The old woman spoke to the younger one, the words cold, intentionally cruel. "I hope the damned Germans get him." Her words matched her appearance, her face pinched, hair dark as pig iron and shot with grey. Her eyes were also dark, giving no spark to her visage at all. Her eyes were shark's eyes, predator's eyes.
"If they don't, I will," declared the younger woman in a determined tone. She was the daughter of the older woman but possessed of more color. Her hair was red and wavy, her eyes green. Despite presenting a more appealing image there was also flint in her spirit, ready to strike fire at a moment's notice.
The two women parted, no goodbyes, no hugs, no "I love you." The mother and her daughter were if nothing else consistent, neither giving ground to the other.
It was late in 1945, and the younger woman was my mother. She and her mother had been at odds over the man who was still overseas occupied with staying alive in the final days of WW II. He had been in the US Army for 4 years and 7 months. He had been in France and Germany, serving as an inductee in the Army as a medic. Soon he would be home, free at last, that man who would eventually become my father.
They married in January of 1946. Eventually they were to have 3 sons. I was the last.
The first marriage most of my generation, the ones dubbed the baby boomers, saw was that of their parents. I suppose my parents had their problems as all couples do but I was oblivious to them for the early part of my existence. They were working poor but everyone else seemed to be in the same boat. I remember them hugging, calling each other by their pet names for each other, teasing each other. It seemed a very happy union.
Life goes on as it has an unnerving way of doing. I saw the death of both my grandmothers while still quite young. Both of my grandfathers had passed before I was born so my knowledge of them was from stories and a few old photographs.
My maternal grandmother had become an invalid but hadn't mellowed a single bit. I remember her looking at me and there not being a spark of affection in that dark gaze. I believe if she had been physically able she'd have cheerfully murdered everyone in my family. Had she been alive today I'm sure she'd have been diagnosed as mentally ill. I was convinced that she was a thoroughly evil woman.
My other grandmother had been the total opposite. She was generous in a million small ways. When I was sick she'd send me foods she knew I liked, especially pumpkin pies. She was a large, fluffy, and angelic woman, her tufts of snowy white hair pulled back and pinned in a bun. She loved all her children and grandchildren up to the end when she succumbed to the double sentence of cancer and diabetes.
My mother had been married before. She had married an older man simply to get away from the hell her childhood home was. He was called up and was on the way to Europe to fight in the war when a torpedo slammed into his troop ship and he went down in the North Atlantic. Instead of escaping, my mother became a widow at an early age. For some reason the fact she had been married before was a big dark secret. It was also a secret my father used to bludgeon my mother with, a secret he used to hurt, something in the arsenal of dark secrets to hold over her head.
She went to board with a widowed lady who ran a rural store, little more than a 'pop shop'. She sold a few staples and even fewer luxuries. My mother lived with her for some months as a border, earning her way by 'keeping house', doing the cooking, cleaning, ironing, and other housework while her land lady ran the store. It was while she was boarding she met my future father while he was home on leave from the Army.
Dad finally got out of the Army and they were married. He found employment with the railroad and life settled into a rhythm. The kids started to arrive and life rolled right along. We moved in the spring of 1963 into an old ramshackle house which we remodeled. The best part was the outside, not the interior. Outside consisted of 383 acres of woodlands in which to explore, hunt, and fish. It was a paradise for a young boy.
Paradise ended with a thunderclap in 1965 over the Easter holiday. My dad had a custom of getting up early Sunday morning and taking off for a drive. He might visit one of his relatives or a friend, or just drive around. This Easter Sunday he met up with some of his drinking buddies and got enormously, devastatingly drunk. Mom made dinner and waited...and waited...and waited. Finally about dark his car came down the hill. It didn't have my Dad in the driver's seat. He was lying down dead drunk and passed out in the back seat. It was driven by one of my Mom's brothers. Uncle Robert was the black sheep of the family, himself a career alcoholic. There were 2 other drunken men in the car and a 3rd following in another car.
When they saw my Mom they headed for the tall weeds. They may have been drunk but they weren't blind or deaf. They got in the 2nd car and hit the road pronto, except for Uncle Robert. He thought he'd visit for a while. Bad idea, really bad idea. He figured out through the alcoholic haze just how little appreciated his company was and asked my Mom to give him a ride to town. She did, and Richard Petty would have had a hard time keeping pace. I went along too, as she didn't have anyone to watch me. I think she would have hurt or killed her brother and herself except for me being there as a passenger.
That was the end of peace in my parental home. My Dad crawled into the bottle and my Mom kept a fire lit under his butt from that day forward. Divorce papers were filed, then cancelled only to be refiled yet again. . Divorce would have been a relief, an end to the constant stress and fighting. I believe my Mom was afraid she couldn't make it on her own. She couldn't see that she was carrying the family and my father. The divorce never did happen.
My brothers missed the main part of the funhouse our world had become. They were old enough to escape to friends and eventually Uncle Sam sent them to play soldier. The middle brother went to Vietnam, a place that was probably safer than our home. We had to hide the guns because Dad had threatened to use them. The threat was always there that when he was drunk he'd decide to kill us all. I was too young to escape.
Every war has its ebb and flow, its rounds of active fighting followed by consolidation of territory won. My Dad never got free of the bottle and my mother never relented in her unforgiveness.
Years passed and my Dad had a bout with cancer. I had become a trucker by that time. I made it in for his surgery, saw him wheeled down the brightly lit tiled corridor on the way to the recovery room. He looked drained, pale and small under the stark white sheets on the gurney. Tears ran down my mothers face as her hands harrowed a clutched handkerchief. She said "Maybe he wouldn't be here today if I'd just been harder on him." I couldn't believe my ears. I wanted to bray laughter like a demented jackass. I couldn't conceive of exactly how she could have been harder on him. True, he had screwed up royally and for a long time, but she hadn't cut him one iota of slack for years. I simply stood there in dumb disbelief, ultimately speechless in the face of that declaration.
The cancer backed off for a time. Life went on, the war continued unabated.
I was the one who would sit and actually converse with my mother about a host of topics. I once made the observation that by being married to each other they had probably saved 2 other very nice people from a hellish existence. She didn't disagree.
More years passed and her turn came. She battled cancer too, having surgery on her throat. She recovered from it and continued her life, returning to her factory job to make ends meet. She was very frugal, squeezing a nickel until the buffalo bellowed. She suffered from emphysema which spiraled downward into COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Cancer came back for a return engagement, this time cancer of the colon. It was not operable because of her respiratory challenges. The big question was which one would take her out. COPD won the coin toss, her contracting flu and becoming unable to breath because of the fluid gathering in her impaired lungs.
My parents were married for over 50 years. It was a casebook study in dysfunctionality. They couldn't get past the sins of each other. Mom wouldn't forgive Dad for his drinking, he wouldn't change to gratify her. He was in charge of his bottle, she was the master of her anger, and neither one backed down a single step in over 30 years. They could have been the poster couple for passive aggressive behavior.
Mom spent her last 2 months in a nursing facility. The doctors had done everything they could do. They had exhausted their craft and her insurance and Medicare/Medicaid. The only thing left was the deathwatch.
It was Christmas. I'd visited my Dad and he'd asked me "When are they going to let the old woman come home?" I gave him the news "She isn't coming home, Dad. She's never going to be well enough to come back here." I told him that truth because I still respected him enough to give him the unvarnished facts. What I gave him was his death sentence.
Two days later I'd gone back to work. Late in the afternoon I got a call to contact my brother. I did so and he told me Dad had died that morning, felled by a massive heart attack. I believe when it hit him that his wife, who had been his antagonist and partner for 50 years, wasn't coming home he simply gave up and died. A neighbor found him lying in the grass outside his home. He'd been there alone for several hours.
Mom took the news better than we thought, but she was a hard bitten redhead and gave precious little of her emotions away. She couldn't go to the funeral as she was almost bedridden herself. It was a few days later she caught the flu. She left this world a scant 12 days after my Dad. Maybe she wanted to continue the dialogue.
That's been almost 12 years ago. I've debated within myself whether I did the right thing or not, informing him of the cold stark facts about Mom. I've had a long time to consider the need for forgiveness. I hope it exists.