June 16, 2019 — Paul Schlaver
Honoring “Mothers and Fathers” This Day
We are use to honoring our Mothers, wives and the mothers of our children in mid-May. Then we honor dads in mid- June. My thoughts today are an attempt to simply reminisce about both of my parents and what their lives and parenting did for me to prepare me for the rest of my life…as a parent and grandparent. I was blessed with a pretty normal, all American middle class childhood with both parents fully present in my suburban life near Chicago. Ironically I can now say that what it lacked in domestic turmoil and economic struggle proved to actually be a great preparation for me to be able to cope with both the domestic turmoil and economic struggle I sometimes faced after I left that loving nest.
My mother grew up in a small Illinois town a few hours downstate from Chicago. She was the oldest of four kids and her father died when she was just 12 years old and so she was thrust early on into a major role of helping her mother both provide financially and share in the tasks of raising the children. The youngest was ten years younger than my mother. My mother, Elizabeth, or Betty as everyone called her, was the valedictorian of her high school class. Yet because the family was so poor she was not able to go to college at all.
I recently found the speech she gave to her high school graduating class in 1930 typed neatly on several small pieces of paper. I was amazed with her words, especially given that she had spent her entire life to date in this small Midwestern town.
“Let us pledge ourselves to continue living up to the ideals under which we have worked for four years. Some of our ideas have been quite radical. Our ideals may never be completed by us, but they will be a foundation for the people of future generations.” She told the story of how something as simple as the idea of “sportsmanship” in contests and as the Golden Rule in business was first considered foolish but now is a successful ideal. “Though others laugh we shall continue with more determination to gain our shining ideals. The past four years have been one of progress. We are now ready to step out of school life into life’s school.”
My mother met my father while working at the local movie theater, selling tickets I presume. My father had moved from rural Wisconsin to this Illinois town, Kewanee, soon after he graduated from the Univ. of Wisconsin with a major in journalism. He was working for the daily newspaper in Kewanee and probably went to the movies often as he had no family around. He also had a tough teenage period as he had to leave his parents and the family farm and live with an elderly aunt in town just to be able to go to high school and beyond to college.
My parents married and started a family in Kewanee but moved to Chicago just before I was born. He, Clarence, or C.O. as he was called by all, began working fulltime editing a business magazine and also worked at a Chicago newspaper part time. My mother did not work again until their three children were now safely into their high school years.
So I experienced a stay at home mom that canned the fruit and veggies from the big garden my father found time somehow to cultivate. He was also a devoted dad that found some time to help my brother and I build a baseball diamond and backstop for it…with no right or left field because it was on a narrow strip of land. Of course that doesn’t mean I always hit the ball straight to center field or straight down the fairway when I later took up golfing!
I have no memories of yearning for more time with my dad or mom. No matter how busy their lives were, they always seemed to be there for us kids. In fact we also took great vacation in the family car because my dad’s work took him to conventions and also some Lions Club International annual gatherings all over the country. This always meant family trips and fun travel games in the back seat of the car with very little fighting with my brother and sister.
My father, the journalist, was a good writer and often expressed himself in special letters to us kids on our birthday as well as an annual family Christmas letter succinctly summarizing the family highlights from the past year for all to read. My father died over twenty years before my mother’s passing but she carried on the Christmas letter and I have a bound copy of the 50 years of letters as a treasured family history.
He also was a member of the City Council in our town and for four years was the mayor. He lost his reelection bid to someone that campaigned in a horse and buggy seeking to bring back the good old days. The voter turnout was below 25% so apathy worked against him. In a farewell speech he showed his disappointment but good humor, “It reminds me of the young couple traveling at 70 miles an hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The lady said to her escort, “Fred, we are going the wrong way.” And Fred said, “I hate to turn around, we are making such good time.” My father then sited a list of his accomplishments and said, “Yes, it seemed that we were making such good time that I hated to turn around. And I think that most of you assembled here tonight, my good friends, didn’t want to change direction either. In the long run friendships collect more interest than money; provide pleasant memories for this humble servant who can now become an elder statesman in the Harry Truman fashion.”
Skip ahead now to my life as an adult……….my adult years began in the tumultuous 1960’s. Yes I was a bit of a radical with grave doubts about the Vietnam War; found that my Catholicism was losing its meaning for me even though I was now a student at the University of Notre Dame. I wasn’t really acting out on all of this yet but when I graduated I was struggling to figure out what I should do next. I went to Boston College Law School but only lasted a year. I was bored and was growing more stressed about the world events of 1969. I went into VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps and was off to the inner city in Cleveland Ohio. I was starting to drive my family nuts by this point. Soon I fell in love with a woman on welfare there and began to really trouble my parents. Then came my hippie phase and lots of travel in an old school bus. Further details of those years will only be shared with some of you if it is in a local bar somewhere in Biddeford drinking craft beer…………
My point is that my grounding from my loving parents seemed to always pull me through the crazy moments and always reminded me that I MUST take care on my own family now no matter what. I wasn’t really able to fully make peace and resurrect a good relationship with my parents and other relatives though until after my divorce following my ten year marriage. Suddenly I was a single parent with full custody of three small kids. Once again my dear parents were dutifully there for me. Sadly I didn’t have years, but only months of time to get back into my father’s life before he died. But I enjoyed over 20 wonderful years of my mother’s devotion to me and her grandkids and we had a chance for us to give back to her.
This grounding I experienced from my parents has certainly taught me to provide much stability and support to my children and grandchildren. I always knew what I could expect or receive from my parents. Rituals can be good when our lives are busy or even tumultuous. My kids, as they grew up, always knew there would be a meal awaiting them and enough to feed any friends they might bring home at dinnertime. We had our rituals on Friday evenings, usually a visit to the same restaurant. We had a church family as well those years and it helped me considerably with my parenting needs. We travelled well together for vacation trips; some were exciting adventures and others were just dutiful time spent with my mother in her later years of living alone.
In my now retirement years in Maine my kids and grandson Cotton especially know they can count on me again for steady routine and ritual; for food and some involvement when they can in my world of Union Church, the Saco Bay Gardening Club, or to help tend my flower and vegetable gardens.
When I was young I sometimes found my parents a little on the boring side. When I took my sons along to visit their grandmother they found it a little boring too as it meant cleaning gutters, trimming bushes and a low key home life in the evening sitting with her. I am sure my adult kids and Cotton as well often think life in my home now can be a little boring too. But they know I am and always will be there for them.
I know this may seem likely a highly personal story and maybe very different from your history with your families. But the message may be fairly universal. No matter what your childhood experience was like, it was preparation for the rest of your life. The good aspects of your childhood, the love and devotion that you did receive from your parents, have served you well if you reflect on them and can honor your parents for that on a day like today. The disappointments, the absence of love or other struggles you might have had to experience in your formative years also made you the person you have been as a parent and grandparent. They inspired you to do better, to be better and to love your spouse and kids more. So have your own Parents Day today to honor both your mom and dad, and your life as best you can.
Let me finish with one more story about Betty and C.O. When my mother died in 2002 she was so at peace that she was able to live out her last 22 years in the family home not in hospitals and nursing facilities; that the end came quickly after only a few days in a hospital and that her three kids could all be there at the end as well as her dear younger sister Ruth she had helped raise. My brother, David, the priest presided over her funeral and had ten priest colleagues all share the altar for her grand farewell. I was able to offer a modest eulogy that talked about her qualities of love, care and devotion to her family. I ended it with this: “Allow me some poetic license so we can all eavesdrop on a conversation, which if it has not already occurred, will happen this afternoon. But it is a dialogue which none of us will be able to hear:”
Betty, is that you?
Yes Clarence—I have come to rejoin you after these long 22 years apart.
I’ve missed you so much, Betty, but I have been watching you carry on with your endless love, devotion and care for our children.
You’ve done a great job, Betty, I’m so proud. Please rest with me now and let’s watch the fruits of our work unfold together for years to come.
Ok, Clarence, I like that idea—and I have much to tell you about our family and accomplishments during these years that you have been waiting.
Before you start your story Betty, I want to tell you something else.
What’s that, Clarence?
This year, your loving, devoted and caring nature has also produced the most beautiful results I have ever seen with my rose bushes!
Thank you, Clarence. It was easy because they were cared for with the memory of y0u…