Mom and Dad were both born in the Midwest. Their backgrounds could not have been more different, although their circumstances started out in a very similar vein.
They were born on the same day in 1932, during those dark years of the Depression. Dad was brought up on a small farm in the Detroit area and Mom in Springfield, Illinois, in a bungalow on a tree-lined street. Dad's childhood was a hardscrabble one, while Mom's was one of a sort of low-level gentility. Both lost their fathers at the age of four; Dad's to abandonment and divorce, Mom's to a heart attack. Grandmother Louise managed to raise Mom on her own, while Grandmother Esther soon fell in love with a taciturn Englishman named Fred, and married him shortly after her first husband high-tailed it from their farm.
Here Mom and Dad's similar circumstances begin to move in opposite directions-- that is, until they meet at the age of 24.
Dad does not often speak of his childhood. When we were children, we'd beg him to tell us stories about the trouble he, his brother and their neighborhood friends would get themselves into. Dad would sometimes indulge us with a rare story, but he had to be in the right mood to relate the hair-raising tales in which someone inevitably fell off of a barn, fell through some ice, fell out of a tree, or ran into Esther's house bleeding. With his stories, he painted a picture of a pack of devil-may-care neighborhood boys conjuring mischief. Years later, looking through photographs left to him by my Grandmother, I realized how modest and (in my opinion) dark their lives were.
Knowing my father and his artistic temperament, I now understand that he must have longed to escape that place in order to discover a life of beautiful, important and elevated things. Dad's first escape route was the Air Force, enlisting during the Korean War. Finally he was able to pursue those far-off places and meet people from all over the world. Fortified with the encouragement of his high school art teacher Helen, he also started to paint and draw in earnest.
Meanwhile Mom had been carefully raised by my Grandmother Louise and her sister, my Aunt Jeanette. Grandma made certain Mom went to church on Sundays and all that implies. A circle of adoring aunts and uncles surrounded Mom and treated her as an adult. Mom was Grandma's constant companion. They took trips to the East Coast and out west to California and Colorado. There were D.A.R. and Rainbow Girls. Grandma stressed to Mom it was important a woman should be able to make her own way in the world-- a hard lesson Grandma had certainly learned and decades prior to the feminist movement. Mom took these lessons my Grandmother taught very seriously, and she went off to college to earn a teaching degree.
Several years passed. The Korean War "ended" and Dad returned to Detroit, working at GM and hanging out with a posse of unsavory characters. Mom graduated from college with a teaching degree and moved to Pontiac to teach in their school district.
One day, a fellow teacher and friend named Helen invited Mom to a party.
The story is this: Dad (a former student of Helen's) was in his cups when my Mother arrived at the party in her convertible Chevy. Mom walked into Helen's house. Dad spied her-- a tall, impossibly slender, perfectly-dressed brunette-- and drunkenly declared, "WHAT A WAIST!"
He always has had a thing for tall, slender brunettes.
These two young people, so different from one another, started dating. They soon fell in love and got married.
Quickly enough, the Brunette, the Redhead and I entered the scene.
Here, my parents' life together retreated into an unfathomable privacy.