My family will think of 2014 as the year we lost Dad, and Mom moved into a nursing home to die. They married in 1952, and by summer 1963, they had seven daughters. Born No. four, I experienced life in the middle. It’s a good place from which to observe, yet participate.
In an earlier column, I mentioned sitting between my parents on overnight car trips, tucked there because of my relentless chattiness. I could be depended on to keep the driver awake, while the off-duty parent was shoved up against the door of the VW bus, resting.
These 62 years defined their marriage, and also the last half of a culturally and socially tumultuous century in American history. They began parenting after growing up as Depression babies. So it’s not surprising how we turned out: products of parents who were creative, free-thinking and intelligent middle-incomers who preferred tolerance to prejudice, open-mindedness to stodgy tradition and traveling to home improvement.
After Dad suffered his stroke, we were all hopeful, even though this process involved unexpected surgery. He took his sketchbook and pens with him to the rehab hospital.
Always an illustrator, he never went anywhere without paper for sketching, and a pen or pencil. I inherited — not his talent for drawing — but his habit of carrying something to do with me in case I found myself waiting in line.
Mom’s Alzheimer’s is nothing less than an ironic insult. One of the first occupational therapists in the Midwest, she instructed students from surrounding states for practical rotations. I believe she was never bored a minute of her life, until she realized she was beginning to show signs of this insidious disease. Her contribution to our becoming curious and healthy adults was to assign us jobs as children that not only kept us busy but helped us look after ourselves, recycle items for crafts and fun, include people who had nowhere to go on holidays and show concern for those in need.
Dad sent $5 beer cash through the mail when we were in college, along with homemade fudge and shamrock stickers for St. Patrick’s Day. He kept up with all of us and our kids, never losing interest in our lives, welcoming us back to our family home even if it was just a pit stop on our way through town. In his 80s, he learned how to use an iPhone so he could read The New York Times while in numerous doctors’ waiting rooms. He kept Mom at home under his care for as long as he possibly could.
We kids became: a social worker, a nurses’ aide, a medical technician, writers, some moms, a teacher, a librarian and a Smithsonian cataloguer. Our thousands of meals around the big table Mom and Dad built themselves sparked our imaginations and our sense of community, and our love of being involved. We pursued our futures through their encouragement.
Mom and Dad saw us as a happy and noisy mob, and then they began to use their talents to define us as a family. In 1964, Dad drew seven, life-sized, broad-winged angels on sturdy cardboard. They added features to each one, matching our hair and eye colors.
The two babies were smallest, one sitting, the other a wobbly toddler. Each holds a songbook, mouths open in song. Glitter outlines our choir robes, and our bare feet are suspended in midair as if we are standing on clouds, between heaven and earth.
Despite his fear of falling off, Dad climbed a ladder those cold Decembers and nailed the seven angels onto the front of our little house. We loved standing in the dark and looking at them at Christmastime, to see the glitter shimmer when a car drove by.
This summer, we sorted through his hundreds of art pieces and sketchbooks, and found the angels tucked in together, forgotten for years. Each was quietly retrieved, tearful amazement forcing the room into silence.
Worse for wear, but eternally us, the angels symbolize our parents’ ambitious and loving vision of the people they brought into the world. It’s our privilege to remember them as they struggled to raise us in that turbulent and always-calling wilderness.
Happy New Year!
Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month.