Friday, May 06, 2011

What matters

You'd think Mother's Day would be hard for me this year, but actually, these manufactured holidays never meant much in our family, and that's a real blessing now. Either you appreciate your loved ones on an everyday basis, or you don't, and all the flowery "get sentimental when the Holiday Industry rings the bell" celebrations were, not ignored, but always pretty secondary in our house.

I posted this photo awhile ago, but here it is again because it's so incredibly rich with what mattered in the home my parents made.

As a family we kind of fit in with the local suburban culture, and kind of didn't. My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, and we lived in the part of town and went to the schools that other upper-middle-class professional families lived in and went to. But somehow, we were a little outside it all and I, at the time, never really noticed how. I felt like my family just had a different style. We got a lot of our casual clothes at Kmart, our cars were old models that looked odd to me. I asked once why our cars were shaped funny and that became a source of hilarity for Mom all her life. But they ran. Usually. One time, the steering wheel came off in her hands when she was doing carpool, causing her to lay her head on the empty steering column in despair for a moment before she knocked on a door and borrowed another mom's car.

We had no stereo. Behind the lounge chair, on the floor, you see our record player. It was a big cowhide-suitcase style portable that they had back in med school days when they lived in one room. We. Ran. That. Machine. To. Death. Mom raised me on American musical comedy with it. She often had light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, or Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy going on it. When my baby brother was big enough to occasionally be fun -- by about 1963 or so -- we'd play something lively and dance around to it in the den. Christmas music whispered on it for hours as Mom wrote her gazillion Christmas cards every year, and we'd crank up the volume for family evenings during the season and on Christmas day.

A lot of what this photo evokes for me is actually outside its borders, because my memory fills in the rest of the scene. Out of the photo, but probably right next to me as I was taking this shot, was our little black and white TV.

Our kitchen was big, sunny, that "heart of the home" they talk about, but had those old metal-rimmed countertops, not high tech formica but covered with figured contact paper laid down by Mom, which would wrinkle and crud up and eventually get pulled off and replaced.

But we did have this awesome refrigerator * with the carousel shelves.
I loved this thing:

I vaguely knew, but never really appreciated all my father and uncle and grandfather did with their lives. Dad and his brother were in orthopedic practice with their father, who started a service in which they took turns serving two clinics up in the mountains treating poor patients. They made money, but not the kind that a lot of other surgeons made.

So my parents put money into what mattered. In the photo, a random stack of books is there within reach, and that's our home in a nutshell. Books about everything. Loads of history, lots of art books, Peanuts, Charles Addams and Helen Hokinson cartoons, science from astronomy to zoology, and a literary smorgasbord that could be mined not just for entertainment but to grow a mind.

At about age 14 or so, triggered by something I can't remember, I got worried about humanity and technology. About how we'd gained abilities that we maybe shouldn't have. I have no idea what it was about, except that I developed a fear that truth could be overcome by falsehood, Wrong could win out over Right because humankind could fake things so diabolically well. To help me work through that, Mom gave me this murder mystery (this very copy, now quite tattered) :

You'll have to read it to find out why!

Also outside the photo's frame, on the upper shelves next to Mom, are the umpteen sets of encyclopedias they bought, all at once, probably making some lucky guy Salesman of the Year in the process. In one swell foop they got us The Book of Popular Science, Lands and Peoples, World Book, and a short-entry general set called Grolier Encyclopedia. Dad had a globe and an unabridged dictionary on a stand in his den. I could write a report on pretty much anything without leaving home.

The holidays with real family-bonding meaning are going to be hard for awhile, but Mom always found such things as Mother's Day sort of nice but silly, and it mostly evokes a feeling in me that I've got things that can never be taken away, that make me the slightly off-center person that I am. All I can do is be so incredulously grateful, and wish everybody could have it.


* The refrigerator illustration comes from Atomic Kitchen -- lots of fun, especially for people my age!

1 comment:

ronnie said...

A wonderful post and a wonderful tribute to your mom and your dad and your whole family. They understood what matters. (Reading this post brought to mind the saying about the other kind of people who "know the price of everything and the value of nothing".)

Husband and I have the same attitude towards manufactured holidays. We resolutely refuse to recognize Valentines Day because if you don't show you love each other all through the rest of the year, what's the point of buying gifts and flowers on one day to say it? We never remember to celebrate our wedding anniversary - we had a wedding, but we have a marriage. (On our first anniversary, one of our bridesmaids called to congratulate us. That's when we remembered it was our anniversary.)

The cats' birthdays, we remember. Go figure.