Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Valentine Story . . . or Not

This is my mother on her wedding day. Those of you who have read my short stories and novels have probably figured out that my relationship with her was contentious. I shouldn't put that in the past, because she is still alive, more or less, as she approaches her ninth year in a nursing home. Alzheimer's has taken its extortionist toll on her, so that I feel pity even as I spend far more time on her now than she ever spent caring for me. In the past few months, I've finally begun to accept her by realizing that if she had been a friend, rather than my parent, I would have seen her in a different light.

As a child, she loved to draw. When she was seventeen, she left her home in Layfayette, Indiana, and came to Chicago to put her talent to use. She managed to land a job in the art department of J. Walter Thompson, the venerable ad agency. No small task in those days. Kudos, Mom. Her version of bedtime stories were tales of illustrating the big ads of the late 1940s--rushing to meet deadlines, carrying huge storyboards down a windy Michigan Avenue, coping with the harassment from the "boys" that women dealt with in those days and, my favorite, "How I Met Your Father." My dad also worked for J.W.T. (Little did I know that those bedtime stories were watered-down versions of Mad Men episodes. In too many ways, my parents were scarily similar to Don and Betty Draper.)
But I digress from the Valentine theme of this post. I recently learned that there was a component to "How I Met Your Father" that I'd never known. This past December, a few days before Mom's 89th birthday, I got a phone call from a gentleman who identified himself as an old friend of my parents. He'd heard from mutual friends that my mother was still "with us" but that my father had passed away. He remembered that mom's birthday was December 11, and wondered if it would it be all right to send her a birthday card. As we talked, I learned that he had dated my mom for a while, and still thought of her as "the cutest little thing." He was clearly quite smitten. As he told it, one weekend back in 1950, she talked him into throwing a party for a new fellow at the office. Turns out that new fellow would be Mom's next boyfriend, and eventually, her husband and my father.

That is such typical behavior for my mother. (Listen and learn, Betty Draper.)

My parents were married for over fifty years, weathering the trials of life together, partying and fighting in a manner befitting the Greatest Generation. Their battles could be ferocious; I often wondered why they stayed together, but each of them must have had their reasons. The dynamics of love and marriage are known only to the two people involved. My mother, for all her faults, knew how to capture the hearts of two men for more than half a century. Kudos, Mom.