As the 107th anniversary of my father’s birth approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the state of his marriage to my mother. Their union was ended after sixty-one years when he passed away in 2003. They had been temporarily separated several times during their life together, mostly during business trips my dad undertook, but never for more than a few days. His last trip, at age ninety-two, is the only one from which he never returned.
My mother lived another seven years, until ninety-four, the longest period of her life without him since they married in 1942.
As I look back, they seem to me to have been an unlikely couple. He was the only boy in his almost-Victorian family, coddled (if not spoiled) by his parents and sisters. He wasn’t arrogant by any means, but he possessed a certain sense of entitlement, a sense that he was born to live at the centre of his universe. Understandable, I guess, given that he lived at home until he married, looked after by doting parents.
My mother, who had three sisters and a brother, was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Roman Catholic father—themselves an unlikely match—who taught her you had to earn what you wanted. Nobody was about to give you anything for nothing. Taking the lesson to heart, she became determined to succeed at whatever she did. My mother had the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever known.
I’m still not sure how two such different people—she a high-powered woman, he a less highly-driven man—could find each other, wed each other, and remain with each other for so many years.
During their marriage, she left him on very few occasions, mostly on excursions with family or friends, and never for long. She was fearful, I suppose, of leaving him alone to cope with five children. After all, we could eat only so much oatmeal porridge, grilled-cheese sandwiches, canned spaghetti, and jello.
Not that my father couldn’t cook; he could. He could also house-clean, do the laundry and ironing, shop for groceries, help with homework, perform small repairs around the house, or do any other chore necessary to sustain a family of seven. But he preferred not to—not if someone else would. I was a grown man before I realized he had mastered the art of feigned incompetence.
Mind you, that might have been a reflexive defence-mechanism. My mother didn’t make it easy for him, being something of a perfectionist. Although she believed in the adage that it was better to teach people to fish, rather than giving them a fish—trusting they would therefore become self-sufficient and proficient—she also had the annoying habit of checking everything my father did after he did it, to ensure it was done to her exacting standard. I think he figured it was better most of the time to let her do the various tasks herself, rather than suffering through her re-doing of his attempts.
They were loving parents, although their parenting style evolved over the years between my birth and that of my youngest sister, eleven years later. My mother never lost her sense of high hopes for all of us, but she became more tolerant, more forgiving of our shortcomings as we, and she, grew older. It wasn’t easy for her, though, because her expectations of herself never lessened. I loved her for that.
My father, on the other hand, entered parenthood with a blissful belief that everything would work out fine. And I think, despite the contrary evidence we five children provided from time to time, he maintained that belief throughout his life. Of course, he became exasperated on occasion—on dozens, even scores, of occasions, actually. To this day, I can hear his favourite expression of frustration when I had somehow messed up again.
“Crooked cats!” he’d say, shaking his head dolefully. But he was ever quick to forgive. I loved him for that.
He usually called my mother Dorothy—never Dote, as her sisters did, and never Dot. His favourite pet-name for her was just that, Pet. She called him Bill; if she ever used another form of address, I can’t recall it. I never heard endearments for each other, such as Sweetheart, Darling, or Honey, from either of them. Yet I never doubted their love for one another.
Perhaps it was their sense of humour that sustained them through difficult times and enriched the many joyful times. I remember overhearing my mother’s admonition to my father, whispered from a hospital bed where she was recuperating from a near-fatal heart attack at age eighty-five.
“I guess this means no more wild sex for awhile,” she teased.
“Crooked cats, Dorothy!” was all my ninety-year-old father could say, shocked that she would say such a thing in front of me.
Even at the end of his life it was there, that shared, loving camaraderie. As my father lay moments from death, my mother leaned close to him and said, “Would you like me to sing to you?”
Without opening his eyes—which would have been twinkling if he had—he muttered, “Not particularly!”
It was their final secret joke.
So that’s how I remember them and their life with one another. And I choose to believe they’re together again, forever, their separation ended.
That’s just how it was with the state of their marriage.