Saturday, September 16, 2006

I Owe My Soul to the Family Store (of stories)

I open the door of the china cabinet to retrieve a teapot and a porcelain cup and saucer. Tea time is when I relax and I like to make it special, since I do it so seldom.

As I reach in to get the necessary tea tools, I spy the Quaker Man, a doll I’ve had as long as I can remember. It is part of a set—my older sister has his female companion—that my father brought back for us when he returned from his four-year Army stint. Dressed in his German folk costume, Quaker Man is moth-eaten and shabby, from his black, broad-brimmed hat, to his claret coat, to his orange vest and gray flannel pants. His poor socks are so faded and dingy white. His shoes, if I remember correctly, were black, but I have no idea where they are. I probably lost them in my severe neglect. Until I bought my house and unpacked him, he languished in a box in a bathroom closet for three years.

I remove him from his domed display and take a good look at him. For the first time, I notice he also sports an off-white bow tie. Such a jaunty touch and one that I never noticed in the 50+ years he’s been in the family.

I wonder why I keep him, but, in the same thought, I smile, remembering how my father ended up in Germany to begin with. The story is a family heirloom, one my mother delights in telling and one my father never contradicts. Prompt her just a little and she will tell it with a sparkle in her eye, while my father sits stoically; the only sign of his annoyance may be an increase in the television’s volume in a vain attempt to drown her out.

As she tells it, when my sister and I were very young (around ages 2 and 1, respectively), my parents were separated. My mother was standing with us, waiting on a trolley to take us back to our Aunt Claire’s (not really my aunt) where we were living. She had twenty cents in her purse, enough to get us home. My father, who was working as a lens grinder at the time, was not giving her any money for our support. And, to top it off, he had given her engagement ring to another woman (why he had her ring is something that has never been explained, adequately, to me).

My mother was furious. She didn’t know how to make my father give her money for us. We were sick; we needed medicine. We had just been to the doctor and both my sister and I had colds. Mother didn’t have the money to fill the prescriptions and she was, as she says, at the end of her rope. As we were standing there, she noticed an Army recruiting station across the street. At that very moment, she says, she had a most brilliant idea.

My mother is proof that level of education does not equal smarts. She never graduated from high school, but she’s the smartest person I know. She marched us across the street to the Army recruiting station. Her question to the recruiter was straightforward: how could she go about having my father drafted?

This was a risky move—it was 1952, during the Korean Conflict. My mother was taking a big chance; my father could have been sent to a very dangerous place. She didn’t want him hurt; she just wanted him to suffer. The recruiter questioned my mother regarding her situation. Was our father supporting us? No. He patted my mother’s arm and said, “Leave it to me.”

And, so, my father was drafted and, because he had dependents, he was sent to Germany instead of Korea. Yes, it was difficult—he’ll at least admit to that. But, at the same time, he learned to snow ski and he and my mother had time to work out their differences through the mail. My mother received her support through a monthly allotment from the Army. Everybody was (mostly) happy. It must have had an overall positive effect; they’ve been married for 58 years (this October) and they have ten children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Certainly, the situation caused some tension in my father’s family. When his father died, my parents had to go through my grandfather’s papers and personal effects. In my grandfather’s desk, my father found a piece of paper with this one line penned on it: “The damn fool let her put him in the Army.” That probably explains why, throughout their marriage, my grandfather called my mother “Jo Anne,” not “Joan,” which is her name. That has to mean something.

Many, many years later, at Christmas, my father brought in a huge box that contained my mother’s present. She unwrapped the first box, which led to another box, which led to another box, until, about ten boxes later, she retrieved the last box. She opened it and, there in red velvet, was a half-caret engagement ring.

Sometimes, I think my parents held on out of spite; other times, I think they’ve stayed together because neither of them wants to be the one to give up. I don’t know why they’ve endured or how they’ve endured and I’m not sure they’ve always been the best representatives of marriage on the planet. Whatever the reason, they have managed to make their relationship work and I’m glad they are my parents.

As with all family stories, I take this one with a gallon of salt. I don’t know if my father doesn’t contradict the details because he doesn’t remember or if he doesn’t want to expose my mother’s story as a fraud. I have to think it’s mostly true, since so much of their life together hinges on that one incident. As legends go, it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.

As for the doll, I sometimes think I should give him away or retire him to another box. But he is a constant reminder that I can always count on my mother for another story. And, with every story, I learn a little more about what makes me the person I am.

Note: To any of my students who read this, this is my attempt at a portrait/personal essay. It is only a model and is not representative of how I think your essay should be written.

1 comment:

The R said...

Even though this is your story about your family, I can relate. The tales we hear from our parents and other family memnbers stick with us for eternity.