The very first people most of us knowand loveare our parents. They are our original role models and teachers. So the importance of mothers and fathers in our lives cannot be overemphasized. They leave an indelible mark on our lives, whether as adults we continue to love them and appreciate them even more, as many of the following stories attest, or whether we reject them utterly and strive to avoid being like them.
Many years ago, I wrote a song about my mom, Wilma Dean McGowne Luke. I hope to convince Wynonna Judd to record it some day, but in the meantime, I sometimes sing it to my kids at night:She was born on a farm down in Arkansas,She had an apple-pie Momma and a rawhide Pa,She was long and lean, flashed eyes of green,She was a raw-boned woman name of Wilma Dean.
Even a petite mother can seem like a giant to a young child, but my mother really was larger than lifeover six feet tall, with high cheekbones like Katharine Hepburn's and bright green eyes. In photos of her as a teenager and young adult, my mother looks like a Hollywood starlet, but one with the grit and strength of, say, Lauren Bacall. Her hands were bigger than most men'shealing hands that expressed who she was, a woman full of life and love. Hands that bounced babies and dried tears, hands that swatted butts when the kids attached to those butts were out of control, hands that must have made at least 10,000 cookies in her lifetime, hands that picked wild berries for pies and jams and made salads out of the greens of the field, teaching her four children how nature can supply our needs. Despite the size of those hands, they were amazingly adept with a sewing machine. Mom made prom dresses, wedding gowns, baby clothes, sails, and slipcovers for chairs, couches and love seats, not only for our household, but also for a goodly portion of the townspeople of Reedsport.
Wilma Dean was part Betty Crocker, part Suze Orman, part Mother Teresa and part Mae West. Loud, tenacious and very, very strong, she could, I am convinced, have done anything she set her mind to. But for some reason she didn't recognize her own talents and capabilities, and after marrying my dad, she put any dreams or ambitions beyond being a wife and mother on hold. My sister insists that our mother lived the life she wanted, and perhaps that's true, as she didn't seek to break free of her self-imposed limitations until she was in her fifties.
Nevertheless, my mom warned me repeatedly not to surrender my choices and options; not to settle for being a stay-at-home mom if that was not truly what I wanted. I am deeply grateful to her for instilling in me the value of independence. By the age of twelve, I realized that a woman who is dependent on a man to buy her food and provide a roof over her head has no freedom and no choices in life. To this day, I have honored my mom by learning from her mistakes and keeping my options openyet also by becoming a mom myself, twelve times over. And now that I know what it is to raise a child, to invest so much love, time, energy and nurture in that unique being, I can better understand and forgive my mother's least appealing (at least to me) traither inability to let go.
When I was a child, I loved that my mom held me so tight. She was a world-class hugger, and hugging was a way of life for us. I remember as a preschooler visiting our neighbor's aged mother, whom we called Grandma Mikulecky. Her family raised many kinds of poultry, and at the time of our visit, Grandma Mikulecky was caring for some baby chicks whose mother had been killed by a raccoon. She had been keeping them warm in a wooden box behind the stove, but took them out so I could admire them in all their fluffy vulnerability. Then she and my mom went off to prepare a snack, leaving me with the soft, downy chicks. "When they came back, three of the chicks lay still on the floorI couldn't resist hugging the little creatures and didn't know the power of my own hugs. Grandma Mikulecky never let on that the chicks were dead, telling me instead that it was time for their nap and she would have to put them away to rest. My mom, too, kept a tactful silence for many years.
If only my mother had found a lesson for herself in that incident, but no, she went on hugging too tightly right through my adolescence, when I no longer found it comforting, but constraining. The teen years were years of open rebellion for me, as I tried to escape the maternal embrace and become my own person.
Ironically, I was the one who couldn't let go when I sat at my mom's bedside as she lay dying of cancer at age fifty-six. But as I held tightly to Mom's hand, she tapped my hand with her finger and looked meaningfully at my crying baby daughter, Shaylah, who needed to nurse, and then looked meaningfully back at me. Reluctantly, I let go for a few minutes to tend to my daughter, and after positioning Shaylah on my left side, took up my mother's fingers again with my right hand. Shaylah reached out her infant fingers and wrapped them tightly around her grandma'sand gazing softly at her daughter's daughter, my mother breathed her last.
I am my mother's daughter, with her high cheekbones, her sense of humor (and very loud laugh) and her knock knees. But I am also my father's child, with his blue eyes, love of music and addictive personality. Because of his inability to accept my marriage to an African-American and his refusal to have any contact with me for over a decade, for many years my memories of my dad passed through a filter of neediness and longing. Once God healed my heart and set me free from that trauma, the memories of Dad's love for me (and the rest of our family) came creeping back the same way the morning sun would creep across the hilltop toward our ramshackle farm, waking us gently with warm sunlight. So it was with memories of my father. They began to dawn soft and gentle, warming a heart that was once closed to any notion that he'd ever cared about me. With each remembrance, an image would begin to emerge as if from a fog bank, and then would take on solid form and shape, lit from inside the moments of time we spent together. I would see him whittling wooden toys with a mother-of-pearlhandled pocket knife, or sitting on a log rocking back and forth as he played country tunes on a thrift store guitar in front of a blazing campfire.
Norman Richard Luke was a thin man with a big nose and wavy red hair, cut in a short, military style and combed straight back. Visually, he was a cross between Bill Gates and Woody Allen. At the age of four, he became blind in his right eye. Legend had it that he stole a neighbor girl's peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and in revenge she threw a stick at him that landed in his eye and took its sight. He was able to see pretty well with one eye and the injury didn't prevent him from getting his engineering certificate and supporting the family, but at thirty-five, he had an accident that changed all our lives. He was in the basement repairing Mom's broken washing machine and a piece of wire he was cutting flew into his left eye, rendering him completely blind. He remained unable to see for several years, as he underwent surgery after surgery in hopes of regaining at least some of his lost vision.
After numerous experimental operations, custom-made contact lenses and a pair of ugly black trifocals, Dad was able to see well enough to driveor at least he thought so. Anyway, he could "see" with his hands and brain, which were intuitively mechanicalDick Luke could fx anything. He would carve and sand and turn anything on a wooden lathe. If he wanted to make something he didn't have the appropriate tool for, he simply made the tool on his metal lathe. If one of Mom's vases or a piece of jewelry broke, he'd say, "Put it in the drawer." After a few weeks or months, he'd open the drawer, spread out the broken fragments, mix up a batch of epoxy and set to work. Nothing was too tedious or beyond his impaired visionhe'd use his fingers to feel the broken edges and repair things to look brand-new. Duct tape and superglue were always close at hand, and it never even crossed our minds to throw out damaged or broken itemswe would just bring them to Dad, knowing that he would know how to repair them. And forget planned obsolescence: we had the same toaster sitting on our pink-and-gray speckled counter for decades!
Dad built boats and furniture, houses and carports, and came up with all sorts of clever inventions. When he was in a creative mood, all was right with the world and I knew I was loved. He'd sing for hourssongs he'd heard on the radio or learned from old records; songs he made up for his kids to enjoy. If I asked him a question when he was in one of these joyful moods, he would answer me with a line or two from a song.
But just as the weather on the Oregon Coast is prone to sudden changes and violent storms, so were Dad's moods. For no reason I could discern, then or now, Dad would suddenly stop singing, stop building, stop smiling, and instead he would walk with feet of lead and curse at Mom. For days or weeks or even months, he would disappear into a fog of cigarette smoke and furrowed brows. He would storm in from work, bark at Mom, yell at us kids, then storm back out to seek refuge in the neighborhood bars to play pool with the local drunks. I believe my dad suffered from what used to be called manic depression and is now known as bipolar disorder. This condition was likely exacerbated by frustration with his visual limitations, a naturally short fuse and the ill-advised infusion of alcohol. In any case, his mood swings deeply affected our whole family. But today I realize that his deep and abiding love affected us even more. I wish I could have seen and understood this when he was still alive.
I hope the stories that follow will allow you to r...