Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Parental Contradictions (by Juliet)

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
--Walt Whitman

You know how novelists are always trying to write round, complex characters? Here’s a secret: just try to write your parents.

Parents are complex, contradictory, characters. If you don’t agree, just try cleaning out their closets when they’re old. I guaran-damn-tee you, you will find out things you didn’t know. Maybe things you would have preferred never to know, or things that will charm you. And disarm you. But they will surprise you, one way or the other: Old love letters. Diaries. Receipts. Seductive lingerie.
My Parents (on the left, my dad with my sister in his lap) with friends in
North Carolina, circa 1958. I just had to include this's SO Mad Men

This person you’ve known for thirty, forty, fifty years…This person used to be a different person.

And if you are lucky enough to have them around while they grow very old, they will, no doubt, transform yet again.

For example: I went to help my dad clean out a whooooole bunch of old stuff and I found an old wallet. Made of red leather, tooled with flowery scroll designs and inscribed with a message:

To My Adirondack Queen, With Love

WTF? My father did crafts???

This was not the father I knew. The father I grew up with was a military man. A jet pilot. A Commander in the Navy. He went in for competitive skiing and motorcycle racing. He owned many guns. When we were children he ordered us about, and though we knew he loved us –completely-- we were all just a little bit afraid of him.

Dad at his dapper best. He was twenty-five and newly married.

These days, he’s gone somewhat sentimental, and even admitted to crying at the end of “You’ve Got Mail” (it was Somewhere over the Rainbow that did him in). But he also talks a lot about welfare cheats and bootstraps and...I really *hate* to admit this…he watches Glenn Beck, and yet doesn’t think the man is insane. For real. I am not making this s**t up.

But…he is also unfailingly polite and kind face to face with just about anybody – from the homeless woman on the street to the mechanic fixing his car to the banker in the three piece suit. He hasn’t got a snobby bone in his body, and is all about the content of a person’s character. In the military he served with all creeds and colors and respected –dare I say loved?—the men who served with him and for him.

He is a walking contradiction.

And Mom? My mother’s adorable. She has a huge, impish grin, a widow’s peak, and honest-to-God dimples in her cheeks. She was a warm, charming hostess – as a child I was accustomed to having people to supper every night, and visitors in the guest room or on the couch every week or so. I didn’t realize how rare that was until I grew up and realized that not everyone’s mom adopted lost souls at the drop of a hat, plying them with cake and tea and a soft shoulder to cry on.

Mom on that same honeymoon trip to San Juan Capistrano -- she was twenty-three

But…she had that Southern Woman thing of never, ever, telling you the truth if it was at all nasty or likely to go against someone else’s wishes. She was never able to simply state what she wanted, much less demand to have her own needs met. She was a martyr through and through, happy to splay herself open for the good of others and to let them take what they needed. And take we did, as children tend to do.

She was a passive-aggressive piece-de-resistance…with a wicked, pitch-perfect, sense of humor.

But, apparently, she was also an Adirondack Queen, wooed by a pretty darned handsome fella...a guy who not only skied and cooked, but also made tooled leather wallets for the gal he loved. Who knew?

They contain multitudes. Oh yes they do.


Rachael Herron said...

My cheeks hurt from grinning at this. I love it. (And what a great idea -- writing a character as if he were your parent -- presto, no more flat characters!)

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh sweetie...this made me sniffly. you captured with a few deft words the beauty of a long relationship, and the mysteries that are, in the end, unknowable to everyone but those in it. and at the same time you cast sparkly lines in many directions...friendship and kids and community....well done, an example of your finest...

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Beautiful post! We tend to forget that our parents started out as people, long before they were our parents.

camille minichino said...

Amazing photos. Your mom (like everyone in those days) looks older at twenty-three than you do now at -- uh -- thirty-ish? But we see where your beauty comes from!

And I had that same coffee table!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Isn't it funny how that happens, Camille? They all look so much older!
Oh, and yes, I did pass my 30 birthday. Just. About seventeen years ago ;-)

Maddy said...

Thank you. That is such a great idea - complexity without any effort, although possibly a few sniffles.

Anonymous said...

Jules, your Dad was one handsome guy (and I say that as the straightest of straight men, so he doesn't have to get all Glen Beck on me); and that first picture of your Mom, wow, I actually thought it was you at a 50's party. Always cool to see where people come from.

I have nothing more to say. You seem to have said all the smart things already. This was a great post.

Jeanne B. said...

I've barely begun to scratch the surface of the massive amount of belongings left behind by my now-deceased parents. But I did find... photos of the first wife Dad pretended he never had (divorce), and news articles Mother wrote when she was the Harper's Bazaar Collegiate Fashion Editor (who knew?!?). She never mentioned that she'd studied Fashion Design in college. Hard to imagine those wrinkled, incontinent seniors in the nursing home were once vibrant adolescents on the brink of their exciting lives.

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