Taking Notes

ALL THE DIRT

I’ve been at my parent’s house for three days now. I booked this trip before my surgery. I strategically calculated this would be the time I would feel well enough to make the trip, and hoped I was right. (I was by the skin of my nose). Originally, my surgeon had offered a surgery date closer to the day we first met to discuss my issue.

I did the math in my head and said, “Yes, that should work, because it’s two weeks before our (The Schuessler) family vacation in Utah.”

Without breaking stride, my surgeon politely corrected my assumption. “Um, no, I think that’s a little too soon after surgery [to be hiking in canyons]. Why don’t we wait until you get back?”

HA! Yep, I had no idea.

Besides visiting with my parents and siblings, I am also trying to help my parents with the things they need help with. It boils down to making a lot of lists of what needs doing and when.

This is the first time I’ve been invited to the adult’s table. What is a little disconcerting is the fact the table is turning at the same time. My parents are accepting help and input from their kids for the first time in their lives.

This is unchartered territory. My parents have always been fiercely independent, otherwise known as “taken care of their own shit.” My parents have always done this, and have shielded their kids from the brunt of it.

They have made life look easy, even though I know it isn’t.

This change in roles, (being asked to help instead of asking for help), feels like a seismic shift in tectonic plates. My parents are still fiercely independent, “large and in charge,” but the roles are not the same and never will be again.

I’ve started asking a lot more questions. I’m trying to write it down as fast as I can, but it’s hard to keep up with all of the crumbs falling off of the fork.

They have some great stories.  Below is some of what I’ve learned in the last three days.

(The following story is about the same great neighbors in New Jersey, John and Barbara Poulson, who supplied me with little Snickers bars as a kid. They were equally generous with my parents.)

My dad shared this story with me:

One day John saw your mother driving up and down the driveway all day, coming in and out of the house, running errands.

My dad tilted his head slightly as he raised his eyebrows conspiratorially. Looking at me, he knocked the kitchen table lightly with his knuckles and said, “You know, you’re mother was a lunatic. Never could sit still.”

He went on, “Well, John and Barbara were sitting outside in their backyard having a cocktail, and John called over to your mother, ‘Terry,’ he said, ‘I’ve watched you run around all day doing errands. You need to sit down for a second. Come on over and have a drink with us.’”

My dad continued. “Well, your mother protested because she had dinner plans with friends, and didn’t really have time to sit down.  But John insisted, and well, your mother can’t say no to anything. So she went and sat down with John and Barbara. She figured she would have one drink and then get ready for her dinner.

They were drinking something that didn’t taste very good, maybe a martini or a Manhattan, or something like that. Your mother didn’t like it very much, but she drank it anyway.”

My dad started shaking his head. “Well, then John refilled your mother’s glass.

Pretty soon, it didn’t taste so bad.

In the meantime, her friends rolled up our driveway to pick her up for dinner, but your mother was still sitting in the Poulson’s backyard having drinks.

They left without her, and your mom came scurrying home to change clothes so she could meet them there.”

My dad was still slowly shaking his head at this memory.

“By the time she arrived at the restaurant, they had already ordered.”

Later, I shared this story with my mom. Laughing at the memory, she inserted her own version of events. “It was only the one drink! That’s it! Just the one!”

I rolled my eyes at this.

I felt like I had finally caught “Little Miss Mary GoodyTwoShoes,” red-handed. I pointed my finger at her and accused her of driving when she shouldn’t have. She is adamant she didn’t cross any lines, but I’m not so sure. Either way, we all had a good laugh at the memory.

My mom didn’t impart anything very juicy on my dad, but she did share one episode when he really pissed her off:

Once again, my mom was out gallivanting with her friends. (Proof Little Miss Mary GoodyTwoShoes has always been a social butterfly, what my dad referred to as a “lunatic,” for dramatic effect). This time they were playing Bridge. She got home late and Dad had already gone to bed (us kids, too). But Dad had locked her out of the house.

Your father bolted the doors shut, so it didn’t matter that I had my house key.”

Well Mom banged and yelled, trying to get someone’s attention.

Shaking her head, still in disbelief even now, she said, “Both dogs were going nuts in the laundry room. That was right under our bedroom!! How could your father not hear that?”

Not a single one of us stirred—not my father or the three kids. Only the dogs. She tried the front door with the same results. At this point, she was getting cold.

She said, “I was so pissed, I picked up a brick and threw it through the garage window.

Still, nothing! I couldn’t believe it! The whole house, besides the dogs barking their heads off, was completely quiet.”

She said, “I reached my arm through the broken window and turned the latch on the garage door to let myself inside.

I was so mad that I banged every door in the house; stomped up the stairs as loud as I could; and I even slammed our bedroom door shut. But your father never even moved. I could have been Jack the Ripper, and no one would have been none the wiser!!”

It never gets old hearing the dirt my parents have on each other.

Dad told me one story about his own father which surprised me. I don’t remember my paternal grandfather at all because he died when I was very young. I don’t know much about him either, except the facts of his life. (He was much older than my paternal grandmother; worked as a longshoreman in Baltimore; and had a 4th grade education).

My dad said “Pop Pop” bought him his first car. This was a revelation to me. My grandparents lived extremely modest lives. They had reared their children during the time of The Great Depression and subsequently, World War II. These were difficult times and “surplus” cash did not exist for them.

Dad said, “I tried to teach my Dad how to drive [the new car], but he just couldn’t do it. By then he was 65. He tried, but just couldn’t get the hang of it, at all. So he walked everywhere he needed to go, or he took the trolley car.”

Picturing my Dad trying to teach my Depression-era grandfather how to drive cracked me up. That must have been quite the sight (and experience)!

SAVE IT ALL

Growing up, my Dad drove every single one of us crazy with the picture-taking. You’d have a forkful of food up to your lips and he’d command, “Everyone get closer down at that end of the table,” and he’d snap away. He didn’t just order his own family to do this. He commanded anyone who was with us to do the same—extended family, friends… the waiters.

Sometimes it was very awkward.

So it happened in restaurants a lot, in every place we ever visited, and while in the middle of competing in whatever sporting event we were at. We had to stop whatever it was we were doing (like as I’m getting on my horse before cross country) so we could turn around and say “cheese.”

There were a lot of clenched jaws in those photos.

As much as a pain in the ass as it felt like in those days, I’m so happy to have all of these photos now. My parents have album after album, chock full, as well as shoebox after shoebox, with the year written on them, stashed in multiple closets.

In fact, my parents even have photographic slides. Slides came way before Polaroids, which were like magic when I was a kid. I remember shaking the photos back and forth until the image developed right there in my hand.

Slides are very small “film-paper squares” that are only viewable using a projector and a screen to reflect them back to the viewer. It’s like a movie composed only of photos, uploaded manually. My parents’ wedding photos are all slides. Subsequently, I’ve only seen them a couple of times. All of this “technology” is long outdated, now obsolete. If the projector breaks, we’re screwed.

I’m starting to go through all of it and weed out the gems. The slides will be last, as that will be tedious work. I will convert some of those into photographs, like the slide of my parents walking down the aisle, newly married. Their elbows are locked together, striding in synch, happiness spread wide across their faces. It was the first day of the rest of their lives, together.

Now, I have a different seat at their table. I’m trying to write it all down, preserve the memories before they’re lost. It’s a lifetime of experiences to catalog.

And I’m trying to save it all.

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