I Am My Parents More Than Ever

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

It’s been 40 years since my mom and dad were together, but there’s a story about them that I’ve realized keeps getting bigger for me. The gist is that Dad was always out pushing boundaries, while Mom clung to the familiar. As I’ve been writing about my family in this “Wish You Were There” segment, I’m seeing that I’m doing both, and—as my mom used to say—to beat the band. Six ways from Sunday. Like nobody’s business.

Mom Didn’t Want a Dog

The way this story goes is that Mom didn’t want to do any of the things she ended up loving. People who tell it (and by “people” I mean my Aunt Esther and Uncle Buggs, the only family left who knew them) like to reminisce about all the things Mom and Dad did together—the places they visited and the little rural world they had for a home—and end by saying, “Barbara didn’t even want a dog!” Which is hilarious.

Once we’d moved into the house Dad built for us out in the country, Dad saw an ad in the paper and came home with a Bassett puppy. Both he and Mom had grown up knowing dogs belong outside; dogs are workers, not family members. Ha! That lasted literally no time with Humphrey. In fact, Humphrey lasted longer than Dad did.

After Dad died of a heart attack in the living room one night, Mom kept making Humphrey scrambled eggs and walking out into the back yard to lift him up onto the hammock so he could sway while he napped. Seriously, Mom couldn’t have loved him more, and after he died she had two more dogs.

That’s why the end of that story is perfect. Mom didn’t even want a dog!

Mom Didn’t Want to Fly

Okay, it’s not just that Dad wanted Mom to fly. Dad wanted to fly her (and her babies) in an airplane that he wanted to own. You can tell by this picture that he did what he wanted, but you can also tell by my mom’s forced smile she wasn’t happy about it.

Dad’s plane was small: a four-seater Cessna, and he kept it in a hangar on a friend’s cow pasture. He had to buzz the cows off the main part of the field before he could land.

This was typical of my dad: he wanted something, and he worked to get it, and then he enjoyed it. He spent his weekdays doing construction: he and his one employee built a custom home a year, which was Dad’s business), and he took care of our handful of acres and small barn and couple of ponies. A very physically capable man. When he could, he’d get in that airplane and fly around the neighboring counties, checking out people’s land, buzzing our house, doing his version of Sunday driving. Mom stayed at home.

But then came actual vacations. You can see how my mom felt about it.

At the time, flying with Dad felt very normal to me and no one said any different. But now that I look back on it, we were all fearless (except Mom). Dad put her and Kim and me in that little airplane and flew us to Florida, Bermuda, the Bahamas. Our luggage went in the back, and we’d step out of the plane on the runway, into this humid, tropical world, and have a family vacation like no one else I knew.

We’d rent a small house somewhere on or near the ocean, as far away from other people as possible. We liked to keep to ourselves at home, and we liked it on vacation, too. I have no idea how we afforded it or arranged details like getting groceries without a car, or how my mom didn’t have her own heart attack being so far outside her comfort zone.

All I remember are days on end in the sunshine, then sunburn at night. (The white stripes on that swimsuit above left me with red sunburn stripes front and back, like a candy cane.)

Mom Didn’t Swim

Heck, it’s true. But the waters off of Bermuda and the Bahamas are so shallow, so calm, and so salty that you can float in them easily. Or, everyone could but Mom. Dad taught her, though, and once she could float, she began to do that mom-stroke I now do: arms and legs doing a gentle breast stroke, head up high so you don’t get your hair wet. Later, when we joined the rural pool near our house, Mom would occasionally—always slowly—lower herself into the shallow end then do the mom-stroke just enough to cool off. But she did it.

Mom Couldn’t Drive

You know the pattern by now. She didn’t want to, Dad taught her. And when he died and she had to take over all the stuff he used to do on our few acres, she had to learn how to tow the horse trailer so I could keep going to horse shows, She even learned how to back it up!

Okay, here is where Mom surpassed me.

It’s true I’m writing this in my travel blog; I live in a travel trailer so I can explore the country. But I don’t even drive the truck, much less tow the trailer. I know I can drive the truck because I did it when we were test-driving trucks.

But, when we hit the road fast as Covid was locking everyone down, there was always a reason for me not to drive. The rural roads were too narrow and curvy. Anywhere I’d park the truck was too small for a beginner to try (the bikes on the front and the extra-long hitch on the back make it a doozy).

One of the few times I drove was in what seemed like the perfect setting. We were in North Dakota, for God’s sake, exploring all on our own the vast Teddy Roosevelt National Park. I get behind the wheel and carefully drive us down the slow-going park road, when suddenly, guess what surrounds us?

A herd of bison. They’re all up close to the truck, and I’m having to watch all around to see which ones are coming too near and where to go, and Tracy’s laughing at the situation and taking a picture. I didn’t find it funny at all! (Okay, now I do.)

I try to introduce routine as much as I can into our life without roots. I’ll find a walking route wherever we’re camped and walk it the same way every day we’re there. On a zero-exploring day, I keep to a routine of writing in the mornings, walking after lunch, playing cards or a board game with Tracy in the evenings. Sameness is a comfort to me, whereas it makes Tracy feel bored, itchy with a desire to see new things.

So, yeah, I’m out here seeing the country, and I’m lying awake at night wondering if the trailer might blow over in this crazy wind. Isn’t it funny how you learn weird thought patterns and behavior (like being adventurous and phobic) from your parents, and they stick with you way past when you’re the age your parents were when they died?

We continue to learn about loved ones after they’re gone by learning about ourselves.

4 thoughts to “I Am My Parents More Than Ever”

  1. As someone who learned to tow a horse float and (sort of) back it up later in life and found it crazy stressful I can fully sympathise with your mum! The things we do and the stresses we’ll take on for our families…but it’s worth it!

      1. I used to hang on to the thought that when Hazel was old enough to drive she and her young brain would learn the backing up way more successfully than I did and she could then just drive herself to competitions but now she won’t know how to tow or back up either! Parenting fail 😁