Looking back, I realize that I was caught in a struggle which had its inception when I was just a kid. Life with my parents was complicated. I was well-loved. Fortunately for me, that piece of my emotional life was never in doubt. Unfortunately, mom and dad were ill-prepared for establishing the other elements of a secure childhood. From the time I was a little girl I was afraid of something terrible happening to my parents. Mom was frequently overwhelmed by her busy life with four kids, too little money, and the unresolved issues of her own youth. She was hospitalized frequently which was frightening for me. Dad was more reliable but was caught up in trying to find a stable job which could support the family. By the time I was in my teens I’d evidently decided, somewhere in my subconscious, to assert myself in the role of caregiver as the best defense against my fears. I was constantly taking on the adult role with my parents, even as I was trying hard to grow up myself. I experienced frustration when I realized that I’d saddled myself with responsibilities too big for me, with my parents being complicit by accepting my efforts. By the time they moved from Chicago to join me, my family and my younger sister, who’d moved to my community years earlier, the boundaries between child and parent were more than blurry. When my dad was close to death in 1989, he turned to me, asking me to arrange his funeral. In asking that I make preparations for the end of his life, he effectively transferred my mom’s care to me, the assignment being to protect her from the harsh realities of life. I knew this was terrible for me and inappropriate in every way, but the situation was immediate with a life of its own. So I stepped up, despite my misgivings, and did what needed to be done.
In the midst of raising kids, being a partner and having a full-time job, I was doing my best to help my mom get a life. I remember sitting at my desk in the office, reading obituaries, trying to find some newly-minted widow who sounded like she might be a potential friend for Dorothy. I actually made contact with one bereft woman who kindly agreed to meet mom. They hung out together a few times but ultimately they had nothing in common but absent spouses. I kept plugging away at this caregiving project, wishing I could feel like I still had at least one parent. But our roles were permanently reversed. I thought of one plan which might make mom happy. She’d always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg but couldn’t get dad off the couch. I drew up an ambitious driving itinerary which included Jefferson’s Monticello, Williamsburg, York and Jamestown, with a bit of Civil War around Richmond tossed in for me. Michael was too busy to take off work so I was going to be the sole driver, hauling mom and my two kids, ages 9 and 4. We’d leave after school was out for summer. Meanwhile, Michael and I celebrated our nineteenth year together, along with my 40th birthday.
I packed up my maroon Chevy Celebrity station wagon, the one with the “way back,” where the kids could be belted in but face backwards so they could wave at oncoming traffic. I wasn’t sure who was more worrisome, my energetic kids bouncing in their seats or mom, who had a very painful knee she’d been advised required surgery. She pooh-poohed the idea that it might cause problems worse than her current one. I tried to ignore my anxiety, determined to get this good deed in the books. We headed out, planning on taking two days to break up our almost 13 hour trip.
We got off to an inauspicious start as mom wasn’t satisfied with our hotel on the first night. Finances dictated that my contribution to the trip was going to be less than hers so my reservations reflected economics rather than creature comforts. We wound up checking in and then checking right out to move into a fancier place. I hoped that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.
We had a beautiful drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains the next day, making our first stop near Charlottesville at Monticello. There was plenty of space for the kids to run around and burn off some energy after hours in the car. We were all interested in the house with its unique inventions from the past along with the natural artifacts Jefferson collected. Appreciating him for his creativity and brilliance is complicated because he chose life as a slave owner. I asked a docent a question about Sally Hemings, which was met with her withering glare. Truth is hard. In any case, I dearly loved the gardens. I found new flower species which I later incorporated into my own beds. We finished our excursion by dining at the Michie Tavern which was built in approximately 1784. Food there was classic American fare, served cafeteria-style on pewter or porcelain tableware. We enjoyed the atmosphere, trying to imagine who’d eaten there while resting from their dusty mountain journeys a few hundred years before.
We headed toward Williamsburg. The dense green trees along the road reminded me of Sherwood Forest from my favorite Robin Hood movie. The air was thick with humidity, reminding me that the area was swamp-like. As we cruised toward town, plantings of giant pansies, a far cry from the Midwestern ones which were container favorites in spring, overflowed their beds in dazzling protrusion. As I write this, I’m keenly aware of how different road trips were back then, with paper maps instead of GPS, no cell phones and cameras which required thought before taking a photo. Another world. Anyway…We were spending three days in Williamsburg which would include traversing the Colonial National Historic Parkway, and side trips to Yorktown and Jamestown. The kids got three-cornered hats, quill pens and fruit-flavored rock candy. We visited historic buildings and monuments, watched marching bands and attended demonstrations of weaponry used during the Revolutionary War. My daughter was selected to light a fuse on a cannon and was astonished by the ear-shattering noise she made, even without real ammunition. For the most part, everything went surprisingly smoothly although mom’s knee was worrisome. We managed to get a rental wheelchair which was both helpful and yet a nuisance as it was ill-suited to cobblestones.
We wrapped up this leg of the trip with the usual irritations that are part of traveling with multiple generations. I had a little bonus planned for myself – we were so close to Richmond that I figured I could squeeze in some Civil War tourism before we turned toward home. After having spent so much of my life studying this war I wanted the opportunity to see some of the actual places where the unimaginable occurred. We pulled into Richmond in the afternoon. Our hotel was near the center of the city and almost immediately we saw the Virginia Washington Monument, built in the mid-1800’s.
Just a few minutes away was what became known as the White House of the Confederacy, home to Jefferson Davis, the president of the secessionist states. I thought we could fit in a visit before checking into the hotel. When we pulled into a parking space nearby, I immediately became anxious. At three stories tall, this place would be daunting to my mom whose sore knee hadn’t improved with all the walking we’d done. Checking inside we found that there was no elevator or special accommodations for anyone who had a mobility challenge. I asked mom if she could confine herself to the first floor to protect herself from further injury. I still remember her defiantly tossing her head, stating that she intended to to what everyone else could do. With great trepidation, I walked up the stairs behind my three charges, hoping for the best. After working our way back down to the first floor, my mom’s knee buckled and she cried out in pain. I was furious. If only she’d been reasonable. Yes, if only.
We got in the car and headed to our hotel. The scene in the parking lot was straight out of a Marx Brothers film. I was carrying most of our luggage while holding up my limping mother and trying to keep my four year old from running in front of cars. Sweat was pouring down my enraged face. Somehow I got us checked in before staggering to the elevator. A large group of people, evidently assembled for a family reunion, was being wrangled by an imperious woman who after looking at me shouted out, “Demetrius, go help that woman carry her mama.” But for Demetrius, I’m not sure I’d have made it to the room. I got everyone situated while seething with anger. My mom, swollen knee stretched out on the bed, was apologizing profusely. She actually suggested that I, as the street-smart woman I was, go downstairs and outside, to see if I could buy some morphine from the dealers that she was certain were on every corner. I turned on the television for the kids and stormed out of the room. Once in the lobby, I went to a pay phone from which I called Michael to announce that the trip was prematurely ending and that I was heading home the next day. I also told him that I’d seen the historic Appomattox McDonald’s which would have to satisfy my history desires for the moment. Haha.
That drive home was tough. I was grouchy and dying to be with Michael instead of my mom. A terrifying two lane stretch through the mountains in a driving rainstorm, the proverbial white knuckle trip, did little to improve my mood. But finally we arrived. We dropped mom at her place and went home. Michael was standing sheepishly at the door where he had to instantly confess that while sitting on the front porch reading the newspaper two days earlier, he’d forgotten that our dog Sydney was lying on the lawn. Suddenly she dashed into the street after a feral cat and was hit by a car. Her leg was severely damaged. He took her on to our university’s animal clinic where they performed restorative surgery. She was still in the hospital and we owed a thousand dollars for their miracle. Honestly sometimes life is just too much. But I was glad Sydney survived.
My mom never did have surgery on that knee which grew infinitely worse over time. Eventually the sting of her behavior lessened although the stage was set for our years-long haggling over our complicated mother-daughter relationship. Meanwhile I was paying attention to my own family. Summer went forward. After my daughter was done with camp, we headed up to Michigan to join our friends for the annual reunion at The Beechwood. We now stayed at regularly at Cabin 1. I prepared the first night’s communal meal, a spicy chicken and potato meal for our burgeoning group. That week was always special.
We squeezed a lot into our summer. We picnicked at the swimming pool and had camp outs in the backyard. Our four year old was nervous during his first night in a tent and barely slept. In the morning, we stuck him under a pair of headphones and he passed out on the couch, exhausted from his hours in the wilderness. I threw a baby shower for a pregnant friend. Michael and I both gardened, me in the flowers, him in the vegetables and herbs. The kids played with their friends on the block and often just hung out with us at home. We took one more weekend trip to Lincoln Park Zoo and Arboretum while seeing our friends from college, now part of the Michigan cohort. The end of August brought E’s 10th birthday and the beginning of the school year.
That fall when E. started fifth grade, she started teaching herself the Cyrillic alphabet. She then decided that she wanted to learn Russian. I found an exchange student through the university who was willing to give her lessons. Vera Kalashnikova was from Ukraine. She became part of our lives for the next nine months, teaching E. Russian and letting us expose her to American home life and experiences. She was with us for meals and holidays, often overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices from food to clothing, from grocery stores to department stores. Her world was limited and spare. She became quite a consumer which ultimately led to problems because of luggage limitations for her return trip home. She was extremely nervous as the Soviet Union had disintegrated during her year abroad, not knowing if ethnic prejudices tamped down by the USSR might resurface with the dissolution of the state. She told us that Ukrainians were considered inferior to native Russians. Looking back, her situation still remains illustrative of what is currently happening in that part of the world.
In early November, H. had his 5th birthday. Because our local school district required that fifth birthday before September 1st as the cut-off date for kindergarten, he had another year of day care ahead of him. We had his party at a park district facility so the kids had room to run around. His best friend, a really physical guy who invariably wound up hurting our kid, tripped H. up as if on cue. H. hit the floor which caused a bloody cut on his head. His friend was so guilty about hurting him that he started sobbing. H. felt terrible and gave his buddy one of his birthday gifts. Michael and I knew that our kid was really soft and hoped he’d get through the tough times in his young life without being emotionally crushed.
As the year came to an end, we realized that we were entering a new phase in our lives. Soon we’d have a middle school kid in addition to being done with day care. Both our children had attended the same child care facility, starting back in 1982. Almost a decade had passed with our babies moving on into the increasingly more complex world of school and their social universe. Michael and I were expanding ourselves to keep our relationship fresh and solid while adapting to their changes and the subsequent ripple effects. I’d been through profound personal losses and was continuing to sort out the dynamics between me and my mom. We attended our last holiday party at day care, our tenth one. On to whatever was next.