October 13, 2013 Comments Off on Interlude: On Us
Missus is from a small West Texas town and is the product of a sweetly enduring forty-two year marriage. These are admirable, small-living people who recently paid for their house and final home and now live the life of modest, planned retirement. After several necessary moves, her father finishing out his career in the postal service, Missus’ parents live again in the town where she mainly grew up, now the wind energy capital of our state.
Over the last decade, in a modest brick house on a modest town lot, they have lovingly forged the quintessential Texas grandma and grandpa homestead: Prolific peach and pecan trees that beget handsome pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas, cobblers in the summertime; A well-mulched and fussed over vegetable garden that renders all the squash, okra and tomatoes a table could want; A smallish tree house with an attached swing set adorned with all manner of custom neatness, fabricated in the small shop that stands beside it, where a red license plate on the door reads Semper Fi in yellow lettering. All built, like the back porch enclosure and the birdhouses lining up in it, by Papa’s patient hand.
Step inside the home of a Pennsylvania expat-turned-West Texas housewife and you’ll find that the carpet is always clean, the sink is always empty, and everything from the toys in the guestroom closet to the Guidepost magazines beside the bed are forever and always in their place. Everything neat as a pin and scrubbed to the fare thee well. Remark to Mimi about this and she’ll bashfully demure, sweetly, with a tug at her ear. Cross her family in any way and see pretty arcs of light issue forth from instantly hard, Yankee eyes, kind and soft only a moment before — and back again almost as readily.
Missus has one sibling, a sister, who furnished the family with the only boys on her immediate side. Two of them. Good young men being raised in two homes and who love and respect their single mother the way all boys should. Their mother is as deserving of their adulation as they are happy to provide it. Because of her character and their proximity to Mimi and Papa’s house, and the it-takes-a-village sensibility that they embrace, they do life more than fine.
I was brought up well loved, by two young people who married and divorced before I began forming memories. For a time, it seemed that my older sister and I would live alternately between our mother and father according to their needs or our whimsy. In this way we bounced around for a while, year-to-year, back and forth, from town to town, as each of them pursued their subsequent lives, jobs and marriages.
We were a package deal, my sister and I, until eventually we went our own ways. Whereas I would continue volleying between my father and mother, living in the various towns and dwellings life took them to, my sister opted for the familiarity of a life in Alvin, Texas, where we’d been living near my father’s family. She lived and knew the tough love life within the walls of our grandmother’s aging trailer until she finished high school so she could be near her friends. She now lives, as she always knew she would, as an urban professional, doing work, life and leisure in the Houston skyline.
My mother lives in Corpus Christi, where she largely raised my two younger siblings by her second marriage. She had help, later on, in the form of her final husband, with whom she lives on a kind of mini-farm where they raise goats and chickens and care for a menagerie of stray animals. A single mother most of her life, she has toiled, tread water, and been humbled, my mother, to the point that she symbolizes best the values of work, faith, and open-handedness. With her spry demeanor she will deny that she is any worse for wear for the burdens she’s carried, which may be the most inspiring thing about her. She earned her bachelor degree in her fifties and continues to take college courses for no other reason than to occupy her evenings, near as we can tell.
My younger brother and sister would know similar upbringings to my own, only without the benefit of knowing their own father. We shared the same roof sparingly, being separated by twelve and thirteen years of age, and they are now grown young adults, carving their places in the world and in life. Their lot was never an easy one, and to say that we are immensely proud of the people they’ve become doesn’t quite do it.
After years living in or near El Paso, Houston and San Antonio, I landed and attended high school in a snug mountain village that sits in a valley at the foot of Pikes Peak. This is a special place in the world, and years ago I made it a priority to take my family there as often as possible; we regularly vacation there each spring and summer and I take a smug kind of pleasure now in telling people that while Texas is and will remain my home state, Manitou Springs, Colorado will always be my hometown.
After four marriages, three divorces and an admittedly self-involved first life, my father has retired from self-destructive proclivities and has reached an understanding with God. If generosity is his adopted core character strength, he now employs it whenever and wherever he can to do his share of the Lord’s bidding. Over the years I have seen him shed old skin, becoming happy, healthy, and by degrees he continues to evolve into the kind of man he always hoped he would be. He walks miles a day through his neighborhood with his pal, a big yellow lab named Tom, and he waves to all the cars and the drivers wave back at him and smile. He is that guy. The guy who will shovel the driveways of elderly neighbors and toss newspapers up on doorsteps where they can be better reached. As much as he loves his dog, though, Pop makes it no secret that the company of his current and final wife would have to be his favorite reason for living.
My stepmother reciprocates that affection wholly, and together they live happily in their Colorado home, traveling and conspiring on how to make the lives of their children and grandchildren better. A woman who once took great pride in not being “domestic,” my stepmother has adopted Gram as her third act moniker, and looks very much the part. With her curled, frosting hair and the tiny spectacles adorning her reddish cheeks, at her figurine painting and pushpin quilting she could be any film director’s Mrs. Clause; an archetypal Little Golden Book granny. Her only child, my stepbrother, is a model American man and father. He and his wife not long ago adopted a group of brothers, adding to their brood by six for a total of seven boys they are raising to be the best of young men. Somehow they make this look easy.
We were not college sweethearts, Missus and myself. We knew each other from the place where we both worked for a time and we shared some of the same friends there, as it goes. We shared the same commencement ceremony, which I found out only when my future wife hello-tugged my black gown while standing next to my aisle seat, waiting her turn to walk the platform. We would start dating six months later, after Missus returned from her first dismal teaching job at a rough middle school in the Dallas suburbs.
I was transitioning out of my most recent college job at a grocery chain warehouse, where I would stack parcels on wooden pallets until they were six foot high and then wrap them with cellophane to be shipped to the shelves so that the good people of Texas could have deodorant and rosary candles to buy. I’d been hired by the nearest big city fire department and was biding time, waiting for the academy to begin. Missus soon found her desired job as an Art Education teacher at a little elementary school fifteen minutes up the interstate from the town we lived in and still do.
Somewhere in here we began our seamless courtship and six months later I proposed to her beside a Christmas tree in the apartment we were already sharing. We married the following summer in an outdoor ceremony. Standing there on a day thick with wet, warm July air while our town’s beloved trains bellowed their irksome music, several times eclipsing the vocal measure of the presiding pastor, Missus became and remains the best thing about me.
Others will back me on this. And I can say it without a lot of sentimentality, really, and without the implied self-deprecating cajolery that comes standard in the southern husband. For it is just a fact that most who know her can’t name another person as kind in nature, or as selfless and devoted to her family and the betterment of the world around her. And while that may sound sweet, it’s just the way it is. So it’s no stretch to say that she makes me better than I am.
She paid a price, early on, in choosing a life with me: A grown boy, not quite ready for her — my father’s son. And while today we share an amazing marriage and a more than happy life, I pray regularly that I’ll live the rest of my time with her in an aspect that will see her unquestionably, unequivocally glad of her choice on a certain day. A day when the strands of silver have eclipsed the black in her hair. A day perhaps when the small staircase that leads up to our room has, as we always knew that it would, at last, become too much.