No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

When she went in for a five-year checkup, my mother learned the disease had returned. As is often the case, the cancer was more virulent the second time around. Because my father has never been comfortable around hospitals or other signs of pending mortality, my younger sister flew in to help. Within six months of her second diagnosis, in March 1988, my mother died at age 59. That morning, my father took us out to a quiet restaurant near the hospital. He ceremoniously presented my mother's wedding ring to my older sister, and to my younger sister he gave the diamond ring he had surprised my mother with one Christmas. Then he began to talk about their 38 years of marriage, concluding with, "If you're asking if I think I'm ever going to see her again? Yeah." It is the only time I have ever heard him say something even remotely religious.

All three of us children were concerned about what might happen to him, residing on his own in the middle of the woods. Yet we knew he'd reject the notion of staying with any of us, either in Maine or where we lived. He had too much pride to share the depth of his grief. When he did visit me six months later in Minneapolis, where I had moved three years earlier, it gave me enormous satisfaction to know that the fundamentals of my life--marriage, a new son, my own house, and a job as the speechwriter for the governor--were consonant with his hopes for me.

To my surprise, he gradually began dating. His first semi-serious relationship was with a wealthy woman who owned a house on the ocean but who made the fatal mistake of nagging him once too often. The second one provided just the tonic he needed. At a singles gathering at a Maine bar, he wandered away from the nametagged group and struck up a conversation worthy of Bogie and Bacall. "Do you want to go to Mexico with me?" was his opening line. "Sure," she replied. "I'm not kidding," my father said. "Neither am I," she answered.

She was Pol, a vivacious woman 17 years younger than my father who eked out a living selling her homegrown herbs at the local farmers' market and put great stock in Native American spirituality and various new-age behaviors. But what she and my dad shared was an intrepid sense of adventure: Mexico was just one of many places they went together. Before long my father invited me up to Gray--wanting me to tell him, I suspect, whether he was making a fool of himself. "Nobody will ever take the place of your mother," he asserted, then sighed. "But that was another life."

He needn't have worried. It was clear that Pol helped restore his old vitality. It wasn't long before he embarked on perhaps his greatest construction project to date: digging into the hillside beneath his home, propping it up with supports, and building a one-bedroom basement apartment he could rent out to supplement his income. Aside from the man who drove in the cement truck and helped him pour the foundation, my father built the entire thing virtually single-handedly, from the excavation to the finish carpentry. He was 67 years old.

A little more than two years ago, as we talked on the phone, I asked him how Pol was. "Okay, I guess. We're not seeing each other much any more," he replied. The breakup had occurred six weeks earlier, but my father, in classic form, hadn't volunteered the news to anyone. "After six years of seeing somebody, it's a little tough to get used to them not being around," he understated. (Since that time, he and Pol have reconciled and split once more; they remain friends.)

That winter, rather than merely take his customary jaunt south to escape the Maine weather, my dad used some of the money he earned as a freelance insurance investigator to purchase a seasonal home in a Florida retirement community. Giving the gambit every chance, he took golf lessons and signed up to play on a softball team. A year later he sold the house. "Everybody in that place is rickety," he complained. "Talking about their ailments--my God, that's an afternoon's worth of their entertainment right there! I had to get out of there."

But he needed another option. When my father is alone in the middle of the woods, it gives him that much more opportunity to worry about how his kids are doing. (Not that he would ever embark on a visit to find out for himself.) Last year he hatched a plan that could at least maim two birds with one stone, and in the process resurrect his vision of the Robson Way. Knowing that my sister's family would probably forever be prohibited from buying a home by the exorbitant price of Seattle real estate, he proposed that he move into the downstairs apartment in Gray and give them the upstairs for a nominal rent. After some initial trepidation about the obvious issues of independence, my sister and her family agreed and made the move last November.

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