I remember silently opening the bottom drawer of my mother’s dresser when I was 7 years old. Inside were boxes of cheap paste jewelry, ornate hankies that smelled of sunshine and mom, baby keepsake books, and a dress.
The dress was the palest of blue, piped in white with pearly buttons, an impossibly tiny bodice accentuated a full calf length skirt. The style spoke of the demure 1950’s and it was beautifully handmade. It was my mother’s wedding dress.
On January 19, 1957 Joanne buttoned up a blue cotton dress with trembling fingers as her best friend Myra fussed over her hair. Dark, glossy ringletts fell from Joanne’s forehead matching dark chocolate color of her eyes. Sitting in front of a pitted mirror in the visitor’s quarters at Fort Chaffee, she touched up her bright cherry lipstick and was ready.
In front of the entire platoon, Joanne married the man of her dreams. 6ft tall and muscular, Duane filled out an army uniform in a way that turned heads and he knew it. Amid cheers and cat calls they sealed the deal with a kiss and prepared for a long life together.
Now, 60 years later, black and white photographs tell the story of their early years together, the two children that were born right away, and the years of struggling to make ends meet. It was not easy. Duane was a provider but he also liked his drinks and he loved his women. If he didn’t come home at night mom would load up the kids and drive to his favorite bars and ladies houses. Not to interrupt him, just to make sure he was safe and not dead in a ditch somewhere.
They stuck it out. Through hard times, infidelity, two heart surgeries that nearly killed my dad, all of the worst things that could happen in a marriage and now my Mom’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
The woman who was once a fiesty 5ft tall, 100lb beauty is now an old woman sitting in a nursing home while the memories of her youth play tricks with her confused mind. She cries out for people who are long since deceased, she gets angry, she gets frustrated, she knows who I am and then she forgets. She holds my hand in a death grip then turns to caress my cheek with the kind of tenderness only a mother can show. She has become a contradiction. A once strong, smart, active woman reduced to wandering the halls of a place that is not her home, searching for that which is no longer there.
My father rages silently to himself about how things could have been different. How he wishes he would have changed the course of his life, moved to a different town when they had the chance to buy that restored ranch on two acres, and spent their money before the nursing home came and took it all.
Yet, amid all of his musings, he fails to find comfort in the fact that some people would give up all they own just to have a woman like my mother by their side if only for a day. He had 60 years of unconditional, unrelenting love from a woman who made everyone around her better from just basking in her light. My dad taught me about life, Mom taught me about love.
I will never have someone love me for 60 years, some of us do not even get the privilege of living 60 years, and the lesson in all of this is realizing what it is you have been blessed with before time runs out. Some of you have been together decades, some of you have lived alone for decades and are now just meeting the love of your lives, some of you are regretting never trying, while some of you may not have love but you are giving love to those in need. Of all the things that transpired in the past 60 years for my parents the one thing I learned is that unconditional love should never be taken for granted because few people have the strength and capacity to love the way my mom loved all of us and all of those around her. As my mom once said “With all your heart or not at all!”