A small porcelain bird sits on a shelf in my bedroom always in view if I glance away from reading the morning paper or when I check the illuminated dial of my clock. It’s not something I would have purchased for myself. Too cute, too sentimental. But it was a gift from my father.
He brought it to my home over fifty years ago when he traveled to my city on business, a rare visit unaccompanied by my mother. He probably purchased it at an airport kiosk, the only present I, as an adult, ever received from him that hadn’t been handed to me, and likely chosen, by my mother.
After our marriage, Len and I lived quite some distance from both sets of parents. We visited them several times a year, and in that pre-internet era wrote often, and had weekly long distance phone conversations. The letters I received were in my mother’s hand and she did most of the talking on the phone, with my father listening on an extension. When my parents were together, it was my mother who filled the air with her presence.
My father died in 1977. I regret not having sought to know him better when an adult, after leaving home at 17 for college and then marriage. He was a kind, quiet and reserved man who readily answered questions about his views on politics or world affairs, but even those conversations when visiting, were often interrupted by one of my youngsters or by a practical concern of the moment raised by my mother.
Thinking back, I knew little about the feelings hidden behind the gentle smile of this man who immigrated to this country as a teenager, struggled to get a foothold and then lost virtually everything after the 1929 crash and had to start over. He rode the Grand Central railroad into N.Y.C. early every morning, usually returning well after dinner, working long hours to rebuild his family’s security.
My husband’s experience with his parents while growing up was not too different, a vibrant mother at home who held the family together, while his father commuted to long and arduous work days in Chicago, returning home weary and often wordlessly retreating into a world of music, his piano.
Born of this past, many years ago, Len and I realized that we wanted our adult children to really come to know their father, another quiet man, in ways we both had missed. So, when we phoned our grown kids, we did not share the conversation. One of us would talk and then the phone was handed off. The more verbal of their parents, me, did not eclipse the other.
And Len went a step further.
He took our oldest grown son on a wilderness canoe trip, and flew his small plane across the country with our second son to revisit towns in which the family had spent summers many years before. And he went to Alaska with our daughter, then 15, for a flying camping adventure neither would ever forget.
At least once a year we visited our adult children separately, traveling alone to their distant homes. Even without witnessing the quality of the interaction they had when I wasn’t there, I knew it was a more significant connection for them in my absence. I, in turn, enjoyed being with them on my own.
Len wept bitterly at his father’s funeral for what never had been.
And I wish I’d been wise enough, so many years ago, to be more aware of what I was missing.