My mother was a war bride; not in the foreign-born sense, but in the sense that she married a soldier headed overseas. It was February 26, 1944; she was just shy of 17 and her man was 21, looking sharp in his Army uniform. There were quite a few new brides in her high school; sadly, some would become new widows, as well. Mother always told me she never doubted that the man she loved would return to her, and maybe her faith and his determination helped make it happen. I don’t know, but I’m just thankful it did.
My father had a rough time returning to normal life after the war; in fact, nightmares plagued him for the rest of his life. In the first few months, he drank too much, trying to escape the horror show in his head. He didn’t sleep well for a long time; Mother recounted night after night of playing pinochle with him into the wee hours. Eventually the worst of it subsided, and they became a normal, post-war family.
Both of my parents loved children and wanted lots of them. Curious people would see their little ones and ask if our family was Catholic, and my mother would say with a wink and a smile, “Not Catholic – passionate Protestant.” By the time I came along in 1964, they had been married 20 years and already had six children. And as it turned out, seven was enough. The house my dad built had already been pushed out more than once from its original floor plan to accommodate more bedrooms.
Raised during the Great Depression, Mother and Dad had learned the hard lessons of doing without, and with a house full of children on one income, they lived it daily. As the youngest, I don’t remember the hard times that my siblings do, but I do know that in my family, emphasis was never on material goods. We just didn’t live that way; we were happy with what we had, and those things that were important to us were love and family and character. I knew as a child that I didn’t have all the fancy stuff that my classmates did, but it didn’t really matter. I suppose we could have been considered poor, but by whose standards? We were loved.
Speaking of my classmates – I remember several of them had divorced parents and spent weekends alternating between their moms’ and dads’ houses, juggling stepparents and new siblings and the related upheaval. I have always been grateful that my parents never split up; I could see how divorce had a painful effect on my friends. Even when I was secretly jealous that my friend’s dad bought her a new stereo, I still felt sorry for her because she didn’t have both parents all the time, like I did. I don’t think I ever worried that my own parents would divorce – even though they argued, my parents genuinely loved one another and were committed to their marriage and our family.
Growing up in a big family taught us to share and to be patient; we learned to help each other, and we learned to work as a team. We were taught the Depression-era axiom, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’ Hand-me-downs were common; toys and books passed from one child to the next; and bedrooms were shared. While Mother taught me where babies come from, growing up with sisters taught me about puberty and panty hose. In fact, it was my sister Wendy who taught me how to use a razor to shave my legs and underarms. I loved my big family.
My father was terribly outnumbered at home; after my brother moved out on his own, Dad was the only male. I often wonder how he kept his sanity back then surrounded by so many girls, but then I recall how much time he spent in his workshop and basement. Dad was a strict, but loving, father, but he saw the humor in his situation. One summer day, on a family vacation with just three of us girls, Dad was enjoying a cold beer outside our tent trailer, while inside the trailer was all kinds of commotion. Hearing it, a man from the neighboring campsite came over to see what was going on; Dad swung his beer hand in the direction of the trailer and explained with a wry smile, “I’ve got female problems.”
Some of my fondest memories growing up featured my parents showing their affection for one another. Many times I would see Dad take Mother’s hand and lead her gallantly through a few dance steps, whether there was music or not; I loved the smile on her face when he did that. Mother drew his baths, and she would go in to wash his back; when he came out, she would attend to his tired feet. They held hands, kissed, and hugged all the years they were married. They were demonstrative in their affection, and that’s how they raised us. All of us knew that our parents loved one another deeply, without reservation. That was how it was supposed to be, right?
Pa used to joke that his first wife was a Sasquatch. He joked about many things – how he’d spent time in the Swiss Navy and the Underground Balloon Corps, and that he was once a member of the Mess Kit Repair Battalion. He joked with the kids in the neighborhood that the sidewalk he was pouring was actually a baby elephant walk, and that the air compressor on wheels was a newfangled go-kart. But he took his role as husband and father very seriously. We girls grew from wanting to marry Daddy to wanting to marry someone just like him.
Mother was devoted to Dad; she first met him as her best friend’s big brother, and was instantly attracted to the handsome, quiet young man. She set out to spoil him, and she did. She learned to cook his favorite foods, and she treated him like a king. She appreciated that he worked hard to support the family and that he was a knowledgeable handyman who took care of the homestead. I asked her once about why we were having liver and onions for dinner when nobody liked it but Dad, and she looked me square in the eye and said, “Because your father likes it, and I cook for him. He gets up every morning at 5 o’clock to go to work, and he deserves to get what he likes for dinner. Now run along.” What a gal.
When I met my husband, I was happy to learn that his parents were also a long-married couple. Sadly, it seems surprising anymore. Because of this simple fact, our backgrounds were very similar, and we had much in common. We both hoped to find lasting love like our parents had, and we believed in the sacred commitment of marriage. He fit in well with my goofy family, and they embraced him; likewise, his family opened their hearts to me.
At my wedding shower, the ladies wrote marriage advice on note cards to give me. My mother’s said, Just remember – YOU are not perfect, either. Those words have sustained me through these married years when my frustration level rises. She also told me that men and women are different animals who speak different languages. She predicted that someday I would find myself in a heated argument with my husband, and suddenly recognize that we were actually on the same side. She was absolutely right, and it’s happened more than once. She was a smart one, my ma.
Over the years, after the kids had all grown up and had kids of their own, my folks settled into a routine of loving togetherness. When Dad’s eyes were bad, Mother read books aloud to him so they could enjoy them together. They helped one another with the chores and the cooking. They would linger at the table after a meal, enjoying their coffee and conversation. They took walks together each day to get a little exercise. Sometimes one of my sisters would join them, sometimes bringing her children along. It was a slower life, well earned by their earlier lives of hard work. One of my poetry-loving mother’s favorite verses was the first few lines of Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me/the best is yet to be/the end of life, for which the first is made.” That was truly how they saw their twilight years.
My parents died tragically one night in a train crash fifteen years ago. They were on a cross-country trip to visit one of my sisters, and, just weeks before, had celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. My sister Wendy died with them, as did her best friend. It’s a tremendous understatement to say how that tore the fabric of our lives apart; Mother and Dad were the hub of our family, and losing them changed everything we knew. But what they left us is everlasting: love, family, and character. Work hard; love God; be honest and kind; be grateful; and above all, cherish each other.
My parents’ marriage was an example for us all.