A Father’s Day Gift in Words

Last weekend I shared my first real meal with my parents since the COVID-19 outbreak fifteen months ago. It was a Mediterranean takeout lunch that we shared at the kitchen table which has been the hearth of my family for nearly six decades. We were celebrating Father’s Day.

Until then my visits with my mom and dad were limited to facial mask outdoor visits, and depending on the weather, sometimes separated by a screened window. As we gathered this Father’s Day all fully vaccinated, it felt like a return to normal. I hugged and kissed my mother and father, who are 84 and 86, respectively.

So Grateful for the Love

I have been blessed to have shared many great memories with them throughout my adult life. They supported me through divorce and have always been there for me when I needed anything. We shared some great adventures when they visited me during the ten years that I lived in the New England region of the United States. We have had our ups and downs over the years, for sure, but I have always felt deeply loved. And it warms my heart when I hear my parents say that they love my now husband like a son.

My dad spent his career as a longshoreman working on the docks in San Francisco and Oakland. He came across as a tough guy with a vocabulary filled with colorful words. Growing up I would often hold my breath when my high school friends were over, hoping my dad would keep his words clean. Over the last 20 years he has mellowed into a very gentle loving man .

When I greeted him on Father’s Day, he was reclining in his favorite chair in the family room. I bent over to kiss his face and saw tears in his eyes. “I love you” was the very first thing he said.

Signs of Aging

Over the last year my mother has begun to be open with me about my father’s failing memory. She has shared that he often forgets where a household item is stored that has been in the same place for decades. On a recent phone call with my dad, I mentioned the surprise 50th wedding anniversary party we threw for my parents 14 years ago. He told me he did not remember it. During our visit last weekend, I learned that my father also does not remember the special occasion waterfront restaurant lunch and overnight stay we shared with them for their 60th anniversary four years ago.

We enjoyed our lunch and visited for a couple of hours before it was time for us to fight the traffic going home. I remembered the Father’s Day card that had been in my purse and handed it to him. He opened the envelope, admired the image on the front of the card and asked me to read it to him because he said that he cannot see.

A Father Daughter Bond

First, I read the words on the store-bought card and then the handwritten messages from my husband and I, expressing our appreciation for all he has done for us. “I’ve always been there for you,” he said with a sense of pride. So true, I thought to myself as my mind raced back through key events in my life when I needed some loving support.

As my husband and I prepared to leave the house, I bent down to kiss my father good-bye. As I bent over to meet his face, I saw the same watery eyes and heard the same expression of love as when I arrived. “I love you.”

As the only daughter in a family with two brothers, I have always felt a special bond with my dad. This Father’s Day visit opened my eyes to the fact that my time with him here on Earth is not unlimited.

Forgiving My Mother for My Upbringing

I grew up in a blue-collar family. My father immigrated to San Francisco, California from the European island of Malta when he was 17. He began a 40-year career as a longshoreman in his early 20’s.

My mother’s parents were also immigrants from Europe. They left Croatia and landed in Brooklyn, New York for a few years before making their journey to San Francisco in 1941. My mother used to describe her heritage as being from “the old country.”

The Mindset of My Upbringing

The mindset of my heritage was that girls were to grow up, find a man, and have children. Although it was never verbalized, I was made to understand that my primary goal would be to get married…young.

Although I was in Advanced Placement classes in high school, my parents never talked with me about college or careers. I was encouraged to take shorthand and typing as electives in school, along with sewing and cooking.

I wanted to go to college, so I funded my education myself.

My parents paid for my one-year older brother’s college education. I didn’t think much of it at the time. A college education was far less expensive back in the day. I had been working in a movie theater since I was 14 so that I could buy my own clothes. I guess I had grown used to paying for what I wanted. I became the first girl among my huge family of cousins that went to and graduated from college.

This is not to say that my parents were stingy with me. They just had their own ideas about what was important for me. Neither of my two brothers got the orthodontia work that I had, or a 325-guest wedding reception paid for by my parents when I was 23.

I have never had any doubts that my parents loved me, and I believe that they have always done the best that they could. Yet there is one decision they made for me that stings me to this day when I think about it.

A Decision that Would Influence My Future

When I was a child my mother was called to meet with a counselor from my school. Turns out I had scored high on intelligence testing. The counselor had called my mother in to suggest that my parents consider sending me to what my mother described to me as a “special” school. Although my mother reported the meeting to me, I was not given a voice in the matter.

My mother made most of the decisions regarding our education and extra-curricular activities. She was firm in her decision that I was not to be moved out of our local public school system. The decision had nothing to do with money. In her mind my having a social life with the other children in our neighborhood was more important for me than exploring the possibilities of how I might be able to excel with the gifts I’ve been given.

This became one of those topics that would surface occasionally over the years. My mother always described her decision in the same way. It was always about her desire that I have friends in the neighborhood. I would typically just sit quietly whenever she recounted the story. Although I greatly regretted her decision, I never wanted to make her feel bad, so I just said nothing.

A Different Response to Regret

As I’ve grown older, I have found myself thinking about what I might have done differently with my life if given the chance to go to the special school. Invariably, having been better focused on preparing myself for my work life ahead is at the top of that list.

Just over a year ago my husband and I were visiting my parents and the topic of the school decision came up again. This time I approached it differently.

For the first time I gently explained how I would have really appreciated the opportunity to reach my fuller potential in a program designed to challenge me. I made it clear that I wished she would have made a different decision. She took it in for a few seconds, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t care. I would do it the same way if I had it to do again.”

My heart sank.

To me, my mother was saying that she would rather that I live the life that she wanted for me instead of the one I want for myself. The worst part of this for me was that she didn’t even try to hide it.

The Lesson for Me

When I look to see the lesson here for me, I see it as forgiveness. That seems to be a theme in my life as I shared in My Lessons From Betrayals. I will never forget this exchange with my mother nor her initial decision, but I will forgive her from a belief that she was just doing the best that she could do at the time.

If you have similar resentments or regrets, I’d love to have you share them in comments.

How I Grew From a Marriage Betrayal

Twenty-five years ago I experienced the greatest betrayal of my life. I discovered that my husband was having an affair with a woman he worked with. I had begun to suspect that something was going on between the two of them for months. Yet because I could not fathom the thought of cheating on my husband, I naively could not acknowledge the truth of their relationship while it unfolded before me.

After I shared some concerns I’d been having with a long-time friend who worked with my husband, he filled me in on the depths of what had been going on. Deep down I had known it, but I chose not to acknowledge the truth.

I was so upset that the only action I could imagine was to confront my husband when he arrived home from work that evening. He denied the truth and at the same time said “I’m not meant for marriage”. Then he walked out on me.

Betrayal Pain Turns to Anger

For weeks I felt tremendous pain in response to this betrayal. It was a personal devastation that gutted what I envisioned my future life to entail. Over the course of weeks, the pain turned into anger when he started coming after me in a legal battle. While he came to the relationship with debt, the great majority of our assets originated from me.

I became livid over the understanding that the man who was leaving me for another woman was also seeking to receive compensation for assets he did not contribute to.

Moving Beyond the Anger

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I did not want my anger to destroy my outlook on life or my sense of hope for a loving relationship in the future. So, I made a pact with myself that, while I would never forget what my ex had done, that I would forgive his actions as a way to free myself from holding on to anger.

The way I got to this was the realization that on a deeper level, I felt sorry for him. Lacking a moral compass, he was a man completely lost, moving from relationship to relationship in search for someone or something to fill his empty soul.

A few months later my soon-to-be ex reached out to tell me he wanted to settle our court case. The woman he was having the affair with had an opportunity to transfer from New England to my native San Francisco and he wanted to be free to join her. I was happy to put the legal process behind me, yet I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that it bothered me that the two of them would be residing in my home town.

We finalized our divorce and we moved on.

A Cordial Ending

A year later I moved back to San Francisco myself. My ex reached out to me a few times afterwards over the course of a few years while we were both in California. Thanks to the place of forgiveness I had come to during the heat of our divorce, I was able to engage with him from a place of peace.

I think this has been one of the greatest lessons of my life. I’ve had conflict with relationships far less significant that I’m still working on towards finding peace.

Turning the Chapter With Elderly Parents

This past Sunday my husband Dean and I went down to my parents’ house to do some much-needed work in their backyard.

My dad is 85 and my mom 83. My dad has been suffering with bad arthritis in his back for the last 8 years and can no longer stand upright. He spent his career as a longshoreman and until the last decade or so, had always been a physically strong man. Now he can no longer reach the shelf above the refrigerator to pull out the bottle of bourbon for their nightly Manhattan.

My mom has essentially become his caretaker since my dad is legally blind in one eye and can’t drive. She does all the shopping, cooking, and most of the household chores. She’s recently developed an issue with her sciatic nerve and is walking with great pain herself.

I’ve been lucky to have had an enjoyable relationship with both my parents and this new reality is heart-wrenching to watch. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about their physical conditions since the visit on Sunday.

Treasuring the Memories

I have wonderful memories of my parents visiting me when I moved from California to New England in my 30s. From Cape Cod to the southern coast of Maine to Montreal, we were explorers of a new world together. It was a time of sharing different pleasures that you rarely experience in the Bay Area. Like picking up steamers or lobsters for dinner, or just sitting on the front porch relaxing into life at the end of a long summer day.

When I moved back to California I was blessed to have the opportunity to buy a modest waterfront condo which became the foundation for many good times on my deck. We would enjoy each other’s company for hours as we watched the wildlife and the boats cruise by.

I’ll never forget the delightfully surprised look on their faces when I opened my front door to welcome them to their 50th anniversary party where 50 friends and family were waiting inside.

Accepting What We Can’t Change

This latest visit has been a reminder to me that we should never take anything for granted. Things change, and we need to come up with a way to respond to and deal with each new reality. Just like we’re living now in pandemic times. We want things to be like they used to, but we don’t have total control over it.

For me with my parents, the new reality is that my mother really needs some support. The quality of both of their lives is not good. I can pretend it’s not happening, or I can take action.

My parents live 30 miles away. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s an hour’s drive each way in brutal San Francisco traffic. I can’t quickly pop over to put the air conditioner hose in their family room window when the weather forecast points north.

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I need to start to develop a plan to see that they get the care they need. I need to be there for them more. It’s a new chapter and I need to step to the plate.

Demonstrating Love in a COVID-19 World

After we finished our yard chores my dad was urging me to sit across the couch from him in the family room. Yet in a COVID-19 mindset I kept my distance, instead standing in the kitchen some 6+ feet from both my mom and dad.

Looking back I feel bad about my response. Who knows how many more opportunities I’ll have to share with the people who have been there for me my entire life?

We are living in a time where we need to adjust how we express love to the people who mean the most to us. I’ve begun to call them more frequently to demonstrate that I care. I’ve told them that I miss hugging them.

Next time I visit my parents I want to focus more on eye contact. If I can’t touch them with my body, I can connect with them from the windows to my soul.

Stay well,
Susan