Saturday would have been my mother’s 94th birthday. She meant to be that old – maybe older – because she saw herself in the mold of “Han Han,” her grandmother who died well into her 90s. Han Han always said of illness, “Just make up your mind and throw it off by morning.” That advice worked for my Mom throughout most of her years, but not against the dementia and lung cancer that led to her death in 1999.
It is because of my mother’s death that I am so conscious of my time with my father. But to think about my father without my mother is to consider the unimaginable. From 1939 on, Hank and Eileen were an item.
Every couple has its stories. My Mom and Dad had the story of their meeting, the story of their first big row, and the story of the marriage proposal. “That first day, she walked into Dr. Pedelford’s Browning class, dressed to the nines, on Brooke Fink’s arm,” my Dad would recount. “Two weeks later, she walked out on mine.” Getting ready for a Gamma Phi dance, my Mom learned from a visitor that Dad still had his fraternity pin on a girl in Yakima. When Dad arrived to collect her, she handed him $5 for train fare and told him not to return without it. And then there was Eileen’s cable in 1941 that said she had received Dad’s marriage proposal and was headed East by train with her mother so that they could be married. Only my father swears he never asked her. “She married me,” Dad always says.
My mother was a force of nature, not given to feeling sorry for herself or others. She would have made a great litigator, and wanted to pursue law, but her attorney-father declared that there would be no female barristers in the family. She took what life threw at her as the wife of a Marine, through the separation of war, and her daughter’s three year battle with leukemia.
On her birthday, what I remembered most was not her formidable strength, but her passion for my father — or rather, the passion they had for each other.
They had the kind of relationship that was a universe unto itself, the world of Hank-and-Eileen, a union forged with heat, strong and impermeable. In the days after my mother died, my father recalled some of their intimate moments like movie images, how she looked with the glow of moonlight on her body.
My father often said, smiling, that he fought for his pants every day of their marriage. My mother wasn’t one to back down in a fight, and their fights were loud. They faced off like two cowboys following a common code of honor. I never heard them insult one another, or dump pent-up resentments. And when the fight was over, it was over.
Whether it was grief, illness or anger, my mother moved on. If she worried, it didn’t show. To the best of my knowledge, she wasn’t one to dwell on what she couldn’t fix. She let things go.
But she never let go the fierce passion that she felt for my father. It’s still evident in the photo above, taken after their 50th wedding anniversary party. Mom didn’t just look at Dad; her eyes locked on to his.
When my Dad quotes Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra on her barge, I always imagine that he sees my mother in his mind’s eye: “For her own person/It beggar’d all description: she did lie/In her pavilion — cloth-of-gold of tissue–/O’er-picturing that Venus where we see/The fancy outwork nature….”
He was fascinated by her, but under no illusions that she was perfect. I also thought that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 brought to mind my mother for him: “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound:/I grant I never saw a goddess go,/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”
My father’s love for my mother held the conflicting elements of her personality — her thorniness and her love — in perfect homeostasis.
I once asked my father if he had ever strayed outside their marriage, since no doubt he had the opportunity with unaccompanied tours of duty. He said, “It was never worth the cost.”
I miss my mother. But my father misses her more.