The Song Of The Open Road

In April of 2005 I  was in the midst of rehearsals for a production of La Cage Aux Folles and we were nearing opening night. I had one of the two male leads in the production. On a rare night off, considering how close we were to opening night, I received a call from my grandmother letting me know that my stepmother, Doris, had passed away. Doris had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone treatment for it, but in the end it was not the cancer that took her.

My relationship with my dad was still a ‘tentative’ one. We’d gone for many years without speaking. I had only reconciled with him, and made my peace with Doris as well, the prior November. We’d spoken a few times, but hadn’t seen each other for many months as they lived more than three hours north of me.

Nevertheless I made plans to attend the funeral primarily to support my dad. I felt badly for Doris, of course, but I had a lot of years of bitterness toward her that were still percolating in my mind and that I had yet to reconcile. Our last real ‘conversation’ was to tell her that despite the turn our own interaction had taken many years before I recognized that she had made Dad very happy for more than twenty years, and for that I was grateful.

Doris was introduced to me (and my siblings) as Dad’s ‘housekeeper’. Dad and Mom had not finalized their divorce as yet (despite it having been more than three years since they’d separated) and Dad had done his best to provide meals and such for the three of us on visiting days which where Friday nights and Sundays. I ate a lot of deer meat back then as Dad excelled at cooking spare ribs, but didn’t have a huge repertoire of meals to prepare.

Then along came Doris. She was a few years older than Dad, and already had an existing connection to the family. Her former daughter in law was married to one of Dad’s brothers. Over time the ‘housekeeper’ and Dad were living together, both at his place and at her place until that was sold and they retained only one residence. Shortly after Mom and Dad’s divorce was final, after five years of delays and postponements, Dad called one afternoon to tell us that he and Doris had gotten married, quietly and without any pomp and circumstance about it, and more importantly (at least to me) without telling his children or inviting them to attend the wedding.

It took me a very long time to get beyond that – but eventually I did, and even spoke to my father about it, about the feelings I had experienced back then, before Dad passed away last year himself, ten years after his wife died.

The total years of Dad and Doris’s marriage (before her death) was a lesser amount of time than he and my mother were married, the five years of separation prior to their divorce notwithstanding. That said; I believe they had more happy years together than my parents did.

When Doris passed, Dad was left to his own devices. He found himself adrift with the day to day tasks of keeping a house and making meals and paying bills – all things that Doris had done for many years. He had friends in the area, certainly, but at the end of the day he was alone. I spent a weekend with him shortly after Doris passed, to try to break up the silence a bit, at least for a few days, and we talked at length about how he was faring on his own.

There was talk amongst family members and well-wishers that perhaps the hunting rifle that Dad kept in the house should be removed. There were concerns that Dad would not manage well without Doris, and might be tempted to speed up their ‘reunion’ (if you believe in such things) by means of that rifle.

In the end, Dad surprised us all with how well he did manage up until a stroke made it necessary to transition him into assisted living where he remained for the rest of his life.

I experienced a number of feelings when Doris passed. Empathy and compassion, some regret, and a great deal of concern (for my dad). Doris’s death marked the beginning of many changes for him. Yet while I find myself reflecting upon this, eleven years since Doris’s death and just about a month shy of the first anniversary of Dad’s passing – I have realized that her passing gave me, in watching how Dad navigated the days after her passing, despite the concerns of others, the opportunity to feel something toward my dad that I never had before in nearly 40 years.

I felt proud of him – proud of his strength and resilience. Proud of his courage to go on and not succumb to grief and sorrow and let it make him bitter and angry and wallow in that for the rest of his days. For the remainder of his life he missed Doris, certainly, but he still smiled, still laughed, and spoke of her fondly.

When Dad passed last year we had seen one another a couple of days before he died. We’d gone to Doris’s grave to put flowers down. After leaving the cemetery Dad and I stopped at a local ice cream stand and I bought him a dish of grape-nut ice cream, which was his favorite.

As we ate our ice cream, we sat and talked about his overall health and condition and his decision to not seek any further medical treatment for the series of heart attacks he’d had – knowing the likely outcome of that and if he was prepared for the end – which he told me he was ready for – ready to go.

He also told me that if he could have any wish it would be to be ‘out there driving truck again – just driving and driving – without any particular destination’. Those were some of the final words he spoke with me just two days before his passing – how his last wish after eighty three years of life would be to once again sing the song of the open road.

In eulogizing my father, I spoke of his love for the back roads of Maine, and my wish that he was, in death, finally free to travel them once again.

More importantly, I hope that somewhere along the way Doris joined him for the ride.





Living History – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 17


During my recent visit with my mother in Florida, she was having some trouble recalling names of her family of origin. She remembers the people, who they were, and events – but needs some prompting with names.

The start of the conversation was due to her impending birthday and the fact that she has lived longer than any of her siblings or either of her parents did. Mom was born in Conway, New Hampshire on Friday, April 3, 1931. Today she is 85 years old.

Over time Mom has told me stories about her family and growing up during the Great Depression. Over time she has repeated these stories often enough that they were embedded in my own memory so that I can help her fill in the blanks she is experiencing now with names and a few places.  She’s explained time and again how little her parents had by way of money and material goods – and how her childhood play clothes were fashioned from discarded navy uniforms, the material taken apart, cut and re-sewn to fit smaller forms. She’s told me that one of her neighbors, a rather ‘haughty’ woman (as Mom calls her) would express her disgust at those children playing in the mud in white clothes and the mother who let them. Little did she know that those were the only play clothes they had, white or otherwise. Little did she know that often times the only food on the table for the family to eat was potatoes, and after the children were asleep their mother would scrub floors on her hands and knees receiving a quart of milk as payment, something for the children to have for breakfast.

We’ve talked over time about my dad and when they were dating and how there was ‘someone else’ that had expressed an interest in her – so much so that he had told her he was going to build her a house on top of a mountain where they would live together as man and wife. Mom married my father instead, a man of limited education and means from Brownfield, Maine who had no picturesque land or mountain-top house to offer her. She chose him anyway. I’ve asked a few times what made her change her mind back then and marry Dad instead. She’s always given me the same response.

“Oh, we all make our choices, Son.”

It’s always been said in a wistful manner, full of melancholy and reflection. Never given with any greater detail. I doubt she’ll ever elaborate on it.

I remember being in New Hampshire with Mom one afternoon some twenty five years ago now where she pulled the car over and stopped on the side of the road. She pointed off to a rocky peak in the distance.

‘See that area over there? That’s where Harlan Lawler was going to build me a house after I married him.’

‘Do you ever regret not marrying him instead of Dad, all things considered?’

‘Not at all, Son…because while I may have had children with him as well….none of them would be you.’

For quite some time before Mom showed initial signs of dementia, and when she was finding herself bored post-retirement, I asked her to begin writing or typing stories she recalled from her youth – things about her mother and father (who died before I was born), things about New Hampshire. The kind of history you can’t typically glean from a book or a film. The kind of history that comes with first-hand knowledge and experience; suffused with triumph and heartbreak, happiness and despair.

The kind of history that ‘lives’ inside a persons mind and heart.

Sadly, Mom never acted upon my request. Little by little she loses pieces of her memory more and more these days. Much of it is short-term stuff, whereas yesterday she dined with two of my cousins and my aunt (their mother) and today she knows she had lunch with ‘someone nice’ the day before but can’t recall their names. Little by little the living history that my mom is retreats into a space in her mind that she has more and more difficulty accessing as time passes.

Fortunately I paid attention to the things she did tell me, and can fill in several spaces for her when they sit there in her mind like empty rooms in a place she could swear she’s been before and should remember, rather than having the details of her life just disappear altogether.

I’ve passed on some of the stories to my own kids, in the hopes that they will remember them and carry them on to their own children. Some day perhaps I’ll get around to writing more of the details down for them so that they will be easier to recall in the future; things like the grandfather who was struck by a train and killed while walking down the tracks whereas he didn’t hear it behind him, and the days when my grandmother would sneak out into my grandfather’s vegetable patch and eat peas off the vine, trying to then brush the dirt with a broom well enough to cover her tracks – to no avail as my grandfather would always know she’d been out in his garden. Things that happened long ago in a time when there were no computers, no video games, no smart phones and people were content with a lot less – because they had to be.

Hopefully the history will continue to live on, long after those who experienced it are no longer with us. For now, I’ll keep trying to mine the bits and pieces that still remain from my mother before they, too are lost. These days I think she’s living more and more in the past than in the present, at least as far as the things she sits and thinks about and reflects upon. Hopefully the memories aren’t too painful. Hopefully they take her to a time and place that she made peace with long ago, and can enjoy more now, rather than ruminating on the aches and pains that have accompanied the passing years for her.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I hope you are given a great big cake today and eat the whole damned thing yourself. You’ve earned it.