My Parents' Romance

Difficult but enduring

Up to a certain point in my early adulthood—let’s say, before the age of 35—my mother and I had a competition as to which of us had made more household moves in her lifetime. By the time I had divorced in my early 40s, I could count twelve moves since graduating from college. That’s more than one every two years, and at that point I think I simply stopped counting. So did she.

Between leaving my then-husband in San Francisco and landing in godawful central New Jersey, I had a mere three moves under my belt, and was ready to load the wagons once again, especially after losing my foothold in New York chez Tom. So when my ex became unexpectedly and obscenely rich in the dot.com boom ca. 1999-2000, he offered to increase my alimony and finance my next move, back to Manhattan.

Now, if he was so bloody stinking rich, the sensible thing would have been to ask for a modest co-op in the $2 million range, which at that time would still buy you a small two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. But neither of us had a sensible bone in our bodies and instead I zeroed in on an overpriced rental near Lincoln Center, perhaps my favorite neighborhood in New York.

So at least for a time there I was living every upwardly mobile New Yorker’s dream: an apartment in a good neighborhood in Manhattan and a beach house in the Hamptons (okay, so it was Leisurama, and it was Montauk, which at that time some disparaged as “Fathampton,” but it was still technically part of the town of East Hampton).

And then my mother broke her collarbone getting out of bed and my father called, weeping. I talked to her doctor, who said he did not think she had more than a week or two at most.

She was in hospice care and nearly gone by the time I arrived, down to 98 pounds or so, and my father was a helpless shambles, tacking between bewilderment and rage. When a pair of well-meaning emissaries from social services, impeccably coiffed church ladies in pastel pants suits, stopped by to ask what he intended to do about a service and interment, he lashed out, “We both want to be burned, in a crock!”

It fell to me to call my brother in Kansas. I told him that if he wanted to see his mother alive, he needed to get on a plane immediately.

“I’m not so sure that’s important to me,” he said.

At which point I lost it. “I am alone here in Florida with a dying woman and a crazy old man, and these people happen to be your parents. I am your only sister, and I need your help. You get your ass on a plane right now!”

He did, but arrived too late to say good-bye, and a certain harrowing dysfunction set in. Of all the details of the days following, a few stand out. The nurses expected me to dress my mother after they had washed her body, before the arrival of a hearse from the funeral home, and somehow I maneuvered her  fragile, bruised arms and legs into a pair of gray silk lounging pajamas I had bought her a few years earlier. Somehow I coaxed my father out of the filthy madras jacket he’d been wearing for weeks and stuffed it in a trash can far from the house. Somehow we visited with a funeral director in an establishment on the edge of the local shopping mall and agreed on a casket and cremation. No services because my father was adamant about keeping it simple. “I will shoot her ashes out of a plane, if I choose, when I am goddamned good and ready.”

At our own little family wake, on the patio of my parents’ house, my brother and I drank far too much scotch and reminisced about the good moments in my mother’s life. My father reminisced about a mistress in Venezuela. “The women in Caracas are the most beautiful in the world,” said he.

Bill and I exchanged appalled looks. It was not an easy save.

“Next to my mother,” I said.

“Yes, next to your mother.”

It was at that point that I slipped off with a bottle of my mother’s Valium and checked into a motel for the next few days.  

My brother returned to Kansas, and I hung around to make sure my father could manage on his own. I don’t think the full force of his loss hit him then, and I did not know when it would set in. But he still seemed fully capable of driving, and a couple of days after my mother’s death, we headed up to Fort Myers to visit her brother and his wife. I had been making a mental inventory of what clothing and other paraphernalia of my mother’s I wanted to keep, and what should be sent to others in the family.

My mom had two beautiful sets of Bavarian china, with delicate floral embellishments, not my style at all but perhaps of value to someone else in the family. I suggested to my dad, as we drove north in his hideous burnt-sienna Cadillac, that Mother’s sister or nieces might appreciate the bequest.

He glared at me. He barked, “Suppose I decide to get married again?”

I was, by then, beyond outrage, even beyond crying, which would come later, after I returned home to New York.

It would seem, reader, in their final days together that my parents’ marriage was not a good one at all, but I believe this was far from the case. The end of the romance was simply brutal in the ways peculiar to dementia and life on a Florida golf course, which was to my way of thinking no life at all.

Often I would watch them in Naples, on the patio, heads bent over the New York Times crossword puzzle, which they worked together every day, passing it back and forth throughout the long empty hours. They would become animated and joyful, trading old jokes perhaps, talking about their difficult children—my indifferent brother, my unhappily mated self. As my father waned mentally and my mother declined in her aging body, they took care of each other. Together they made up a whole person.

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Every marriage is a mystery, but perhaps none more so than that of your parents. I would try to get inside it from time to time, but never completely understood. My mother was an adventurous reader, who disdained the popular fiction of her day as “trash,” but could laugh herself silly reading Chaucer. She forbade women’s magazines in our household and told us to check the dictionary if we didn’t know the meaning of a word. My father never read anything more challenging than the Times or Fortune magazine. But they were both adamant about giving their children the best education possible, and I think that was a great bond between them.

When my mother was in her mid-fifties and my father’s drinking had become more and more problematic, I urged her to leave him. “I could never do that to your father,” she said. When he wanted to retire to Florida and she was reluctant to give up a job she loved, as a school librarian, I invited her to move in with us and join him on school breaks. “I could never do that to your father.” When I visited in Naples and suggested lunch out, just the two of us, as we often did when they lived in New York, she said, “I can’t leave your father alone.”

My ex-husband once remarked, “They are co-dependent.”

“Who in a long marriage is not co-dependent?” I retorted.

But, oh, the funny and tender moments I witnessed between them.

Driving into town from the house in Montauk, over a steep hill posted at 40 mph, my father groused about the car ahead of us. “Come on, you old fart, step on it! Ya damn geezer, put the pedal to the metal!”

My mother regarded him coolly. “And what do you think they call you, old man?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “They call me dude.”

For Christmas one year, my father confided to me that he wanted to get her something special, “something that will make her eyes light up and sparkle.” He bought her a garish watch with tiny yellow diamonds from Zales. She accepted it with surprise and delight, just as she raved about the strings of pop beads and the earrings from Woolworth’s we had given her when we were younger.

After her death in early May, I called my dad twice a week and visited every month or so. He seemed all right on his own, not great, but managing with regular visits from the cleaning woman and a couple of friends. I flew down in early September of 2001 and was scheduled depart Fort Myers the evening of the 10th. The flight was canceled, because of bad weather, claimed the airline, but I suspected there were too few passengers to justify the expense. We were put up in a Days Inn overnight, and when I clambered into the airport shuttle the next morning, the flight attendants were whispering among themselves. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Weren’t you watching the news?” one said. “A plane flew into the World Trade Center.”

Like many others, I imagined a small private plane gone astray. I arrived at the airport in time to watch the second tower collapse. I inquired at the ticket counter about flights out of Fort Myers, and the stricken agent looked at me as if I’d asked for a round-trip to the moon. I went to the bar and ordered a double bloody Mary and watched the falling towers, over and over. Cell phones were not common in those days, and so I waited in line to call my father, who was up on the news and  presciently announced, “It was that Bin Laden creep.” That had not been confirmed, but there were advantages to my father’s careful reading of the Times every day, and some mechanisms in his brain could still snap smartly into place.

Back in Naples, we watched the news coverage endlessly, eating the casseroles I’d left behind in the freezer. I checked on friends via email, learning that almost all were safe, though a few had to flee Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Your mother and I used to love dining at Windows of the World,” Dad remarked at one point. This was the high-end restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.

“Well, that’s gone,” I said.

“No it’s not,” insisted my father. “The restaurant’s still there.”

You didn’t argue with a mind like his.

I couldn’t wait to get home.

On Friday I rented a car and drove north, listening to NPR all the way, stopping overnight in South Carolina. I stayed Saturday night in Princeton with a friend and drove to Montauk the next day, past the smoking ruin of lower Manhattan.

Shortly before Christmas of that year my father broke his leg when he fell to the sidewalk outside the house. For once, my brother flew to Florida to tend to him. As long as dad was in the hospital, one of the doctors wanted to install a pacemaker, and I called the family physician, who gently advised against it. “These old men, they don’t last long after their wives go.”

The hospital settled my father in a rehab facility, advising that he probably would not go home again. I visited once, and it was not unpleasant, but my father begged me, “Help get me out of here. Your mother will be worried sick.”

He was not well enough to go home, but in January was transferred to the household of a woman—and she seemed a very kind woman—who took care of old people until they were well enough to be moved again. Or not. He could scarcely talk on the phone. On Valentine’s Day, she called to tell me he had died. “Your dad said, very quietly, ‘I think I’m ready to go.’ And he was gone like that.”

I sat on my grief for a long time; the battering from my mother’s death, 9/11, and yet another move had wrung all the tears from my system. For more than 20 years, I have carted his ashes with me from place to place, in the trunk of one car or another. Perhaps this summer is the time to float him gently down the Rio Grande. The dude would like that.

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Top: My parents ca. 1985