Click HERE to read this essay about my dad in The Washington Post.
My parents were married for fifty-four years until my mother’s death in 2013. It was a strong partnership and a loving marriage. I’m told that people who have good marriages are more likely to marry again as they’ve had such a positive experience with the institution.
So it’s not surprising that my father has a lady friend, and a very nice one at that. We recently had the pleasure of making her acquaintance. She too was married for a long time and was widowed around the same time as my father. I am pleased that my father has a companion, is not lonely, and continues to have an active, full life.
Intellectually, I am all in. Emotionally, however, it took me a little longer to get there.
A couple of months ago I was with friends who inquired after my father. They wondered if I had seen a picture of his lady friend and were surprised when I said I hadn’t, nor did I particularly want to. “Why not?” they wondered.
“If I see a picture, that means three things,” I answered.
a) this person actually exists
b) my mother is dead, and
c) my father has a girlfriend
“So, no, I don’t really need to see a picture. I’m good.” My logic was sound and my denial fully intact. What was the harm in believing my parents were away on vacation?
Lo and behold, what happened a few days later? My father sent my siblings and I a picture of his friend. Funny how the universe works. God must have been gently nudging my emotions to catch up with my intellect, which of course they did. I’m fifty-one years old, not ten. While it’s weird to see my father with someone other than my mother, it’s good-weird. My sister called me after receiving the picture via email too.
“Did you see the picture?” she asked.
“Yeah, I saw it,” I said.
We agreed that this woman looked like a normal, nice person. My sister told me she got up from the computer, walked into her kitchen, and made a beeline to the counter where a plate of cookies sat that she had specifically not been eating all day. You know where this is going…she proceeded to eat the whole plate.
Emotional Eating 101 – your mom dies and your dad moves on with his life. How could cookies not make you feel a little better?
I have been hearing many stories from other people who have lost a parent and had similar experiences with a parent in a new relationship. One woman told me, “I’ll make you feel better – my father married my mother-in-law.” Wow, she wins the gold medal in the unusual second marriage category. Most everyone tells me how glad they are that their surviving parent has someone to share their life with. Those whose parents were never in another relationship lament that fact. I am thankful for my dad’s run of the mill widow-meets-widower story.
I am no longer in denial. I realize my father isn’t trying to find me another mom; he has simply found a companion for himself. Hard to believe, but it’s actually not about me. It’s a good life lesson – one that goes down easier with a big plate of cookies.
My kids and I tagged along on my husband’s business trip to Mexico last week so we headed to the airport on a cold, snowy morning for a 7:00am flight. We trudged through security and were making our way to our gate among the tide of travelers.
My husband is six-feet tall, giving him a better view of the world than 5-foot-4-inch me. “There’s Katie Couric,” he casually said. Sure enough, not five feet in front of me was Katie. I was so excited. Katie Couric is an iconic celebrity in my world. I was a fan of the Today Show in my earlier adult years. I followed Katie’s life – the birth of her daughters, the early death of her husband to colon cancer. She was raised in the Washington area (Virginia, actually) so I always felt a connection for a hometown girl. It looked like some other people had recognized her and were chatting and walking with her.
We kept our onward movement and ended up walking next to Katie. She looked at us and smiled.
“Hi Katie,” I said.
Thus began a lovely interaction.
“Were you here visiting family?” I asked.
“Actually, I interviewed Rand Paul. He’s running for president,” she replied.
She remarked how she was surprised that so many people had recognized her this early morning as she felt she looked terrible.
“Katie, you look like a regular person,” I assured her.
“I’m Susan and this is Brad,” I said. “Since we know your name, it seems only fair that you know ours.”
We chatted about our upcoming trip. Then Katie told us that her mother had died recently and they had sold her house.
“My mother died too and my dad’s selling their house,” I commiserated.
She was so lovely and nice and normal. It was such a thrill for me. I called my sister when we changed planes. Our mother was a huge Today show fan. We used to joke that she studied at the University of the Today Show, where she got much of her news and information. She always thought that my husband looked like Matt Lauer, although Katie did not mention the resemblance.
After Katie left, our kids asked, “Who was that?” Of course, they had no idea the magnitude of the celebrity sighting. They sort of understood after hearing me tell the story to several people at the meeting we attended.
“I can’t believe you did that,” one of the spouses said. “I would never do that – I would worry that I was bothering her or intruding on her privacy.”
I think I’m a pretty good reader of people and felt like taking a risk. Katie was open and receptive to chatting. If she wasn’t, I would have left her alone. We were walking to our destinations the whole time – I did not ask for an autograph (does anyone even do that anymore?) or take a selfie with her. We were just two people making a connection that cold, early morning. I like to think my mother got a huge kick out of my celebrity sighting from her grand view up in heaven.
“Maybe your mother sent her,” another spouse suggested. Maybe she did.
I like to take occasional chances. If not Today, than when?
While backing my minivan out of my garage last week, I clipped my side-view mirror and it broke. Some of my kids were in the car – they were aghast. No worry, I assured them. It was an accident. Clearly I did not intend to cause damage to my car. Yes, it is a nuisance, a financial burden, and an inconvenience. But it is not the end of the world.
Sure, it takes age and experience to react this way. In my younger days I would have been more upset and agitated. I would have been reluctant and full of trepidation to tell my husband. Not anymore. This 50-plus year old is confident and liberated when it comes to dealing with life’s foibles. I didn’t mean to hurt my car, I explained to my kids. Like scraping your knee or cutting your finger – these things happen. Yes, I’ll have to eventually replace my mirror, although fortunately I can still use it. But for now it’s just one of life’s scars, a boo-boo if you will.
I was on a roll…what a great analogy for life to pontificate to my kids about on the way to school. Scars are evidence of a life lived. It’s easier to cope with life when things go smoothly but it is the trying times that truly test your mettle. Mustering up grace in the face of adversity is a difficult life-skill to master. I could leave the car in the garage and never drive it – then it would never have dings, scratches or bird-poop splotches. What would be the good of having a car? The same thing applies to life. You can sit in your house and be fearful of experiencing new things, failure, meeting new people or going outside of your comfort zone. Or, you can get out there and live.
So when I picked up my kids that day, they said, “Did you tell Dad about the car?”
“Of course I did – I’m not scared of him,” I assured them.
Okay, I was not exactly chomping at the bit to tell him about the car. However, over the course of our marriage, I have developed a system of communicating bad news that has worked quite well. I would email my husband about potentially difficult topics – getting caught speeding by hidden traffic cameras, ordering drapes that I loved that happened to be exorbitantly priced – so that he could digest and process my news before reacting. As the years have gone by, and we have both been busted by those dreaded traffic cameras, I need to use this tactic less frequently. I just speak to him directly. He wasn’t thrilled about the broken car mirror but he understood it could happen to anyone. Now, when we see the dreaded notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles in the mail, my husband will wonder aloud who has gotten the speeding ticket. One came just this week. I quickly confessed that I thought it was me and predicted exactly where and when it occurred. What could have been a tense and uncomfortable situation had now became a game of recall called “where was I caught speeding?”
So my side-view mirror is partially shattered, but usable. Actually, I kind of enjoy seeing the prism and distortion it creates when I glance at it – it brings a little surprise/psychedelia to the banality of my chauffeur duties. I might as well enjoy the trip until I get it fixed.
Ready to Launch
I am in launch mode. My oldest son is applying to college. This transition is not so fraught with anxiety for me – he will have great options and after all, it’s still months away. Rather, my immediate focus lies at the top half of my sandwich – launching my father.
Many people live far from their parents, some happily and some not so happily. I have had the good fortune of living in the same area as my parents for the past 25 years. They helped me with my children – they babysat, drove them around, and provided a lot of love and support. I helped them as my mother became ill and died last year. My parents have had an apartment in Jerusalem for the past 20 years where they went two or three times a year for six weeks at a time. But Maryland was still home base.
My father has decided to make Israel his primary home. I admire his ability to re-engage in life after losing his beloved wife of 54 years. I applaud his continued interest in living and his desire to have a full, meaningful existence. He has been drawn to Israel for as long as I can remember. He likes the people, the history, the religious life, the politics, the culture and the language. He loves living in a vibrant, active city. My mother liked it too, but not enough to livef there full-time. After she died, my father gave himself a year to regroup and form a plan. He seized this opportunity to fulfill his dream to live in Israel full-time. I say good for him. How many 78-year-old men, or women for that matter, can do that? I wrapped my mind around the fact that he was leaving and gave him my blessing. He forwarded his mail to my house, locked up his house and left.
Do I worry more for my father’s safety in Israel than I do in the United States? No. Fortunately I do not have a worrying disposition and he is not worried. I do appreciate the e-mails he sends after any attacks in Jerusalem to tell me he is fine, including the most recent heinous attack in a synagogue.
I don’t feel abandoned by my father. I am secure in our relationship, no matter how his life gets intertwined in new peoples’ lives. I feel my father’s presence and love, no matter where he lives, similar to how I feel about my mother’s spirit. As he always says, the world is much smaller than it used to be with the array of technology at our fingertips. We are never further than an e-mail or text away.
We have spent a lot of time together in the fourteen months since my mother died – it will be nice to have time to miss each other. We knew each others’ schedules and whereabouts at all times. I’m sure he will appreciate the break from my watchful eyes. My immediate family will miss having him such a part of our daily lives, but as he says, the kids are getting older and going in their own directions. No need for him to sit around here and wait for them to throw a little attention his way. He can e-mail and text them to keep in touch too.
I am grateful that we had each other to lean on during the difficult time after my mother’s death. He’s a wonderful father. But I am thankful that he is healthy and able to pursue his passion.
It’s been two weeks since lift-off…so far, so good.
My Own American Werewolf
I used to have a darling third child. He was born six weeks premature but quickly exploded into a blonde dumpling – an anomaly in my house of brunettes. He was an adorable child – fun, funny with a delightful disposition. He was a pleaser and very affectionate, so much so that my husband and I nicknamed him “The Drape” because he would hang on us at any opportunity. A touch smothering but basically adorable.
Now he’s thirteen. His mood generally morose, he is most often found with his head attached to headphones and watching television shows on the computer screen. I have to remind him to do the things he’s supposed to do – homework, shower, eating, etc. In all of our interactions he’s either snippy, spacey, or both.
“Huh?” seems to be his bewildered response to every inquiry.
I know this is the norm for an adolescent. What sets this child apart in our household is the rapid transformation from adored child to exasperating teenager.
It is my experience that when a child irks one parent, the other parent is able to swoop in and valiantly play defense attorney for the young offender – the champion of the poor, misunderstood child. I think that’s part of evolution, so we don’t kill our young.
For me, adolescence can be summed up by the 1980’s movie, An American Werewolf in London, where the main character, an adorably boyish looking twenty-something, periodically morphs into a terrifying werewolf. Our children, once so pure and pristine suddenly begin “the change” into adulthood. Their faces temporarily appear out of proportion, they get acne, their limbs are gangly, their hormones surge, until they become a creature that we hardly recognize. Oh, how I long for my cute little boy.
I am fairly confident that he will come out okay on the other side of adolescence, if I don’t kill him first. I see little glimmers of hope from time to time – watching him laughing with friends or playing charmingly with little kids. Deep down the sweet little boy is still there. Even werewolves must love their mothers, right?
It is clear to me now that my experience of adolescence as a parent to three boys has all been one giant preview to the main event that awaits me in the near future. My daughter turns eleven next month.
Pray for me.
Lauren Bacall died recently. The NY Times banner that came over my phone read – Lauren Bacall, Sultry Movie Star dies at 89.
Sultry, I thought, what an awesome word. Then I thought, what are the chances that I would be remembered as “sultry?” Sultry housewife? Sultry blogger? Unlikely. A girl can dream though. If I’m not sultry, how will I be remembered? And no, nothing is wrong with my health. I’m just speculating, something a blog allows me to do.
Funny? I’d like that. Authentic? Yes. Earnest? Definitely not. Kind? Most of the time. Smart? About some things. Outgoing? Most certainly. I never married a Humphrey Bogart-ish celebrity but I did marry Brad Stillman – a legend in his own right. Yes, he proofread this and allowed it to stand as is. He too has a sense of humor and is very humble about his greatness. He thinks I would definitely be remembered for having excellent taste in men.
People don’t use the word sultry often. I think it’s a great word. It’s sexy, but in a classy way. It also makes me think of another word not frequently used – slatternly. Sultry means “attractive in a way that suggests or causes feelings of sexual desire.” Slatternly, on the other hand means “untidy and dirty through habitual neglect” or “of, relating to, or characteristic of a slut or prostitute.” The line between sultry and slatternly…where is that line? I just hope I end up on the right side of it.
Don’t worry, I’m not in danger of sliding to the dark side. Been there, done that, in my younger days. No, like Lauren Bacall, I’m deep down just a nice Jewish girl. While “sultry” may be the word most associated with Lauren Bacall, her friend Sally Quinn also described her as “funny, razor sharp, mischievous, iconoclastic, self-deprecating and openly vulnerable. She shared her life with her friends and radiated a feeling of trust that was always returned.” Wow, she sounds like the kind of person I would like to hang out with.
Does sultry housewife have to be an oxymoron? Must these words be mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. I recently heard a lecture on relationships. The speaker talked about how women (and men) put their best self forward whenever they go “out.” Out to work and out with friends. Yet often we wear our least attractive, most comfortable clothes when we are in our homes. What a novel idea – to look as nice in the house as you do when you go out? Put your best self forward for your spouse or partner. Not in a June Cleaver, pearls and formal dress kind of way, but in a way that says I’m in this relationship and care about nurturing it and keeping it fresh. I can get with that notion.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ll hang on to my sweatpants. I’m not crazy. But I will wear them sparingly. Just like Lauren Bacall probably did.