The Greatest Generation, the Greatest Love.
Was it love at first sight? No. My mother spotted my father’s roommate’s car and smiled eagerly. Hardly any young man on the GI Bill after World War II owned one.
She and her mother (“Nannie”) had stopped at mid-stitch in the second-floor sewing room to spy on the college boys unloading their bags to move into rented rooms next door.
“Look, Mama, the blond has a car!”
My mother—nicknamed Bunny–never nabbed a ride in that shiny automobile. Instead, she began a perplexing courtship with my dad, Leon. Almost every afternoon, he scampered over to her backyard badminton court where gentlemen callers lined up to get whipped in match after match. Though an Old South Atlantan, Mom lobbed a hard birdie. (A country boy from Talking Rock—a hamlet tucked in the North Georgia hills–my dad studied the “whites” worn by her suitors and then fashioned his own from his sailor suit.)
“I don’t understand that boy,” my mother said after a month. “I beat him every time, but he never asks me for a date.”
“He’s saving his money, Sistah,” Nannie wisely drawled.
Finally, my dad pinched enough pennies for streetcar fare and an Atlanta Crackers baseball game. It rained that afternoon, but they fell for each other after just a few drops.
My parents married in 1949. Dad had just finished his first year of medical school at Emory University. My mother, a recent graduate of proper Agnes Scott College, worked in a research lab on campus. They lived on meager earnings and passion. They splurged on ice cream once a month.
Circumstances did not prevent their dreaming. As Christmas approached, my father noticed Mom’s eyes widening with pleasure at winter fashions in the newspaper—in particular a white satin blouse and a full black velveteen skirt. Enchanting feminine designs had overtaken utilitarian silhouettes after the war.
So Dad sold his blood to finance an errand to the fabric store. He must have been a sight: a 24-year-old man with large hazel eyes poring over pattern books. He chose the patterns and figured out which fabrics and threads to use and how much to buy. Then he presented his purchases to my grandmother and asked whether she would be kind enough to sew the gift.
My grandmother was thunderstruck. She had never known a man who would cross the threshold of a fabric store. Her eyes rimmed with tears whenever she told the story.
By the early 1960s, my parents had a full house. Our home at the time was so small that my mother had to set up her sewing room in a walk-in closet. Early one Easter—about 12:30 a.m.—my father came home after an emergency surgery shift to find my mother frantically sewing an Easter dress, with three others hanging up, half finished, along with my brother’s jacket and shorts.
“Let me help you,” he said.
“That’s OK. Go to bed. You’re exhausted,” she sighed.
“Let me help you. I can put in the hems,” he insisted.
“Honey, this fabric is French batiste. It’s very delicate,” Mom waved him away.
“Is there anything thinner than skin?” he quipped.
She handed over the dresses. Later as she pulled the frocks over our heads for Sunday school, she noted the small, even stitches—tied off with surgical knots.
The love nurtured in their first tiny apartment and modest house burgeoned, and so did the fun. On each child’s birthday, the honoree sat between Mom and Dad in their double bed at sunrise while the other four children marched in, carrying presents and singing. Then everybody raucously jumped on the bed. During thunderstorms, we took refuge in my parents’ bedroom. They usually woke to find four feet-pajama-clad girls piled in the bed, with my brother asleep on the floor.
We spent summer weekends at the lake, swimming, skiing, and feasting on catfish and hushpuppies. Ever efficient, Dad would bait and line up five fishing rods on the edge of the dock and reel in silvery, wriggly fish from murky depths. He cleaned them in a flash—my mother barely had time to pull out the fry pans.
Every June, he and Mom hosted an outdoor party for colleagues and their spouses. One year, however, the storm clouds rolled, and my parents faced clearing out most of the house to accommodate a crowd of 100. That included cleaning up the junk-filled playroom. With the closets already bursting with stuff, my parents stashed old toys, stacks of fabric, boxes of old books, and games in the trunks of all the cars and the washer and dryer. The band set up in the playroom, and company spilled into every room in the house, using every surface, including the ironing board, as makeshift eating tables. The crowd stayed two hours longer than usual!
(Nannie loved her whiskey sours that night. Dad pulled Mom aside to let her know Nannie was dancing with a bunch of residents, right in front of the band—crammed against one wall in the playroom.)
Mom went a little country when the boy from Appalachia grew a catawampus garden on the suburban easement. Their summer suppers were a feast to the senses—sliced tomatoes adorned with just-plucked basil leaves, pale green cucumber slices, green beans simmered crisp-tender in a pot with bits of bacon and topped with sunny yellow squash, silver queen corn, and sweet tea garnished with fragrant mint. My parents canned beans, tomatoes, beets, and peppers. Jars gleamed golden with applesauce and apple butter.
At Christmas, Dad commandeered the kitchen evening after evening while he stirred peanuts and syrup in large iron skillets—sometimes three or four at a time. The magical moment came with the addition of baking soda, and the sweet, gummy mixture puffed up into golden-brown brittle that he then cooled on cookie sheets. Dad broke up the brittle by joyously slamming the cookie sheets on the counter. Pieces flew everywhere, and Mom merely smiled and swept the floor.
Bags of the candy, festively tied with ribbon, went into baskets along with jams, jars of bread and butter pickle, and a package of buttermilk biscuits. My parents bestowed these handmade presents upon neighbors, colleagues, patients, and relatives.
Fifty-five years after my parents said, “I do,” Alzheimer’s struck. Though a cruel thief, it did not steal my mother’s loving nature. In the early stages, she kissed Dad good-bye when he left for work, waved until the car disappeared from view, and then rushed to his portrait where she stood a few moments, beaming. On one visit home, I saw them at the kitchen table, singing snatches of Big Band tunes spinning on a CD.
It was a handholding, sentimental journey to the end.