Sunday, October 7, 2007

Three Things My Parents Did Right

First, my parents have remained sincerely married, college sweethearts for 37 years. Mom & Dad had a blind date on the second Saturday night mom spent on campus. She was 17. He was 18. They share the same birthday, September 25. The dating drama they experienced came from external events. Dad frequently lost his car keys. The Kent State massacre closed down their nearby college and sent them abruptly home without taking final exams. Inside their relationship, however, the future was always certain.

Mom and Dad dated happily for the three years that they both attended college. Dad graduated and got a job teaching middle school in nearby Columbus, Ohio. A fluke in his paycheck (Dad forgot to get a TB test and couldn’t get officially paid until it was resolved) left him with an unexpected bonus in November. Dad found the best diamond ring he could buy. He proposed to Mom at the annual Fifty States’ Christmas Tree Exhibit by the White House on Christmas Eve.

I grew up staring at my parent’s black and white wedding album. I laughed over Dad’s 1970s sideburns. I admired the elegance of Mom’s choice of a champagne fountain for their luncheon reception.

Since my mom’s best friend in college ended up married by my dad’s best friend, I heard lots of stories whenever that couple came to visit. My favorite story is when Bob and Daddy drew up a fake post office slip that stated that one of the girls’ roommate's had a delivery of live lab mice waiting for her. The girls raced out only to find that the boys had filled Barb’s car full of crumpled newspaper print by patiently stuffing sheet by sheet through an opened sunroof. The girls realized that the car prank was from their boyfriends. Undeterred, however, they still unloaded every once of newspaper in a race to make it to the post office before it closed for the weekend. At this point in the story, my Dad would just about burst his spleen laughing at this memory. My mom always made the same retort, “Our frenzy was perfectly reasonable. After all, Alice was a science major!”

I grew up with those stories, Bob & Dad, Barb & Mom. Stories of late nights at cheap pizza joints. Stories of how Mom & Barb frantically typed the overdue pages of Dad senior thesis. Those stories imparted a deep feeling of security.

I knew that it was only a matter of time until I met my future husband. I believed that dating could progress smoothly into marriage and then life with children. The view of my maternal grandparents’ holding hands on our couch while watching “Murder She Wrote”, also imparted confidence. I knew that “I knew” when I decided to get engaged at age 25. I stepped out of dating and into marriage, with ease, thanks to my family’s legacy of happy marriages.

Second, my Dad modeled for me the benefits of working a job that you love, even if it comes with a small, or in the case of stay-at-home motherhood, a non-existent paycheck.

My Dad is a college professor at a small Methodist college. (My mom is now one, too). He spent years finishing his PhD. Money was tight. His TA stipend, and my mom’s public school teacher paycheck, had to cover the expenses of a family of four. After all of that sacrifice, he had no immediate payoff. Dad couldn’t find a professorship. So Dad packed up his entire family, moved back to Columbus, and became an insurance agent at his father’s business.

Dad enjoyed the insurance business and brought home a huge paycheck compared to his student days. Dad never gave up looking for work in his chosen profession, however. He found a part-time job at an OSU extension school in Marion, Ohio, two hours away. During my elementary and middle school years, Dad spent two to three nights a week away from his family in a small hotel room. For extra money, he kept up his insurance work part-time.

Despite the challenges, Dad excelled at his new job. Dad had an amazing rapport with students. He enjoyed teaching prisoners at the local jail. Dad helped an upcoming congressmen win on the campaign trail. For his beloved community of Marion, Ohio, Dad made the first television documentary of Warren G. Harding. Dad wanted to record the town's memories of the Great Front Porch Campaign. In his 40s, Dad finally found reward in a tenured faculty position in a small town in West Virginia.

All of Dad’s actions left me a legacy far deeper than my fondness for presidential trivia. I went to law school, like 90% of my classmates, with the intention of working in public interest law. My friends all wanted to become District Attorneys or to save their local watershed as Environmental Lawyers. At graduation time, however, only three of us had jobs in the public interest. I was one of the three. Now as a stay-at-home mother, I still wrestle with many insecurities. Believing that my self-worth is tied up with the size of a paycheck isn’t one of them. Thanks Dad!

Thirdly, my Mom instinctively knew how to nourish a bookworm. I "owned" my library card. I got to direct my own reading list. I picked out my own books. I made my own trips to the library.

It took me a long time to understand the mechanics of reading. (I was still spelling words without vowels in third grade.) Once I finally pieced reading together in Ms. Seubert’s class, I discovered the joy of chapter books. Then I read stacks and stacks of books. I brought so many books home from my local library, that I had trouble fitting them all into the double wire baskets of my red bike.

(My Dad read out loud to me until at least the sixth grade. He picked out his favorite books for us to read together each summer vacation trip. I still remember exactly where we were during my favorite scenes from “Cheaper by the Dozen” and the funny poodle short stories by James Thurber.)

My Mom never restricted my choice of books to my current reading level. If I was interested in a book, she told me to go for it. Once, I showed interest in a Saturday afternoon movie staring Meryl Streep. “Was it real, Mom?” “Did the lady really smuggle money through Communist Russia by wearing a hat stuffed with American dollars?”

“Why don’t you find out for yourself,” my mom answered.

So I biked to the library and asked the librarian to find me the short story titled “Julia” by Lillian Hellman. The librarian insisted that she had never heard of a children’s author, “Hellman.” I biked home, discouraged. My mom said, “How ridiculous! She’s a grown-up author and I’m sure she’s listed in the card catalog.” The next family trip to the library, she made sure I got my requested book. (I still love Lillian Hellman and read her short story “The Turtle” to my husband on one of our early dates.)

For all her patience with weekly spelling word lists, her payment of overdue library fines, and her late night edits of English papers, I’m grateful to my Mom for encouraging my love of books.