Monday, June 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Couples (2.14.09)

Our family calendar brims with happy plans and fun holidays. But here and there among the dates, I have a landmine to muddle through, or dodge, or manage, depending on my emotional strength that week. Father's Day. Mother's Day. Certain birthdays.

Last Saturday would have been the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents. February 7 is such a romantic day to get married, don't you think? One week before Valentine's Day, and on that particular day in 1959, cold with bright white skies and mounds of fresh snow. Ron and Bernadette were able to celebrate ten returns of the day before dying together in an accident when I was four.

How does one commemorate a happy date for dear ones that you barely knew? Perhaps you raise a glass in a silent toast, revisit a few old photos, play some happy love songs and shed a tear or two. But those solitary moments will be at the tired end of a long day - earlier, when the sun was still shining and children played in the other room, you honor the day by calling the woman who stepped in to mother you when you were a child.

"Hi, Ruth. It's Cindy."

I interrupted Aunt Ruth as she was making pancakes for the foreign exchange student and one of the ten kids who call her "Grandma."

"Oh my sight is getting so bad, I always splash the batter everywhere when I try to flip them," she confessed.

Ruth developed retinitis pigmatosa and macular degeneration in her seventies, conditions that are slowly dimming and narrowing her vision. She's had to cut back on the sewing projects that filled her hours and our closets. But she continues to cook and watch Turner Classic Movies from a couple of feet away, volunteer at her church and send letters she has carefully printed with the help of a magnifying glass.

In her latest letter, she wrote me how grateful she was feeling these days: "Even if I could see more clearly I would be frantically cleaning, painting and repairing things I cannot see. Low vision is not so bad. I thank the Lord for what I have."

"How's Phil?" I asked on Saturday morning over the phone.

"Oh, the same. He doesn't move very much these days. I thought that I should start helping him exercise, but I'm not very good at leading exercises and he's not very good at following, so that didn't work."

I started to advise her that all Uncle Phil needed at this point in his life was rest and ease, but I let it go. She knows him and what works in their relationship better than me. They have been married since 1946.

Sixty-three years. The magnitude of it leaves me in awe. There is something terrible profound about the collection of days, as prosaic as they have been and may continue to be, with the routine of pills, the morning paper, the dishes, the laundry, the long naps, perhaps Scrabble after dinner. The longevity of their union is as profound a mystery as all that I will never know about the inside of another marriage spanning only ten brief years a long time ago.

I had a form of blindness, too, but mine was of a more adolescent and temporary kind, and I held onto it long into adulthood. My lack of sight was to the whole of what Aunt Ruth and Uncle Phil gave me by becoming my guardians. The only excuse I can manufacture is that they never drew attention to their selfless act. They always acted as if our blended family was perfectly normal. They always acted as if taking in my three siblings and me and raising us as their own was the only possible thing that could have happened. I never felt orphaned, at risk, or any less loved than their own daughters, but I did often skip feeling grateful.

Oh, I would gush and hug over the heart-shaped candy boxes Phil left on our plates each February 14 and the new dresses Ruth would make for me for the first day of school. But these gifts were the tiny trees of their parenting. The dark and scary forest I rarely saw was the fact that our presence in their home was unplanned and unforeseen.

For a long time I would often think of Ruth and Phil in terms of their difference from the parents I barely knew. My aunt and uncle would always come up short to the dream parents who I wove into being from old pictures, old stories and my dimmest memories.

My beautiful mother would walk in front of a posed group photo, just to make everyone laugh. Quiet Ruth seems to be always apologizing about her cooking, about her long overdue phone calls, about the paucity of her holiday gifts. And then protesting the excess of our gifts to her.

Gentle Phil who put my grad school gift of red wine in the fridge (oh, the horror) couldn't compare with the image of my father the Air Force graduate in his dashing raincoat.

While my parents seemed effortlessly glamorous, familiar with evening clothes, flying off to Acapulco in their private plane, partying on long cocktail-fueled nights with friends in downtown Chicago, Ruth and Phil remained mired in the quiet suburbs of a modest Midwestern city, rarely indulging themselves, except for a single ten-day bus tour of European capitals they still talk about with wonder.

As the years pass, Ruth remains self-deprecating to a fault and Phil slows and fades. My parents stay perpetually young, forever handsome.

It's not that I wasn't proud of my guardians - I was, and am, fiercely so. Perhaps the ferocity reveals how hard I worked at that pride.

Having my own children didn't put an end to the rosy dream of Ron and Bernadette, but it did wake me up to the sacrifice and magnanimous generosity of my aunt and uncle. Our family life they always treated as ordinary suddenly was revealed to be extraordinary. I'm exhausted with two children and rely heavily on takeout; how on earth did Ruth make a homemade dinner for eight every single night? How did their marriage survive?

It's the oldest saw out there: Parenthood renews appreciation of those who worked hard to raise us...but how do I thank those who volunteered to double their family in a single day?

This Valentine's Day, I'll honor my parents by pledging to make no small plans; for dear Aunt Ruth and Uncle Phil, I will try to be kind, always.

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