I am a product of my parents. The writing, the music, performing, stained glass and wood carving, love of all animals—their gift to me and my two brothers. I’ve written about our “charmed childhood” before.
I know I’m lucky. And I remember…
Growing up, my parents taught me to avoid asking certain questions in polite conversation. Questions like, “How much money do you make?” or “Who did you vote for?” They considered curse words offensive, but also lazy language. To say “shut up!” or call each other names like “stupid” got us sent to our room to contemplate better ways to converse. So we made up curse words. My favorites included icky-poo-gob-gob, gum-floggit, and farfle-snitch.
Our parents applauded creativity, celebrated thinking outside the box, and insisted we make Christmas presents for each other—store purchases weren’t nearly as “thoughty” according to Dad. My mom, a brilliant seamstress, could sew anything and created gorgeous embroidery hangings, quilts, and clothes. My dad, an equally brilliant woodworker, designed and built floor-to-ceiling walnut bookcases in the living room, among other projects. So I got dolls dressed up with Mom’s stitch-witchery, and wooden cradles from Dad with a baby-size Mom-made quilt inside.
We weren’t wealthy, far from it, and I know now that “making gifts” was encouraged in part because it saved money. On their first anniversary, Mom made my father a dress shirt. And he made Mom a corner cupboard they still use that contains treasures of a lifetime.
Our kid-made offerings weren’t nearly as accomplished, but learning how to sew and cook, how to create artwork (my brother Laird is a brilliant photographer), write stories (my brother Gene is the real writer), play piano and other instruments – all left their positive mark and informs our adult lives. I remember…
Rich in Every Important Way
This middle-class lifestyle felt rich in experience. Our parents designed their house, built it on the banks of the St. Joe river, and we kids had summer-long soap-opera “let’s pretend” games in the undeveloped fields nearby. We built forts out of brambles and had favorite climbing trees, and escaped into the pages of novels from the library or cherished “Weekly Reader” book club selections. We spent hours out in the kayak Dad made with my brothers, or the canoe—I had a favorite “reading tree” across the river where I got lost in stories.
But one rule called us home without fail—we ate dinner at 5 pm every evening, as a family, television off and no reading allowed at the table. We conversed. We updated each other on our day, our challenges, our projects, our disappointments, and successes. Oh, sometimes it devolved into pun-sessions with everyone trying to outdo each other. I remember those days and I miss the laughter.
Legacy of Learning–and Teaching
Our parents were elementary teachers for 40+ years—Dad taught music, and Mom taught math, science, and all kinds of things. Hundreds of kids remember them fondly as favorite teachers who made a difference. They retired at age 59 and traveled the world, taking artist tours in Paris, visiting Italy, Scotland, England, and more.
Dad followed a dream of studying art and became one of the best-known and accomplished woodblock and pastel artists in his neck of the woods. He volunteered to conduct orchestras at the local community theatre. Mom loved teaching so much she continued to coach kids long after she retired, and in her “spare time” continued creating beautiful quilts. Together, they collected priceless mementos and precious memories.
And they continued to create. When my brothers married and had kids, Mom and Dad created heirloom gifts: cradles, quilts, baby blankets, a wooden rocking horse, and rocking moose, paintings of the toddlers. Dad painted portraits of myself and my brothers, our spouses, and Mom’s quilted pillows, Christmas tree skirts, and more decorate my home.
93 Years Old and Counting
Fast forward over the years—and our parents are 93 years old, and will celebrate their 65th (?) anniversary in a couple of weeks. COVID prevented me from visiting my folks in Indiana. In late July I got to see them for the first time in nearly two years. My brothers Gene and Laird scheduled a visit at the same time, along with my cousin Gretchen.
We had a glorious reunion in the house Mom and Dad built together. Dad remains as sharp and accomplished as ever, and he’s shouldered the burden—and kept private many of his challenges—of caring for Mom. The bittersweet visit reveal changes none of us kids wanted to face, and that Dad continued to deny.
I held Mom’s hand and listened to her tell the same stories of her love of teaching over and over (without understanding but a few of her words). Once in a while, I caught a glimpse of the articulate, brilliant, passionate Mom who raised me, taught hundreds of students, and who my Dad still adores.
Time Isn’t Always Kind
Last week, after a sudden bout of pneumonia and nearly a week of hospitalization, Dad finally agreed to move Mom to memory care. The doctor gave him no choice and frankly, did all of us a favor. The transition hasn’t been easy for any of us, but especially for Dad. He’s slowly accepting the changes and what needs to happen. We kids struggle to know how to support him and Mom. My brothers, both saints, took time off from work to be with Dad during these tough days. And I support long-distance as best I can and fight the guilt and sadness being far from them engenders.
It breaks my heart when Dad says, “I’ve lived too long…” It’s his turn to have us care for him, but he doesn’t know how. He’s finally open to learning this new thing, though.
I have projects to finish, but I’ve not been able to write. So I sit and stare out windows, call and text pestering my brothers for updates, talk to Dad as often as I can, and… feel so damn sad. And the ugliness I see reported in the news and read on social media between one-time friends makes my throat ache even more.
So I hang on to some of my Mom’s pointed remarks often repeated during my growing up years—rarely welcome at the time. They seem appropriate now more than ever, even if she can no longer articulate them.
Lessons from Mom
“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” and “You wouldn’t have said it if you hadn’t meant it.”
So I scroll past or hide ugly comments, and turn off the television. Words spoken in anger rarely effect change and only hurt all involved. I can’t change anything by spouting ugliness in response—and exposure to such things diminishes me, and suffocates joy.
“You’ll do that when you have time? If it’s important to you, you’ll MAKE time.”
I’m listening, Mom. Today, I’m writing again.
And the last thing Mom said to me on my visit in July, words I actually could understand:
“I love you.”
I Love You Forever!
Mommy, I love you and Dad so much! I pray that you both know that, and how grateful I am that I got to be your daughter. I can’t wait to see you both again.
To my family and my friends, may “I love you” always be on my lips, and among the last words between us.
On October 30, 2021, Mary Jane Monteith passed away after a wonderful life. She leaves behind a devoted husband and adoring children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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