Photo by Bill VandeMerwe
Today, eight years ago, my mother eloped. Goodness knows she would have never let me do such a thing.
My five siblings, their spouses, and her 24 grandchildren were not invited to the wedding. Neither were any of the groom’s seven children, their spouses or his grandchildren. It was just the two of them, in the temple, married for time.
The two had been introduced to each other by a family member. Their first date had a stunning backdrop: a huge reservoir in Wyoming, surrounded by rugged, snow-capped mountains. He was there on his boat, and she was to meet him at the dock at a predesignated time. From the lake, he could see my mother’s little red car drive across the dam. He gunned the engines towards the dock and trolled up to the platform just as she walked up.
From where she was standing she could see that he was tall, robust, and handsome.
“You must be Terry,” she said.
“You must be Patsy,” he said.
“Are you a good guy?” she said.
“Depends on who is keeping score,” he said. He helped her into the boat and off they went.
My mother had been a widow for four years. She moved to a new home in town, she dated, and she even served a mission to South Africa. And although she filled up her time with worthwhile things and was surrounded by good people who loved her, including forests of relatives, that didn’t take a way the fact that she went home to an empty house every evening, slept in a bed by herself, and woke up staring at an empty pillow. She had no one to make plans with, no one to share meals with and no one with whom she could anticipate the future. Sundays were the hardest. For my mother, this was like never waking from a bad dream.
Being single is hard at any age. And being an older single person comes with its own unique challenges. By that time people have lived pretty full lives. They’ve collected a lot of memories, children, and survived a variety challenges. It is different than two young 20-year-olds falling in love and building a life together. When you are older, lives have already been built. Change is not just hard, it is titanic. It is hard to find someone with whom you can relate and who will be willing to merge your lives together.
So when Terry came along, he road into my mother’s life like Zorro, saving the day. He owned horses (a passion of my mother’s), he was a crack-shot with a gun (I know some of you out there might not find this attractive, but we westerners do) and he could fix anything. My mother and Terry found they had much in common. They both had seven children. They both had the same beliefs. They both liked popcorn.
They were married by fall.
Surely it took adjustments for them as they settled into being married to a new person. I know it did. And their most stressful adjustment was probably us adjusting to them. When a new person comes into a very old family, the transition can be tricky, and it goes much further than do we call him by his name or do we call him “Dad.” There is an unspoken resistance by the adult children that is painful and takes work to subdue.
Am I being disloyal to my father if I accept this new man in his place? Will Mom love him more than she loved Dad? Can we still tell stories about my dad? Or do we have to stop talking when Terry enters the room? All we have left of my dad are the memories. If we can’t speak of him, and sing his songs, will my dad be forgotten? Oh the pain!
In an ironic twist, Terry’s name rhymes with Jerry, the name of my father. And to twist it even further, my dad was also good with horses, a gun and could fix anything. My children would always see this newcomer as their grandfather. Who is this man to come in and take the place of my father? Not only that, but to elope with my mom like they were a couple of rebellious teenagers!
But I will admit the truth, that after observing the loneliness of my mother, and despite my fears, which I knew were 95% selfish, I was happy to welcome Terry into the family. But Terry still had to show us what he was made of. There were a lot of eyes watching him.
Was he a good guy?
My mother loves perfume. My father’s favorite scent on her was Beautiful, and my mom wore it all the time, even after my dad passed away. Terry, however, is allergic to Beautiful, and most of my mother’s other perfumes. But knowing that this was something important to her, he went to the fragrance counter at the department story and wheezed and choked through a half dozen bottles of perfume until he found one that didn’t make his eyes water. This he bought for her, and this is what she wears.
On Memorial Day he and my mother went to visit cemeteries. First they went to the cemetery where his wife is buried. Then they went to the cemetery over the mountain, where my father is buried. My father’s headstone was covered with dead grass. Terry got down on one knee and cleaned it off. He noticed that the headstone had started to sink and was crooked, so later he brought a crowbar and pried it up, shook in some fill, giving it an new foundation. What kind of man does these things? A darn good one.
From the very beginning Terry made it clear that he was not a replacement. He was a bonus. And that is what we call him: Bonus Dad.
Ultimately, if an adult child wants peace and tranquility and if they desire to continue to have a relationship with their parent, they must humbly admit defeat: My dad is not coming back, my mom is alone, and God has sent us this gift. If our hearts only had room enough for a certain amount of people that would be a very sad thing. Fortunately, hearts can stretch. Infinitely.
Just before she met Terry, when my mother came home from her mission from South Africa, she sat on my couch and told me she felt as if she were at “rock bottom.” That is a scary thing for a child, even an adult child, to hear from their parent. But since she married Terry I have watched her become a phoenix. They have served two missions together, built a house together, they ride horses, they go out on four wheelers, they eat popcorn for dinner . . . sometimes just popcorn. They are more like teenagers than teenagers. He is my mother’s elixir of life, she is his foxy lady. You can live a long time with that combination.
Terry and I have a joke. He always tells me “I love you” and I say “Thanks.” I cannot return the sentiment. I just cannot. The words do not come out of my mouth. I know I do love him (did you hear that, Terry?), but I can’t say it. And I won’t for a long time. I need to keep him waiting. Because the longer he has to wait for my “I love you” the longer he will have to stick around. And I want him to stick around as long as he possibly can.
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Terry. I am happy for you, and I am proud of you.