Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Today and yesterday...I can never tell how these two days, from year to year, will make me feel.

     Yesterday would have been my mother's nintieth birthday; today is the anniversary of my father's death.

     A few days ago I mentioned how both my mother and my mother-in-law travelled strangely similar paths.  Let me explain a bit of my mother's path.

     My mother's mother could be (to put it nicely) flighty and irresponsible; my grandfather was a tall, lanky redhead who (I'm given to understand) was a pretty likabe guy.  Her name was Mildred and his first name was Bernard, although he was always called Frank...his full name was Bernard Francis Ford.  They named my mother Millard, a combination of Mildred and Bernard and a what-were-they-thinking? moment if I ever saw one.  My mother hated the name Millard, and, in the back of their minds, her parents must have agreed because, from birth, they called her Harriet, which was her middle name.

     My mother was basically an only child.  Her sister was born when she was about seven, the same year her father was killed in a massive gas explosion.  Mildred decided to relocate to Florida, and was going to take my mother and the baby with her.  My great-grandmother put her foot down; Mildred could take the baby, but Harriet would stay with her.  The dynamics of this thing were complex and I really don't understand it all, but the upshot of it was that my mother stayed with (and was raised by)her grandmother while Mildred and the baby went down south.

     (To complicate things a bit more, you have to realize that my my great-grandmother was not Mildred's mother.  Mildred was a relative who had been taken in and raised by my great-grandmother, just as she was now doing with my mother.  Families did that sort of thing back then far more often than they do today.)

     My great-grandmother was a stickler for discipline and a lover of knowledge.  She had been a teacher and had been one of the first (perhaps the first -- I really don't know) elected female members of a School Committee in the state.  A widow, she had married her second husband by that time, a laughing, friendly guy who swore like a trooper.  They lived in an old farmhouse in a rural part of town.  My great-grandmother's three children were grown.  From time to time she would take in "state kids" to supplement their income.  My mother knew that she was loved in this environment, but I can't help but think she suddenly felt alone and estranged; it must have been very difficult for her.  She remembered clearly that, on her ninth birthday, her mother suddenly appeared, and my mother was so happy that she had rememberd her birthday, only to  have that sense of elation dashed when she found out that her mother had only stopped in to borrow money -- she had not realized that it had been my mother's birthday.

     Children tend to survive and to put emotional scars in a hidden, secret place.  And so my mother grew into a smart, talented, well-liked, and giggly teenager.  Somewhere along the line, she changed her name from "Harriet" to "Harriette" -- with two Ts and an E, if you please.

     She was nineteen when she married my father, six years her senior and a local boy who worked on a farm.  She moved to the farm in a house shared by the man who owned the farm, his mother, and his spinster sisters.  It wasn't an easy time:  a war was on and the memory of the Depression was still fresh; a husband with a job and a roof over your head ws a decent start to a marriage.  A year later she had her first baby, my sister.  Over the next three years, she suffered three mysterious miscarriages; doctors were only just beginning to discover the importance of the Rh factor in pregnancy.  They had a much better handle on it when I was born, the first Rh baby in our area to survive, thanks to the help of daily blood infusions.  I was in the hospital for quite a while.  My younger brother was there even longer; the doctors did not think he would survive, so they fanally sent him home with her to die.  Always the contrarian, my brother survived and thrived.

     Things got easier for my mother.  She had a circle of friends, was active in some community groups, and even joined in a local theatre group for a while.  My father, in the meantime, began building homes on the side, eventually becoming a full-time contractor when the farm closed in 1955.  No matter how busy things were, he kept his Saturday night calendar clear for their weekly "date."

     If there was a word to describe my father, it would be "giver."  He spent his life helping others in small ways and big.  It was only until after he died that we find out many of the things he had done for others.

    Many small New England towns have a town clock on a steeple in the center of the town.  Ours was on the Unitarian Church.  There was some sort of legal arrangement in which the church owned the building and the property, and the town owned the clock as well as the responsibility for maintaining the clock.  (A captain in the fire department was tasked with regular inspection the clock, a job that he hated -- the old wooden stairs up to the belfry were covered with bird dung, making it a tricky trip up.  For several years he tried to talk me into going up those steps for him.  I didn't mind doing favors, but I did repeatedly turn this one down.)  Anyway, the time came when the steeple was deteriorating and needed repair and my father was asked to take at look at it and see what needed to be done.  With him were a woman in her eighties  (an old friend and neighbor, representating the church) and a member of the Board of Selectmen (another family friend, representing the town).  They went up on a Saturday morning when the church was holding its annual May Breakfast.  Somehow, near the top, my father slipped, fell from the stairs, through the wooden overhang of the steeple, and landed on the granite front steps of the church, some thirty-five feet below.  The impact ripped loose one of kidneys inside his body.

     There were other injuries, too, and during the next ten weeks almost every one of his major body systems shut down at one time or another.  His strength amazed the doctors.  We were blessed to have those ten weeks with him while he was in the intensive care unit.  A lot of good things happened that I would never take back.  It seems to me that whenever something really terrible happens, there is always something else happening that helps you hold on and gives you some faith for the future.  At the end of those ten weeks, he slipped away.  Somehow he knew to hold on until my mother's birthday had passed; he would never have wanted her to associate her birthday with his death.

     I am still amazed that I am now older than he was when he died; part of me still thinks of him today as alive, now approaching his ninety-sixth birthday, still strong, still active, still laughing.

     My father's death devastated my mother.  The situation was compounded by some chicanery on the part of my father's lawyer, who was later disbarred and jail on unrelated but very similar matters.

     Eventually she began dating a widower, a man whom she and my father had both known.  They shared their lives happily for the next two decades until her passing.

     So today I look back and remember both my parents.  I remember the good things, the happy things, the funny things.  They both had their share of hard times and disappointments, but they moved past them and built their lives.  I look back at my mother, relializing where she came from and where she ended up, and I can't help but feel pride.  The same goes for my father, knowing that if I could ever be half the man he was, I would be satisfied.

     As I write this, Kitty and I are babysitting four goats, three dogs, a cat, and a ball python, while Christina and Walt and their kids are on their Great Grand Canyon Adventure.  The sky is blue and it's going to be another scorcher and I get to appreciate the day.  I get to appreciate my family and my friends and my place in the world.  I get to keep on living each day, looking forward to the next.

     Thanks, Mom.  Thanks, Dad.



  1. Thanks for sharing, and for the reminder to consider how fortunate one might be. Certainly, considering where my parents came from (in every sense), what they've done is pretty damned impressive...not flawless, but impressive. And I'm now entering the time where it might just fall to me to be caretaker for them, to some extent. Big swallow.

  2. Todd, I think most of us, looking back, should be impressed by our parents, where they came from, and what they did. With luck, the next generation will feel much the same about ours. If you do end up being a caretaker, I'm sure you will do the job with grace, compassion, and wit. (Although I must say that I never had gray hair before I had parents.)

  3. I see similarities in Gramma Keane's least the part that they were both taken in by relatives. I am also Rh-. Anyone else on the Keane side?

  4. Nice, Jerry. I had an RH incompatibility and am thankful for the shot I got after birth. Would hate to think Megan might not be here.

    1. The vast majority of us, were we born a century or two ago, would never have made it past age five, Patti. I'm a big fan of modern medicine. (And, yes, I'm very happy that Megan is here, too.)