My parents celebrated fifty years of marriage last week. To celebrate, per their request, we gathered the immediate family together in a spacious house a block from the ocean on Tybee Island, outside of Savannah. They weren’t interested in a party or a cruise or a big gift; all they wanted to do was get us all together. The entire process sparked a lot of thought and some new realizations in me. I plan to write about it here for a few days.
We realized that their big day would coincide with Thanksgiving and my oldest son’s 16th birthday, so we were prepared to pack a lot of commemoration into a few days’ time. Normally this sort of planning freaks me out; makes me nervous. Interesting, because my job involves planning, and a lot of it. I work in creative arts at my church, and there’s no escaping that every-seven-days deadline. I thrive on the adrenaline in that environment. But our family stuff tends to paralyze me; I defer to my mom, who is the champion in the kitchen when it comes to organizing and getting things done. Or I lean on my sister-in-law, who is more gifted in administration than anybody I know. For our annual summer gatherings, I’m usually just a worker bee, once I manage to get my entire crew there in one piece.
But this year I felt the burden of doing something extra. My brother sealed the deal in a phone conversation prior to the big day, when he remarked, “You do this kind of thing all the time. You’re good at this. Make it happen.”
As per my usual mode of operations, I thought and contemplated and considered until I had very little time left for action. The weekend before we were to leave, I made my way to Mom and Dad’s house and quite UN-surreptitiously collected handfuls of photographs. I snuck around the community and found friends from their church to pre-record good wishes via video.
And then I set aside an entire day to put it together. And what a day it was.
I was taken completely by surprise. The emotional wallop packed into looking at fifty years of my family’s life was overwhelming, to say the least. During the twelve hours I worked on this project, I found myself incapacitated on at least five occasions – caught up in emotions I could barely identify, much less express. I just cried. And cried. I sobbed like I haven’t in years.
It struck me that I was seeing, for perhaps the first time, some things that I had been too busy to ever notice before. Maybe in my entire life. And these were important things. Not just random memories of events and parties and bad outfits and haircuts.
In the gathering of photographic documentation of life; separating the images into seasons and eras and looking – really looking – at the people in the pictures, some things came sharply into focus for me.
Most people, if they’re honest, look at their history in regards to themselves. How many of us, when we look at a photograph, quickly scan it to find our own image first? We identify ourself, assure ourself of our presence, and in that context we remember the event, categorize it, assign it some importance. I do that.
But this time, I didn’t. In every photo I scanned, I was looking for a man and a woman – my parents, either separately or together – in an attempt to stitch together a story. I looked into their eyes, paid attention to what they were wearing. Tried to read the expression in their eyes. The others in the photos – even myself – were of no consequence. Even in the most horrid picture, the one that defines bad fashion taste and a horrid haircut – rather than focus on how awful I appeared, I looked at Mom and Dad. And they looked good. (Me, not so much.)
I saw the lives of these two people as they came together in a little Presbyterian church in November of 1961, and I saw hope and excitement and anticipation in their eyes. I have seen those pictures hundreds of time; but I never saw my father’s boyish joy before. I had never noticed the calm, radiant beauty in my mother’s eyes. In looking at them as they were before I ever existed, I learned something about them and about myself. I paid attention and thought about what I was seeing.
There is something incredibly freeing about identifying a man and a woman as independent people – a couple made up of two individuals – apart and aside from their role as your parents. The act of gathering information to tell the story of their lives as a way to honor them became a step towards maturity and growing up that I didn’t even realize I needed to take. My paradigm shifted, ever so slightly.
In the past two decades as I have raised my kids, my focus has most often been on them and their needs. I have seen my parents function primarily in their role as grandparents, in a way that has positively impacted and informed the character of my children. I have rarely lifted my eyes off of my own little world to see the larger world my parents’ inhabited.
I have been accused of being selfish, undoubtedly with just cause. But now I see. I have looked up, and back, and I have seen. And here I am again, in the middle of my life, growing up a little more. No one’s more surprised than I. And I have a richer, deeper love and appreciation for my parents than I ever had before. It goes beyond the fun we had this week as we celebrated. I carry something with me now that is markedly different. And it’s not only my perspective of their lives; it is how I see myself.
We recalled this week how my grandfather – my dad’s father, Jim Case – once overheard me complaining about the small town in which I grew up; the town where he still lived and farmed. We were visiting our hometown, driving down Liberty Street, and I bemoaned the lack of stores and Things To Do, as compared to the wall-to-wall suburbia we knew as home in Dallas. Pop turned around to glare at me in the back seat. He pointed a finger at me and said, “Girl, don’t you ever forget where you came from.”
I know a lot more about that now. I am grateful for my mother and father, the grandparents of my children, two people who lived well and stuck to their promise to stay together. My daughter Sarah wrote a song for them that she sang this week:
“The words of a Marine / the strength of a seamstress’ seam
I was taught to love and taught to fight / I carry you with me in the bloodline”
I guess in the end, I am a bit selfish. It all comes back to me, and how I am living my life, what I am learning, who I am. But I suppose that is parenting at its best; they never stop teaching me things. And then I turn around and try to do the same for my own kids.
And so it goes. Down the bloodline.
Next: The Need To Grieve