Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m a southern girl who was born and raised in Texas. I worked in the oil patch as a landman wearing stylish skirts and cute shoes, enduring my gendered job title with a demure smile and feminine skill. I worked in the county courthouses, in a number of small Texas towns, admiring the architecture, learning the county clerk’s name, and making it my business to ask about the best lunch counter in town.
I once knocked on the door of a house near land where my company wanted to drill. A woman answered. I told her I needed a use and possession affidavit. She looked me up and down and asked me if I wanted to do a little shopping. Said she had a shed out back full of seconds. We understood each other immediately. I got my affidavit and bought two knit tops from her shed that matched the skirt I was wearing. She threw in some home grown tomatoes as we exchanged life stories over a glass of iced tea at her kitchen table.
The Other One
I’ve reached the age when most of my friends’ parents are deceased, and more and more of my classmates die every year. A friend of mine and I were discussing our mortality the other day. Neither of us, we announced, want to be the remaining spouse.
“I want to go first,” my friend declared, “I don’t want to be the one left alone.”
I agreed, “Me too! Me either.”
It was Easter weekend, and my son, in his mid-twenties, happened to be visiting and was very uncomfortable with the conversation. He made noises of disgust and asked us to talk about something else. It’s possible that he thought our conversation was a ploy to guilt him into visiting more often. I admit to referring to the family pet as his “Christmas puppy” in order to get him more involved in her care when he was younger. But our conversation was as natural to us as it was unnatural to him. It was not intended to ply him with guilt. In fact, I’m not sure how the topic came up. We simply think about things now that we avoided thinking about at his age. Our life experiences with the death of our own parents have done that to us.
My mother died of cancer at age sixty-five, close to my age now. Mom was diagnosed a year before she passed. Had a lung removed, went through radiation and chemo. Then the cancer found her brain. I was in my mid-thirties, unmarried and putting in grueling hours at my job. My employer was a major oil company, and I traveled each week to the county seat of some small Texas town, leaving on Monday morning, returning on Friday afternoon, staying alone in a motel at night, working in the courthouse during the day. None of us had cell phones back then. We got our calls through the county clerk’s desk. When the phone rang, the clerk shouted out the name of the person wanted. Every time I heard the phone ring, I looked up from my work with my heart in my throat waiting to hear my name, wondering if the call would be for me.
Our department was restructuring just about the same time my mother’s life was ending. I was slotted to work a field play in Oklahoma, returning home every third weekend. I begged my new boss to find something closer to home for me, told him what was going on. The best he could do, he said, was field work in Texas where I could be home every weekend. I visited the hospital the Friday night my mother died. My boss found a position in the Houston office for me, with no travel involved, the following week. I still shake my head over that one.
Losing my mother was a defining event for me. To this day, I divide my life into halves: before Mom died, and after. Blissful ignorance to cruel awareness.
And then there was my father, who lived to be ninety-three. His last years were difficult. I loved my Dad, but he and I had a different relationship than the one I had with my mother. He wasn’t much of a talker, didn’t like to be questioned about anything, rarely expressed his feelings unless he was unhappy about something. I was usually the one to call or visit him, rarely the other way around, unless he specifically needed something. He was a tough old bird. He bounced back from a stroke in his eighties as though it was nothing. Then he fell and broke an arm, and bounced back again. His eyesight was failing, but he continued to live alone and drive, long after he should have given up both. He didn’t want help. As he aged, he hid his cognitive decline through sarcasm and his gruff personality, keeping family at a distance that prevented us from intruding on him. In the last years of his life, he began forgetting who I was. He told me things that someone named Pat said. My sister and I cut our eyes at each other.
“I’m Pat,” I hesitantly reminded him.
“I know!” he snapped.
He remembered my sister, whom he was closer to and when questioned, he claimed to know that I was his daughter, too. At first, we blamed his confusion on his macular degeneration. Yet he frequently inquired about the “other one.” It seemed to torment him. He only had two children, both daughters. We had no idea who “the other one” was that he kept asking about. It was all very confusing and frustrating. I even suspected an illegitimate sibling, hidden over the years.
Finally, I began to ask him questions, tentatively, about this “other one,” that vexed his memory.
“She was gone a lot,” he said.
I was the daughter who lived away from home the most. I went away to college, then frequently lived far away. I came back to visit when I was able, whereas my sister lived nearby our father throughout most of her life. I began to put it together.
“What else do you remember about her?”
“I don’t think she liked us,” he said, referring to himself and our remaining family in Houston.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because she didn’t come see us much.”
What I concluded was that he had a hard time remembering the present me from the daughter I was in my younger years. He hadn’t called me “Gabby” since I was a little girl following him around, pestering him with questions. He knew me as my current self who took him to all his doctor appointments. He knew I was his daughter, Pat. The trouble was when he tried to remember years in the past when I wasn’t a part of his everyday life, he couldn’t reconcile it. That daughter was different than who I was in his later years. That daughter wasn’t around. She was the “other one.”
A year after Mom died, I gave up my soul-sucking job, got married, and followed my husband’s career postings, which took us out of the country and to Alaska before returning home. I didn’t want to move back to Texas. Not because I didn’t want to live near my family but because I loved my life in Alaska and wasn’t ready to leave it behind. It was a wonderful adventure that I wasn’t ready to end.
I lived near Dad again later in his life. As he aged, I began to spend more time with him. We had a standing lunch date on Wednesdays. It broke my heart to think my absence made him feel unloved. Just like my father, I’ve always been independent. It’s a trait I instilled in my own son. I raised him to live on his own. To be autonomous. He brings me great joy, and I couldn’t be prouder of him. Yet like my father, I experienced profound sadness when my son moved away. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it is to let go of someone still living. Until I concluded that I was the “other one,” I had shared Dad’s feeling that my child didn’t like me very much, didn’t want to spend time with me. Without knowing it, Dad gave me a valuable gift. He let me know he had always loved me, missed me when I wasn’t around, important things he never told me. It was also a welcome reminder, a sudden ah-ha, not to view my son’s infrequent visits as a lack of love, but as a sign of growth. He’s living his life. Enjoying his own adventures. He, too, will age.