she’d been taught so would her parents have rescued her anyway?
We never talked sex either, not that many mothers and daughters do. I broached the subject once as a teenager and when she matter-of-factly insisted “that’s for men,” I went to the library to see what Masters and Johnson had to say.
Comparative curiosity also catapulted my pretend WayBack machine back to my maternal grandmother, figuring she had an old-school take on the subject too. In my mind I stepped into that signature porch picture of her in a cotton-sack dress that had no sexy in it, where she just looked kind of wrung out standing next to my much shorter grandfather who’d taken her through nine babies, homemaking and his own demands, not to mention the nameless, burdensome things African American woman endured in the early 1900’s. In my mind, I asked her if she’d had enough love, enough passion and she looked at me sideways, with a hand on her hip, sucked air through her teeth and said, “Honey, please. What did love have to do with it?”
She and Mom had well-boxed roles, which make the relationship choices I have now seem roomy and luxurious. I’d like to think, though, that at least my mom hit some high notes of passion. That she screamed out in pleasure a few more times than she screamed out in pain. With my father or someone else. That some man read her poetry, kissed her under moonlight or gently held her hand and told her she was beautiful. Parts of her didn’t add up, so I was willing to make that leap of hope when I stared at that sparkling woman at the wedding reception.
Without a doubt, the middle chunk of her love life appealed to me most. After running away from my father—I don’t know what else to call it since she cracked him over the head with an empty booze bottle and hurried us onto a train, but never divorced him and later confessed to still talking to him on the phone sometimes—she waited almost a decade to re-engage with the male species. Then, with a desire for them that seemed held together by duct tape and packing twine, she chose a mere handful of men who were noticeably softer than my fiery father and got her sauce back.
In her golden years, she gave off a distinct been-there-done-that-and-didn’t-want-men-anymore vibe, except for dancing with one gentleman at the nursing home socials before he died.
I still don’t know if she loved big, or even had enough love, but she taught me, by witness, two valuable relationship jewels 1) love doesn’t hit, hurt, or feel like a horror flick 2) when love knocks you down, get back up and keep it moving. She loved how she loved, was mum about most of it as she propelled herself continuously forward, leaving me to decide the fate of my own heart.