Wednesday, November 29, 2006

after thanksgiving

I went to Dallas to spend the holiday with my family -- actually I flew into an airport that had the name Dallas on it, but spent the whole time in the north of the city, former fields now covered with asymmetrical roofed homes, ringed by freeways, malls and big box stores, all some 30 miles or so from downtown Dallas. This region is the American need for re-invention gone amuck, leaving behind the disorder of the city for neat, well-ordered caves in faceless communities, a car and shopping culture without soul. But then I don't live there, and one's version of civic hell is another's calm and ordered heaven.

My family members who live in this region appear to be doing fine, and I know that they sometimes wonder why I am not excited about living there. I am the odd man out. I used to be anxious about our holiday gatherings, and at some point I figured out that they were a little anxious, too. One of the benefits of aging is that we all mellow a little over stuff that is insignificant.

We had a great time looking at old photographs. I saw a picture taken when I was in the first or second grade -- my late father was younger than I am now. I remember when we took the picture, but had not ever seen it. Or forgot about it. Nearly 50 years later, it was startling to see us all posed for the picture, yet each in our thoughts. It was taken on a short vacation trip.

James Joyce wrote a short story called "The Dead" in Dubliners collection about a couple at a family party. The man takes himself and life too seriously. The wife is flushed in thoughts, and unknown to her husband, she is remembering a lost young love.

I thought about that story when I heard my mother tell us all a story about her first love, a young man she met in high school who she last saw at a train station, waving goodbye to him as he left for Europe in World War II. They had married right before he left, and in the War he had been killed in Germany. These facts were known to all of us although she never much talked about it. Years later she met my dad and they married, raised us children, and had a long and good marriage.

But sitting around talking about our stories from our past, she began to tell us more details about this early relationship, how much they loved each other, how she forced her mother to let her marry while still in high school. She described the day she heard he had died -- she was called to the office of the factory where she worked -- all the women knew that a call to the office was bad news. The news hit her hard.

Three days later, she got a letter from her husband. He wrote about his love for her, and how he longed to return home. He told her that they would buy a small house and start a family. She said she still has the letter.

We listened quietly and asked questions. Here were are, her children who associate our mother with our father, and the years we shared together as a family, and our mother tells us a story, a flush of memories, that she has carried all these years, about a man none of us knew other than as a fact, a sentence about her first husband.

I am not sure why we had been incurious. She probably never encouraged us to talk about it, and certainly while my father was alive it was not the kind of thing one talks about, a deep love.

I have no doubt my mother loved my father. But their relationship was reality. The young man who was buried in Europe was a dream, a possibility unfulfilled.


Shelley said...

That's beautiful, Don.

Annie in Austin said...

Your mother told you this story while you were alive, trusting you all to love her and to be willing to understand her life - what a gift!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Annie in Austin said...

A word dropped out - should have said "while you were ALL alive" -

Don said...

Shelley & Annie -- Thank you. I thought about this alot on the plane ride back home.

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) said...

A beautiful story. I was recently back at my parents' trying to collect all their early stories. Maybe it's because we blog but many of the people I know are in the same boat--frantically trying to collect the stories of our parents, people who never thought their lives were of much interest to anyone else. So many touching stories on the brink of being forgotten.