Words of my Father: Family are like good friends: You know them so well, you know all of their faults and love them anyway.
Well, Dad, you never warned me how damnably difficult loving them would be…
For the last few weeks, I have been dealing with some of the most challenging people and egregious actions of recent memory. The people are my two older sisters. The egregious actions are theirs and are viciously focused upon a rusted metal box. All of this started with the death of our 83-year-old father not even a month ago. And every damned bit of this (so far) is wholly unnecessary.
The object of heated contention du jour? A 40-year-old rusted tackle box with a handful of 1970s spinner baits, some hooks and sinkers, a few rolls of line, and a multitude of packages of plastic worms that have transformed into greasy, solid blobs over years of summer heat. The discourse has become so heated that my mother, 84, who spent the last decade caring for her ill husband of 64 years, is looking for any and every possible means of avoiding this year’s Mother’s Day.
I offer a little background info through my highly prejudiced eyes before I begin this, which I hope will be a cathartic (to me) diatribe.
I am the youngest of three daughters, each of us almost exactly nine years apart in age. The eldest, who is 63, is a real piece of work. A self-professed Prophet of God, one of her greatest and repeated claims to fame was being thrown out of various Assembly of God churches across the US (as well as charismatic churches on two other continents) for dancing at the pulpit wearing a Jewish prayer cloth and thereby scandalizing the women and on four occasions offending Messianic Jews who were parishioners.
I could write an entire book just about her, her wonderful husband of 37 years who was intrinsically involved in the development and perfection of AWACS planes, and the shenanigans she pulled in the latter days of his battle with cancer. I could add a chapter about the other “Prophets” from her church that came to “heal” her husband two weeks before his death and who literally pointed their fingers at and blamed the eldest son’s lack of belief in “their church” for causing the cancer and, thereby, their inability to heal. Ahem. One of the Prophets did need a place to stay that night, though… (It wasn’t there, I assure you.)
I could add another long chapter about how she devasted their three adult children when she married a man on the day before Father’s Day one year later, and we found that she had thrown all of their father’s many military decorations, keepsakes and pictures into the trash, including one of their own daughter’s wedding. That picture is now mine, gathered from the trash bag-filled house on the evening after their wedding reception. The flag presented to my sister at their father’s funeral on behalf of a grateful nation was also pulled from a trash bag and is in the possession of the eldest son. It was at that moment of discovery that I joined my two nephews and niece in no longer caring if their mother, my sister, fell off the face of the Earth. If ever I were in a lifeboat and she struggling in the water, I’d wave and tell her to swim hard to keep up.
The middle sister is 55 and a test of patience and education of the very best of psychiatrists. She is so narcissistic and self-absorbed it would make your head spin. My fondest childhood memories of her include her spending literal hours in the bathroom before the mirror, arranging individual hairs and telling herself how beautiful she was, talking to herself in complete loving sentences. Only God knows how, but she married a wonderful fellow, who has managed to stay married to her for 30 years and who has been extraordinarily wonderful and loving to my parents over the years, unlike my exceptionally selfish middle sister, who has gone many months at a time without seeing my parents or even picking up the phone to call.
They eventually conceived a daughter, whom my sister soon grew tired of. Actually, being merely tired of being a parent is not it. My sister is overwhelmed with jealousy of her daughter and hasn’t had a kind word for her or to her since she was about five. The little doll grew up and today, at the age of 17, is drop-dead gorgeous and Hell-bent upon getting away from her cruel mother any way possible, including getting pregnant and being able to get married – her primary goal for escape. I fear for this child, who won’t listen to a single word I, or even my sons offer.
This sister, by the way, is a perfect candidate for a heart attack at 55, weighing in now at around 300 pounds. She is herself very much a child in every way, throwing literal two-year-old tantrums (yes, kicking and screaming), consistently ignoring responsibilities to her family, wholly uncaring about their $180K credit card debt and coveting everything she can get her hands on…be it the possessions given to her daughter, or to anyone else. Her entire life is consumed with “what should have been”, “what I could have had”, “what they/he/she did to me”, and never questions what she may have done. Sad is an unreasonable understatement, as is the term “White Trash.”
I, of course, was the slightly-less-than, but almost perfect daughter. Dad was nearing retirement when I came along and I enjoyed relaxed, loving parents and a childhood I wish everyone could have. My mother underwent a hysterectomy immediately after my birth by flashlight (no kidding) and lay in bed for the last four months of her pregnancy praying she could bring me to term. Never one day came that I haven’t know how very much I was loved and treasured and enjoyed in my entire life. That, coupled with parents who took every opportunity to support me, teach me, and be an intrinsically involved force in my life gave me a tremendous advantage over my sisters and a huge headstart toward enjoying the life that I have. They talked WITH me, befriended my friends, allowed me the room to grow, set non-negotiable boundaries and rules for me to abide by, and always made sure I knew they would help me when I failed.
My first marriage ended after 15 years, but from it I have two of the most wonderful sons a mother has ever known. They are honorable, ethical, responsible, respectful, have a ton of great friends, the youngest has a fabulous girlfriend whom I love and respect, are both working toward solid futures and – most important of all to me – have a strong relationship with me. And I thank God every single day for the blessing that is Tom, my fiancé, in my life. What I ever did to deserve his love is beyond me. It sure took long enough to find him!
Allow me to interject here that I do not believe my childhood was any better or happier than my sisters. Although, I uniquely enjoyed a tremendous amount of their time that war and college and work kept the other two from receiving. But it was only my middle brother-in-law and I who stayed closely in touch with my parents and frequently visited them all these years. In the latter days, my deep gratitude goes to my brother-in-law, who earned the title of my “Brother” through his constant care and sincere love for Mother and Dad.
I do strongly suspect a genetic quirk somewhere down the line regarding my two sisters…as does my mother, because we seem to be the only sane ones left in the family. We certainly seem to be the only ones who took Dad’s famous words to heart: “You can never make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can ALWAYS make yourself do right, in spite of those feelings.”
On to the diatribe.
My father died on April 7. For several days before, my fiancé and I were there, and my middle brother-in-law came often during the days. My middle sister finally showed up the afternoon before Dad died. (Oldest Sister could not get away from her tyrannical second husband and was not present.) We enjoyed a wonderful day with Dad, whose heart was clearly and slowly failing. He was alert and downright jovial all day, fully enjoying his family around him. As strange as it may seem, that day was an especially happy one for all of us. At around 7:00 p.m., while holding my mother’s hand, he finally relaxed and went to sleep, never to awaken upon this Earth again.
He was buried with military honors on Friday, April 13th. Dad would have gotten such a kick out of that. (A superstitious lot we are, due to our Scottish roots!) And I am so grateful he is not here to see the amazing selfish behaviors my sisters are exhibiting now, because he would have gleefully decked anyone who made Mother upset. And being her protector is something he bequeathed to me “just in case” long years before he died.
The night before brought me two phone calls from the oldest son and daughter of my oldest sister. They both called me to express their sympathy for Dad’s loss, as well as their regrets for what I was about to go through with their mother…
The sad fact about dying in your 80s is that you have outlived most of your friends, and the remainder are usually in health too poor to attend the services. Such was the case here, with Dad’s funeral to be attended only by family. That is what he and Mother wanted anyway. As Dad wanted to be buried in the Dallas National Cemetery with his fallen military brethren, the funeral was held in North Dallas, where I and my oldest sister reside. Mother, Middle Sister and husband and daughter made the trek from North Louisiana several days before the funeral and our time together was wonderful…until…
Oldest sister and her tyrannical second husband obstinately decreed that the funeral would be held in their church where tyrannical second husband had been a deacon for a number of years. That was actually fine with all of us. What wasn’t fine and became the first heads-up was that tyrannical second husband literally personally phoned more than 50 people and asked them to attend the service so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by being seen as part of a family without anyone else attending the funeral. I kid you not. We arrived to find about 35 strangers sitting together in the back corner of the chapel. Not only had any of use (other than tyrannical second husband and Oldest Sister) ever met any of these folks, but none of them even knew of our father’s existence before tyrannical second husband’s phone call.
Upon his loud and gregarious arrival, tyrannical second husband was in his element and thanked each of them for their kindness to him in showing up to fill some seats. And believe me, he was loud enough to each one that no one could miss “fill some seats”. I’m fairly certain one could hear him outside the church.
Dad would probably have laughed his arse off over that one, too.
I thought my mother was going to faint. But she pulled herself together and allowed herself to be dragged over to be introduced to all of the seat-fillers being gracious and polite as always. Then, on her way back to the “family section,” she shot me the look that clearly said she wanted to murderate Oldest Sister and tyrannical second husband.
Having overheard a few of the seat-fillers talking after the service, I made a point of grabbing tyrannical second husband by the right upper arm and instructed him, with a low, slow hiss, to go “uninvite” this group of seat-warmers to the family-only gathering at my house after the service, to which he had assuredly invited all of them to attend. The end result was therefore a pleasant, relaxed period of time for Mother, who really enjoyed visiting with we three kids and spouses, my two sons, my middle sister’s daughter and two of Mother’s cousins who came. Even tyrannical second husband behaved himself.
Then, the family made the hour-long trek to the Dallas National Cemetery. I had the pleasure of riding with my two sons, my youngest son’s girlfriend and my niece, while my fiancé brought Mother, Middle Sister and Brother-in-Law. Oldest Sister and tyrannical second husband had a “social engagement” immediately following the service (for which they were probably going to be late for…) and comported themselves there, thank God. The service there was beautiful. And through blinding tears that I somehow couldn’t control, I made certain to make my way to the Army and Air Force Officers, who folded our nation’s flag and presented it to Mother, to thank them for being at Dad’s burial, but also specifically for their own service to our country. I for one am eternally grateful and, in voicing my appreciation, I also fulfilled a promise I made to my father.
As everyone began to leave and my fiancé was leading Mother back to the car, I fulfilled another promise to my father. With the flask of good Lagavulin scotch filled quietly by my oldest son at my house, my two sons and I each gave a toast to Dad, drinking deeply, and poured the rest of the fine whisky on Dad’s grave. It may seem strange, but this is a tradition going way back in my family and only I seem to have any respect for such things. And Dad is the one who got me hooked on fine, peaty scotch to begin with many, many years ago…
I’ve been back and forth to Louisiana to Mom’s house since, with so much to do to straighten out pensions, medical benefits and life insurance policies. And there is much more to do. Through these few weeks, Mother has stayed especially busy, but the bird feeders and houses she and I put out two weeks ago have lost their initial diversionary luster. Mother is now feeling full-force the grief of losing her husband, regardless of how grateful she and we all are that he did not suffer any more in this life. I cannot comprehend how much it must hurt, how bereft one must feel to lose their mate, whom they loved so deeply and completely, for 64 years.
Reflecting upon another of Dad’s axioms: “It takes the Bad in life to make the Good seem so much better.”
Five days ago, Oldest Sister opened a floodgate of meanness and has trapped Mother slap dab in the middle. May she burn a little longer in Hell for same.
Unfortunately, sealing my sisters’ lips with superglue is considered assault. Unfortunately, binding each of them with duct tape and launching them off the nearest bridge over turbulent water is also out of the question, regardless of who else in the family might volunteer to assist. That would only work for the oldest, since the middle sister would easily float away anyway…
Long years ago, I encouraged Mother and Dad to give away the worldly objects they had collected to the people they wanted to have them and enjoy the giving. And they did. China, crystal, silver, old family portraits, old family bibles, jewelry, etc. found new homes and Mother and Dad sincerely enjoyed giving them and seeing them warmly received a protected by the generations to come. Most importantly, this prevented each of them from reliving the terrible times at the deaths of their own parents that they remembered often with tears.
They even sold their home, bought a large camper and spent the next 12 years traveling across the US having the absolute best time of their lives. Their stories, their pictures taken, hearing about the wonderful folks they met along the way are a tremendous wonderful memory of mine, and especially so for my mother.
They came back and settled in the house that belonged to my middle brother-in-law’s parents, who had each passed away. Neither the house, nor any of its contents had ever been sold or removed. For the next decade, Dad’s health began slowly to fail. Severe atherosclerosis, COPD and a myriad of small TIAs took their toll and Mother’s welcomed role was to care for him meticulously. I think the most difficult task of all for her was to help Dad, with her limitless patience, adjust to the strengthening reality that his physical abilities were slipping slowly away. He found peace with that, and I attribute that to Mother’s love, as well as Dad’s renown pragmatic way of looking at things.
That was tougher for Dad than I can imagine. Fishing was especially a large part of his life. As I mentioned, I came along when he was nearing retirement. So, beginning at the age of four or so, I became his constant fishing partner. And until I hit the age of 14 and became totally consumed with music and school, we fished every lake from Mississippi to East Texas and north throughout most of
Arkansas. We caught Dad’s weight in catfish, bass, perch, bream and trout. Even after I was married, Dad and I got together just about every year for several days and went fishing offshore throughout the
Gulf of Mexico and even once in Cabo. I treasure these memories more that I can relate, and am thrilled my fiancé loves the sport as well. You just can’t have enough fresh fish in your freezer, in my book. I was, indeed, the son my father never had.
And that is why I reel from the irony that my two older sisters, with whom Dad never had the time to fish with, are fighting over a tackle box assembled during the years Dad and I fished together.
The scenario begins three days ago with Oldest Sister calling Mother to tell her she will be coming at the end of the week to pick up Mother and bring her to their East Texas camp house to enjoy the week leading up to and Mother’s Day with she and tyrannical second husband. And, while she’s at it, she will be picking up the tackle box that Dad promised to her.
Mother was taken aback on two fronts: she would rather have all of her lovely teeth pulled at once rather than being confined a week with tyrannical second husband and she planned on staying right at home for Mother’s Day and ALL OF US coming over to join her anyway. Secondly, she hadn’t a clue about a tackle box, since Dad hadn’t been able to fish in over a decade. She was not only unaware Dad had promised it to Oldest Sister, but didn’t know which one (he had several) she was referring to. Further, Mother had absolutely no clue where it was? Was it in the jam-packed storage room at Middle Sister’s place?
So Mother asks psychotic Middle Sister if she knew where the tackle box was. And Middle Sister went into a tantrum-riddled, plate-throwing, feet-stomping, screaming frenzy about how much she hated Oldest Sister, who was dead-set on “getting her hands on everything she can” before Middle Sister has the time to get it herself. Her fit lasted no less than an hour, during which time no one – not Mother, nor her husband – could calm her down.
Mother, by the way, is 84. Not only is her partner of 64 years gone and her sense of a “normal” life along with it, her primary reason for existing in the last decade – to take care of Dad – is gone, too. To say she is nerve-wracked is profoundly true. Now, she has sibling animosity to add to the mix.
So Middle Sister started digging around Mom’s house to find the tackle box before Oldest Sister can. She emptied out the closet off of the garage, leaving all the contents tossed and in chaotic disarray, and found nothing. Still screaming and raging, she drives off in a wheel-spinning huff, leaving her husband to try and get everything back into the closet.
Oldest Sister calls Mother, who naively relates Middle Sister’s closet action. Oldest Sister threatens to “have it out” with Middle Sister and even go to her house and ransack the area there if Dad’s tackle box comes up missing. Middle Sister tells Mom she will have Oldest Sister arrested for trespassing. Oldest Sister threatens to sue Middle Sister for stealing her “inheritance.”
Mom calls me crying tears no mother should ever spill. It took me some time, but I finally got Mother to see the unbelievable stupidity and humor in this, especially filing a suit over theft of inheritance of a tackle box. And I explain that both sisters are probably having a hard time dealing with Dad’s death and might even be angry, so this is their way of venting, although it is callous and with total disregard to how it makes Mother feel. I listened to her, I tried to lighten her load, and we ended the conversation about the backyard birds.
I then called each sister and raised Unholy Hell for their moronic actions and told them to leave EVERYTHING, absolutely EVERYTHING alone! I informed each that when Mom gets ready to give Dad’s tackle box away, she will and not a moment sooner. Until then, they are to immediately back off and stay backed off. If they want to bitch with each other, please go right ahead, but I had better not ever hear again how they put Mother in the middle, who loves them both and is grieving for the loss of her husband, whom she knew a lot longer than she knew any of us!
I further explained to each how they have potentially ruined Mother’s Day for Mom, who can’t possibly face this holiday – a mere four weeks after Dad will have been buried – knowing the two of them are going to be going after each other like rabid cats. Some Mother’s Day, huh? Think how nice a day it could have been if each of them hadn’t acted like the most selfish of children. And, by the way, Mother’s Day will be held at Mother’s house, where we will all get off of our lazy, self-centered asses and go to her and pretend, through whatever personal difficulty necessary, to get along famously. If you can’t behave, don’t come.
I closed each conversation by thanking them for the exceptional examples in maturity they have each failed to exhibit and promptly hung up. I have gratefully heard from neither since.
Yesterday and this morning are much better days for Mother. Neither older daughter has bothered her and she is back enjoying her backyard birds and playing the organ. Computer glitches have presented a challenge also, but Mother has resolved those as well as any MCSE could. Very proud of her there! I keep telling her Mother’s Day will be a happy, relaxed one despite this burst of anger and one day soon, we will all laugh about this incident over a Thanksgiving table. In that, I dearly pray my bravado becomes reality.
Thank you for enduring my diatribe. I do feel somewhat better now.