These are my parents in June of 1977:
Star Wars was the highest grossing movie at the box office. The first Apple II computers had just gone on sale. Punk was poised to explode (The Clash, Iggy Pop) although I highly doubt my parents were thinking about leather jackets and asymmetric hair. They also weren’t thinking about the recent coup in the Seychelles. I can hear my mother now: Seychelles? We have a lamp full of them.
When I see this photo, I’m struck by how young my parents look. I have to remind myself that they weren’t in their thirties anymore, either, which makes them like celebrities to me. My radiant forty year old mother in her patriotic shift dress, and my father, with his “I’m guest starring on this week’s episode of Baretta” mustache, are glossy and otherworldly. And somehow I’m in the picture, too, fat as a holiday ham. My mouth is open not because I’m sleeping, but because I’m hoping food will fall into it from the ceiling.
I’m at home visiting my parents this week. They’re older. I’ve always said “My parents are older,” which as a kid, acknowledged their fogey behavior while sparing them the geriatrics of plain ol’ “old.” I feared their ever leaving me. (George said it best in Season 3 Grey’s Anatomy: “I just don’t know how to exist in a world without my dad.”) When I was a Sophomore in high school, and my mother was diagnosed with colon polyps, I learned to drive with my new Lerner’s Permit to and from Rex Hospital. She was also going through menopause so we fought all the time. (Our Superhero names would have been Hot Flash and Cold Shoulder.) But I remember telling my friend Katie, about my mother: “She’s just, you know, older.” That -er was a protective secret spell that conjured common ground. Because at fifteen, I was older than fourteen, and fourteen was young. To say “old” meant admitting she could disappear.
Today my mother stayed in bed for most of the morning because she has a pervasive bone ache that the doctors can’t diagnose. Pain, which is no picnic even when it chooses a center, is diffuse. Part of growing older as a daughter is letting your mother have her pain, letting her own it. I couldn’t talk her out of taking me shopping for winter clothes so I didn’t try. I’m starting to realize how almighty it is to be a mother. Mother love is the kind of love that keeps you standing up with full-body bone ache in the Kohl’s Misses Department, determined to find an orange sweater that isn’t frayed.
My father is older, too. He sat me down last night and told me that after a head cold a few weeks back, and a resulting bacterial infection, he lost most of the remainder of his hearing. We used to joke in my house that he was faking it –my mother is so circuitous and Southern — but he got out his guitar and explained to me how strumming barely registers. There was such sadness behind his eyes. Until that moment I had never considered growing older as a gradual silence, a slow falling away of people and objects, of particulars. Certain soft voices, the sound of guitar strings. It makes sense to me that he would spend much of his retirement retreating in aquariums and gardens, breeding freshwater fish and reading books like “Flowers and Shrubs” (frankly, I’d rather see the movie) which offer bright, pitchless alternatives. When he administered the ultrasonic hearing test to me—students are downloading ring tones that older teachers are incapable of hearing — I found out that my world is disappearing decibel by decibel, too.
On Saturday I’m attending a family reunion in a Methodist Church in Winston Salem. My father’s mother, who died before I was born, had seven brothers and sisters. Several of them are still alive and in their mid 90’s. I will be the youngest person there. It’s exciting for me to think that my parents will be relatively young there, too — because I still can’t say it, that terrifying word, old.