Friday, February 3, 2012

Parents Are People, Too

"Wait...what are you all watching?"

I was in college, home on break, and had just walked in after a late evening out with my friends. Both of my parents were staring intently at the television and I simply could not believe they were actually watching, and enjoying, what I thought I saw on the screen.

"It's that crazy Monty Python movie," my mom said.

Dad jumped in with his fake-authoritative voice, the one he affected in an exaggerated fashion whenever he knew the answer to a question that he thought actually made him look smart. My father was a very intelligent man, but was raised in a time and place where smartness was not valued as a masculine trait, so he did his best to hide it. In second grade when he realized he was about to win his class spelling bee, he told the teacher that "pound" is spelled "l-b-period" and sat down promptly while everyone laughed. I imagine he gave that smartass response in his fake-authoritative voice.

"Actually, it's called Monty Python and the Holy Grail," he said. The Black Knight scene was on, and my mother chuckled and shook her head at the silliness of a knight being completely dismembered and still wanting to fight.

"And you all like this movie? It doesn't seem like your type. It's one of my favorites but, well, you know..."

Dad gave me a withering look, a look that said I was getting too big for my britches and making assumptions I had no business making in such an uppity fashion, so I shut up and walked in a daze back to my room where I realized I really didn't know my parents nearly as well as I thought I did.

I had been under the delusion that anything I learned about in College With a Capital "C" was so far above the rural high-school education they had received that it would be foreign to them. While I had seen Holy Grail at the very end of my senior year in high school at a friend's house, I didn't appreciate it and quote it until I watched it again (along with Life of Brian) with my Centre friends. It seemed too high-brow and, well, weird for my parents, who watched Roseanne  and Cheers instead of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and who owned a copy of Forrest Gump. (Though they both told me later it should not have won the Oscar for Best Picture; they bought it thinking it must be the best movie in the history of the world and were sorely disappointed by it.)

It shouldn't have surprised me. My senior year in high-school I had walked in on the two of them doing something utterly shocking. They were reading from a college-level collection of 20th-century American poems, plays, and short stories I had borrowed to pick a piece for a speech-and-drama competition.

"Have you read any of these?" my dad said, flipping through the poems.

"Some of them. Not many."

"I really like this one," he said, and he flipped to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

" 'Recuerdo' ?" my mother said. And my parents started reading the poem silently together, talking about how much they liked it. Had I caught them in flagrante delicto I would not have been more taken aback.

I eventually outgrew my intellectual superiority and saw my parents for the surprisingly smart and with-it elders that they were. But there are still times that my one surviving parent, my mother, shows me that while I may know her well as a mom, I don't know her well at all as a person.

On Saturday, Mom lost her companion of three years. He had been sick with cancer for a while, but his death was still sudden and shocking. He was receiving hospice care at home but not yet bed-ridden, and one minute he was sitting on his couch asking Mom to open the door to let in a little air and the next he was...gone.

Since she started being in a relationship with this man, she has lived her own life largely separate from mine. Initially, this hurt me. I am the baby, therefore it is my God-given right to take up the bulk of my mother's attentions. But I got over it. She spent every other week at his home an hour away, and they developed their own circle of friends from the people they went dancing with on Saturdays and the folks they met up with at a bluegrass club on Friday nights.

This week, I accompanied my mother to the visitation and funeral.

"I hate crowds," my mother said on the way down to Corinth. "This will be awful. I won't know what to say to all those people."

As it turns out, she gives herself too little credit. My mother, at 68 years old, knows how to work a room.

The place lit up when she walked in. I was introduced to so many men and women she's friends with that I soon lost count. Everyone knows Joan. And everyone loves Joan.

"Your mom is a special lady," I heard time and time again. Men flirted unabashedly with her, women hugged her long and hard and shared their tears, and family of the deceased seemed so grateful for her presence in their lives.

Mom was so worried about not knowing what to say and dealing with the crowd. But her mouth was barely closed all night as she shared stories, delivered comfort, and welcomed many admirers with a ready smile. This was not the mom I know. It was the graceful and elegant woman behind the mom facade.

As I listened in on the stories of her and her companion's time together, I saw that my mother has changed a lot since my father's death. She has taken on an independence and a confidence I had no idea was there. The adventures she and her friend had were not the kind of things she did with my dad. She danced. She became a regular church-goer. She developed a fondness for dogs. She was welcomed into a huge family that dwarfs the little family she raised. She became knowledgeable of some of the inner workings of a cattle farm.

In some ways, it was like meeting a stranger.

My parents didn't do "date night", and I never had a solid bedtime and was with them through all their waking hours as a kid. I thought by the time my dad died that I knew pretty much everything there was to know about my parents, had heard every story, had met every friend.

My mother's story, it seems, has really just begun.

I hope she continues to surprise me for many more years. I've known for nearly 38 years now that Joan is a pretty terrific mom. I see now that she's a great person, too.

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