They have been called the greatest generation, those people raised in the 1920’s. And my parents embody all that makes that generation great.
As children growing up during the Great Depression– my mother and her siblings went from a family of means to a poor one. Her Daddy (and she still refers to him as Daddy) was diagnosed with a mental illness then and would spend the rest of his life institutionalized. Her daddy was gone. Her home life was changed. Years ago she attempted to write her own auto-biography but her story ended there. Childhood ended there, too, I suppose.
My own dad lost his father at a young age and found himself patriarch of a family with nine kids when he himself was a mere boy. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade to earn a living. He would give his mother his paycheck, a practice that would continue for decades.
Then came the war.
My father willingly enlisted in the Navy and served his country in the South Pacific. His ship, the LST 471, was hit in September 1943 by a Japanese air raid. But his ship was docked and repaired in Australia and would go back out to sea and eventually earn five battle stars. During his time at sea, my mom and dad wrote letters to each other–this would be how they “dated”. On September 4, 1945, my parents married when my dad’s wartime era ended, by a Justice of the Peace in the Port of New Orleans. She was a child of 17 and he just 20. He never talked of his time on the ship with me until just a few years ago. I am horrified by what he was made to endure.
My parents raised eleven children on a carpenter’s salary. They were the Grapes of Wrath, leaving Oklahoma for California in the ’40s only to return to Oklahoma again in the ’70s–following the boom and bust cycle of the construction trade. There were nine of us who moved back to Oklahoma, living in a 3-bedroom shack of a house at 409 Palmer Drive, so directly under the Tinker Air Force flight path that the neighborhood would be condemned sometime later. The house shook when planes flew overhead, was full of cock roaches and had a damp dank basement. It was a rent house and my mom (who won’t lie, even when convenient) when asked by the landlord how many children would be living in the house responded, “We have four teenagers”. Which was true. She just omitted mention of the three kids 10, 9 and 8 years old who would also live there. My mom and dad slept on a couch in the living room so their kids could have bedrooms. I know it sounds miserable but it wasn’t. The stories we hold dear are happy ones.
Along the way my parents lost two of their children…empty holes never filled. Both of their children died on the 24th day of April on a California highway, though the accidents happened years apart. A particularly cruel joke, that one.
Today my 91 year old father sits slumped on a bed in a hospital room at Saint Anthony Hospital attempting to recover from a massive stroke. My mother sleeps on a cot in the room which stays too cold, determined to stay by his side. She is frazzled and frayed but she cannot be made to go home. His speech is jumbled, as is the case with stroke patients, but today my dad spoke clearly to me in his hospital bed and he said,
“Don’t count me out”.
My husband visited the Oklahoma State Office of Veterans’ Affairs today to seek assistance from the VA for my dad. The retired colonel he met with, a fierce Special Ops Vietnam War veteran himself, became a quiet and gentle angel of mercy. With great respect this soldier addressed my husband as “Sir” and promised he would do any and all things he could to get my dad the assistance he needs and deserves. And then he said, “Your father-in-law is my hero”. Well, said, Sir. He is mine as well.
On Sepember 4, 2016, my parents will celebrate 71 years of marriage and it will likely be in a hospital room. So Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad. You are well-loved. You have lived well. And you are both my heroes. And Dad, I will never ever count you out.