A Late in Life Love: A Mother-Daughter Tale
Long ago, my mother told me that she had married my father, a New Jersey boy who’d gone to Cornell, because they had laughed a lot together. Even now that’s hard to imagine. My mother had the rollicking, full-body horse laugh that I quite happily inherited. My dad was so dour as I grew up and matured that I couldn’t have imagined him a happy guy. An alcoholic- and in denial of it all his long life- Dad was enormously talented, a good writer and broadcaster during the Franklin Roosevelt years.
Before I was born, they lived the high life in Washington DC. Dad worked for the ABC Broadcasting affiliate WMAL, Mom was the secretary to the steel union. They made great money. And they were open about “brats.” Neither wanted kids. However times changed; television came onto the scene. Despite his perfect position in this nascent industry, my dad decided not to give it a go. He was deaf in one year and never even tried. As lovers of shells and seashores, they moved to Florida to- of all things- raise chickens. Who knew? A Cornell-educated actor, radio man and English lit major shoveling chicken shit. Apparently the Agriculture Department was at the time advising that it was the coming thing. They bit, so Dad shoveled shit.
Apparently after a while things got boring, because suddenly two kids were dropped at Hubbel Ranch. Somewhere along the way, gleaming sharp verbal swords got drawn. As I grew up it never occurred to me that it was odd that married people slept at opposite ends of the long front porch, walled off by a thick curtain. Mom called it an “armed truce.”
No Romance, Love, or Sex for That Matter
In all the years I spent on that farm, I never once saw my parents embrace, kiss, or head off giddily towards one twin bed or the other. I didn’t witness affection. Mom told me later that the physical connection was lost after us kids, especially since Dad didn’t bother to bathe at the end of a wicked hot Central Florida day after being around chickens. That was his way of getting even with her for having higher hopes. Mom came from money. Not what she signed up for. Apparently this was part of the shouting match, and Dad got even by stinking and drinking. My mother’s nose was extremely sensitive, and it was a particularly insulting way to offend her. Each drew blood in their own way, parrying and thrusting, doing damage, until at some point scars grew over scars, and they hardened into the armor of neglect, disregard, or outright swordplay.
For years my mother, who was born a matchstick and worked diligently to gain an ounce or two, suddenly found herself in mid-life with a fuller body. My father ridiculed her, as he liked thin women from his Roaring Twenties years. She sweated through floor exercises with Jack LaLane, ran up and down our country road, starved on lettuce diets. All to no avail. Dad let her have it about this- but I was also a target. Dad, ever the creative wordsmith, hurled-over-the meal insults at us that Shakespeare might have fashioned for Falstaff.
Yet nearly fifty years later, they were still together. My mother’s pride wouldn’t allow her to confide in a friend. We were to present a “united front” to the world, despite all the damage being done by friendly fire behind those imaginary Maginot lines.
Somehow selling the farm, buying an RV and spending years traveling allowed them to be distracted enough from what embittered both about how their lives had turned out. They took years to see the North American continent. Dad even sent Mom to visit me in Australia which is where, over the course of many weeks, I came to understand the real nature of my parents’ marriage. It saddened me deeply, but it explained everything. I never heard my father’s side.
Winding Down and Moving West
They planned their retirement at Sunny Acres Villa in Denver. My brother, by then a talented climber, had moved there long before. I moved after leaving the Army in 1978. The entire family had uprooted and shifted West, but the same resentments remained. As both my parents aged badly and Mom’s eyesight failed, driving the bulky RV was no longer an option. Stuck in a tiny 500-square foot apartment with nowhere to escape, Dad took out his anger at his aging body on Mom and anyone else who came to visit.
Eventually, his lifelong, three-pack-a day Marlboro filterless habit caught up with him. Cancer ended his life at 82. In many ways, Mom was free for the first time in her long life.
Enter Ed, Stage Left
When Dad died, old friends got in touch. Among them was Ed, a dearly beloved friend from DC who had escaped Nazi Germany with his wife to emigrate to the States in the 30s. Ed was a brilliant strategist, and worked for the Rand Corporation. I knew him from many visits: tall, athletic, his kind, handsome face and soft way of talking, his attentive listening, his crisp mind. Some time before Dad passed, Ed’s wife Gertie had been hit by a truck right in front of their house in Pacific Palisades. It broke all our hearts. Dad got the call while listening to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto #5.
I only saw my father cry three times in my life. This was the absolute worst. My parents were inconsolable. To this day, when I hear this emotive piece, I remember their pain.
Ed invited Mom out to visit. As she was now only partially sighted, I accompanied her. I will never forget the look on her face when Ed’s door opened and she saw him for the first time- even with her failing vision- both of them now single. She was madly, irretrievably in love. As Mom would say, an “ass-over-teakettle goner.”
My mother had never been in love before. Not like this. She had married a friend who became an enemy. Now out of her cage, this was a revelation.
I left them alone. A lot. My mother walked around glowing like a kid with her first crush. In every single way, she was. For the first time in four decades she was being treated with love and affection. She felt pretty (Mom was very pretty although you’d never have heard that from Dad). Acknowledged. She was sleeping in bed with a man she adored for the first time in more than half her life. I can’t begin to imagine what she must have been feeling.
Love, But Not in Love
There followed additional visits. One more to California, then Ed came to see us. At some point, Mom must have begun to pressure Ed, for we had several quiet, deep conversations about her. He cared for her as a friend, but he was a mountain man, a hiker. My mother, who was now tethered to an oxygen tank, could barely make it across the room without panting.
However she was as blind to this as she was blindly in love. As far as she was concerned they were perfect for each other. When Ed later married someone else, she was devastated. That didn’t work out, and Mom’s hopes rocketed to the moon all over again.
I felt for my mother, but she was unwilling to see Ed’s preference for an active hiking companion. He didn’t wish to inherit an invalid, which my mother was quickly becoming. She only saw and felt her need, and for more of the kindness she’d longed for, all those forty years. That need for more than he could offer my mother pushed Ed away, for he was concerned about raising her hopes. Yet he would not desert her. So they found a path.
Every Friday night Ed would call her at a given time, and he would read dirty limericks (along the lines of There Was a Man from Nantucket, if you get my drift). Like a couple of kids, they would roar and giggle, and Mom would go to bed temporarily happy. The next day she would pepper me with hopeless questions about why Ed didn’t understand she would take care of him. Mom lived from Friday night call to Friday night call, as dopey and drunk on unrequited love as a pollen-laden bee in spring.
The calls continued for years. Mom never stopped hoping even as her failing health caused her to wander in the snow, terrified and lost. She was no longer able to cook for herself. She lay in bed eating saltines. The food in her fridge went rancid and foul, and her body and brain rebelled for lack of nutrition. Because of her eyesight and the difficult tops to her pills she caused the nurses alarm by laying her pills in piles on the kitchen table. She knew what she was doing, but they called her “confused.” I’ve never seen Mom so damned mad. However, she wasn’t getting nourishment, and that finally forced our hand. She had to give up her independence.
We moved her to the larger care facility where she could eat well but still receive those precious calls. Whenever I visited, she repeated her agonizing desire for Ed over and over. No logic, no common sense could pierce that aching need. Yet when I pointed out what she did have, she pooh-poohed Ed’s calls and letters as meaningless. This hurt Ed right to the soul, for he loved my mother. He simply could not offer her his company, for it would have been dishonest. Ed was nothing if not plain, caring, and unfailingly fair.
A Perfect Passing
Finally one morning I got the call, which by then was expected. My mother, compos mentis to the end at 91, had gone to sleep smiling and had not awakened. Ed cried. I cried with him.
Perhaps what saddened me most was that my mother was incapable of being grateful for what she had experienced: full-blown, heartfelt, fly-me-to-stars love late in life. Many of us never feel this at all. Yet she had, a girlish giddy excitement that had transformed a woman in her eighties into a bright-red-panty-purchasing fiend. My Mom. Buying fire engine red undies in her eighties. I loved her for that.
The Cost of Fear
My mother felt that she was owed time with Ed to make up for the price she had paid with her marriage. The career she had dreamed about. Her incredible language skills. Travel to Africa that she yearned for but that never happened. While I understood her anger, I also knew that she had often backed away from divorce. Something kept my folks together for half a century. They needed each other but I’ll never fully understand why. I think both were afraid to find out what life was like without each other, even though that life had been costly. Sometime the wounds become so habitual it’s hard to imagine life without the familiarity of deeply-embedded verbal knives.
Mom was laughing and giggling right up to her last waking moments. That picture, of my mother with a serene smile on her face, is the priceless gift Ed gave us all.
The world lost Ed a few years later at 92. One of the best men I’ve ever known, one of the kindest, who enlivened and uplifted my mother in her last years. That she chose not to embrace the full gift and to pine for what she didn’t have was her journey. In that, she taught me a great deal about learning to love what we have, and celebrate what is given us. She taught me the precious importance of choice, self-reliance, and the cost of clinging to what doesn’t work. She taught me never to tolerate verbal or any other kind of abuse.
In many ways I’ve lived the life my mother might have. Five trips to Africa and another on the way. Travel all over the world and a passel of lovers of my choosing. Lots of loneliness, but then, I chose that path. I married at forty, only briefly, to an alcoholic. In a drunken stupor, that man ripped me apart. I got it on tape while he ranted. The next morning he begged forgiveness. I gave him the tape, and booted him out of my life. Mom taught me that. After that I never dated a man who drank. It has served me well.
Mom taught me the cost of forfeiting freedom because of fear. Often I feel my mother looking out through my eyes at the African veldt, watching lions stretch their limbs in lazy, post-meal satisfaction. I can hear her laugh reverberating in my belly next to my own. Above all she taught me to cherish love when I have it, in whatever form it comes, and not to ask for more than can be given. To drink from that sweet nectar even once in her long life was an amazing gift. To watch her do it, to be there the moment she descended into that dense forest of deep affection, was wondrous indeed.
And even though my classically-educated mother knew these words by heart, she couldn’t quite get her hummingbird heart to embrace them:
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all…” Alfred Lord Tennyson
She had indeed.