Sunday, June 15, 2014

On Father’s Day, remembering my father and my mother

There was little in the way of material wealth in the family in which I grew up. My parents were not rich nor were they particularly preoccupied with accumulating wealth in their lifetimes. Sometimes I wish they had been better at financial planning or at saving for retirement, but they weren’t. We had the things we needed, but no more. When times were financially difficult in our family, we felt it. My parents made mistakes in that regard in terms of saving money for uncertain times, and my father would have been the first one to admit that. But by the time he understood that, his health was poor and there was little he could have done to reverse the course of things. We managed, but there was never really enough left over to secure a comfortable future for them when they got older. As fate would have it, my father passed away in his late 60s, leaving my mother alone for what should have been their retirement years spent doing enjoyable things together. But that was not to be.

My parents were preoccupied with other things than money and career—books mostly, during their lives. They loved to read, and they shared their thoughts about what they read with us. My father especially was an avid reader, and he and I would often walk together on summer evenings when I was a teenager and discuss books and life in general. He and my mother also enjoyed classical music and shared that with us as well. They read newspapers and we discussed politics and current events at the dinner table. We did not get together often with extended family, but our friends were always welcome, and in that regard, the door to our house was always open. It never seemed as though we lacked for much, and I did not compare what we had to what our friends had. I was never particularly interested in doing that. It always seemed to me that some people had more money and material things, and some people didn’t. That was just the way life was; I rarely pondered it when I was a child or teenager. But the difficult times in our family, e.g., when my father was unemployed for nearly two years and his subsequent gradual decline in health, taught me to be independent and to not rely on other to support me financially. So the hard times did have an influence on my adult career choices, and I do feel that I made the right decisions when it came to pursuing a career. 

On Father’s Day, I cannot remember my father without remembering my mother, who passed away sixteen years after he did. During her life, my mother did what she needed to do for herself and for my father; she did it without much fuss or talk. She was a doer, not a talker. She took good care of my father and of us, but his cardiovascular disease had its roots already in his late teens as a result of a ruptured appendix that nearly killed him. His illness manifested itself in his early 50s, with his first heart attack at the age of 52. In response to this, my mother prepared low-fat meals which we all ate. We mostly ate lean baked chicken, lean cuts of beef, and fish. Sometimes she would make pork chops or tuna casserole. There were never heavy cream sauces or gravies to accompany the meats or fish. We rarely ate mayonnaise, ice cream or drank whole milk. My parents would drive to the local farm stands during the summer to stock up on fruits and vegetables; that was an important part of summer meals. My mother ate very little in the way of dessert and rarely snacked on junk food and there was not much of either one in our house. She did buy cookies and cupcakes for us to eat as snacks after school when we were children, but they were regulated—we were allowed one or two and that was all. We were not allowed to raid the refrigerator at will; the refrigerator was off limits once we had eaten our snacks. In that way, she controlled the amount of food we put into ourselves. Dessert after dinner on weeknights might be Jell-o with fruit, or a few cookies. On Sundays, we usually had a lemon sponge cake from the local bakery for dessert; she also made a great lemon cake drizzled with lemon juice. When I think back to the way she ate, I realize that she ate a bit of everything, but she did so in moderation. She never overate; she never overdid anything when it came to food. She was more the type to make sure that others were full before she was. But that could also have been her way of ensuring that she did not overeat. She drank a lot of water, loved her black tea, and drank a couple of cups of coffee per day. Breakfast for her was toast and tea. When she and I would go out to eat (when she was in her 70s), we usually found the local diner and ordered ourselves grilled cheese sandwiches with cole slaw on the side and a cup of tea. That was enough for the both of us.

My mother was a great walker for most of her life. She didn’t learn to drive until she was around 65 years old, and even then, when she got her license, she drove for a couple of years around town, and then gave up driving and sold her car. We often wondered why she did that; I think it was because she missed walking around town. She understood that she was onto something by walking. She didn’t turn down the offer of a ride if she had a lot of groceries to shop for, especially as she got older. But she looked forward to getting outside to walk, in all types of weather. Rain never bothered her, ditto for snow. She was in good shape for most of her life, rarely sick, not overweight (she was slender)—and she didn’t look her age. She was proud of that. When I look back at what mattered to her in the way of her personal health, I know now that my mother was interested in taking care of herself long before it became trendy to do so. She never announced it with fanfare; she was not an ardent missionary for the cause nor did she nag others to ‘see it her way’. She just did it. She would just say she was going to the supermarket to pick up a few items, and that was one of her several walks for the day. Sometimes we joined her, sometimes not. It didn’t matter to her if she walked alone; she enjoyed it. All these years later, I realize she was on the right track when it came to eating and taking care of herself. My mother was a quiet instigator of change. I appreciate her simple wisdom and ways of doing things, more and more as I get older. Her legacy lives on in the way I approach my life and in my approach to getting older. I wish my parents had lived longer. I got to know each of them first together, as my parents, and then separately as I spent time with each of them individually. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with each of them.

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