For a long time I believed my parents would be young forever. Although I saw their white hair and wrinkled skin, in a place deep inside me, they were still young, as they were when I was a child.
Then, when Mom was 80 and Dad 85, she fell and fractured her knee. She needed my help and so did my father. The painful reality hit: My parents were old.
While Mom was in the hospital, Dad barely ate and slept in his recliner. “I miss her terribly,” he confided, looking away so I wouldn’t see his tears. I held his arm to steady him when we visited Mom. I spoke loudly because of his poor hearing. Still, he smiled and joked with me. In my head I saw him straight and tall. My heart felt heavy.
Mom came home. As I washed her back, I felt every bone. Her skin was soft, almost transparent. Age spots dotted the landscape of her tiny frame. The implications of needing help to bathe did not escape her.
“You’re doing for me what I did for my mother,” she said. “If we live long enough, we turn back into babies.”
“You did it for me. Now it’s my turn,” I answered, trying to make light of the situation.
“Someday, your children will do this for you,” she continued. Another reality for me to face?
Pictures from long ago hang on my living room wall: my parents squinting into the sun holding a bundle in a blanket that is me; me at 3 sitting between them. Frozen in time, their young faces smile out from the past. When they married in 1943, they already lived through depression and war. They did without, made do, and learned early from their Italian immigrant parents: Work hard, don’t complain, do what’s right, mind your business and raise your children to do their best and respect their elders.
I think of earlier days: Mom and I at a wedding, dancing the jitterbug on a wooden floor surrounded by old, Italian men in shiny suits and chubby ladies in black dresses. Mom’s hair is dark and thick, she is light on her feet.
I see Dad walking down the street after working in the coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel, the black metal lunch pail swinging at his side. His was a dirty, dangerous job, but I never heard him complain. I never heard him raise his voice.
My mother was in perpetual motion – washing, canning, cleaning, cooking, baking, taking care of me, my little brother, and later, my grandparents. Independent and energetic, she went back to work full time, marking cosmetics at Hengerer’s Department Store. Miraculously, bread still got baked, meals were always on the table and we all were taken care of.
Dad quietly retired after 32 years at the plant. A few years later, Mom retired. Dad cut grass in summer and shoveled snow in winter. Mom went shopping at the mall or to dinner with her sisters. Dad did what he loved to do: snooze in front of the television. He helped Mom cook. They spent long hours at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, talking, playing cards. Every Christmas he decorated the finished room in the basement and we all got together to eat Mom’s risotto. After dinner, Dad played his accordion and Mom sang Italian songs. The words “I love you” were spoken freely.
Dad died at 88. Mom followed three and a half years later at 86. I know I was blessed. Not only did I have two wonderful parents, I had the privilege of honoring them with my time and help. Although they have been gone for several years, I miss them every day.
Sometimes when my head and heart are quiet, I can see the years all connected and catch the briefest glimpse of the whole picture. In these fleeting moments I know my parents are still young in spirit. And at 70, I am still young even though lately I see my mother’s hands sticking out of my sleeves.