One handed down brown leather recliner with four wooden legs. Attached footrest swings forward after pulling lever. One newly purchased tweed-covered recliner. Attached footrest swings forward after pulling lever. Both ideal for snoozing.
It is not as if I saw my parents hold hands, wink across the kitchen table, or put their lips together during a television commercial. What I saw was so simple it evaded me for too long and only after they were gone did I begin to understand their love story. Their later years reflected the daily patterns they had developed over a lifetime. Things they had done together like food shopping on Thursdays, washing and drying the dishes after dinner and going to church each Sunday. Their personalities blended as they grew older, even though they sprouted tiny wings in separate directions. Or was it I finally noticed their lives that never took them far from one another?
In 1971, my parents retired to Spring Lake, a New Jersey beach town with Victorian style homes that had large wrap around porches, flower-filled window boxes, and a boardwalk for dreaming. My mother loved this town all her life. It was where she had visited her rich cousins, until my parents bought their own small black-shuttered, bay-windowed ranch and hung the large scripted letter "k", the first initial of their last name, over the front of the chimney stack.
In my parents' home, the working kitchen was on one end. It peeked out at the backyard through a small window over the sink where for years, an ancient window fan blew relief in the face of the dishwasher. My father. The linoleum butted up against the natural wood floor behind the kitchen counter. It opened up a space my mother dubbed the Florida Room. A multi-colored area rug she had selected by peeking at an exposed corner in a warehouse sale covered part of the floor. As the brighter part of the kitchen, the Florida Room was the family room, the television room, the den, the office, the game room, the meditation center, the comedy club, and the coffee shop all rolled into one space. It was also home of the recliners.
My mother's recliner was directly to the left of the doorway; my father's was straight ahead on the right. They were about five feet away from one another. Too far away for my parents to hold hands or massage away the other's shoulder pain in the middle of a Notre Dame football game or a segment of All My Children. Each recliner faced the television but from different angles. The television protruded three feet from the corner. It backed into my father's kitchen chair that was side by side with the bay window. For three meals a day he squeezed in between the eleven-inch space bordered by the television screen and the chair. The inconvenience never bothered him. Another man without the slim hips and legs like my father's couldn't have slipped past the television screen to eat another meal. It used to drive my husband crazy that no matter where he sat, he watched television at an angle. This never bothered my parents. Nor did the mobile my mother hung under the doorframe that connected the Florida Room and the dining room, hitting all those in the face who were taller than my mother's 5'1" frame.
My father ducked.
Unselfconsciously, my parents claimed their turf. Their respective recliners served as the center of their hubs. My mother's first and only recliner was covered in a stiff, stubby fabric that quickly wore out behind her head and underneath her arms, as she sat fascinated by Regis and Kathy Lee. As much as she loved soap operas, an addiction she developed after age 70, my mother read in that chair everything available at the local library. Her love for daytime television was new fodder for my father's teasing. My mother saw the jokes coming when my father lifted his bushy brows up and down with jitterbug quickness.
My father's brown leather recliner might as well have been a bed. With the back of his head resting on the pea green hand towel that he draped over the chair, my father shut his eyes without notice. He didn't need a chair with a headrest or his feet elevated to lull him to sleep. Although conversation spun around him, jumped from the kitchen sink behind him, across to the oven, and over to the kitchen table by the bay window, my father fell asleep without invitation. The recliner had nothing to do with it. Nor did my mother. She didn't seem to mind his closed eyes. She read. He slept. He read. She slept. Husband and wife. Together. So this was love?
I wish I could have been there when my father announced to my mother, two months after they retired to the Florida Room, that he had taken a job as a Good Humor Man. What I heard later is that my father had wanted "something to do." I had grown up with the Good Humor Man representing summer, neighborhood children, and toasted almond crunch ice cream bars. He announced his arrival on the street by ringing a bell from his open white truck. Children came running out of alleyways, backyards, through front parlors and down the steps of two family homes, with quarters, nickels and dimes stuck to their palms. The Good Humor Man wore a white shirt with white pants and a hat resembling a small upside down sailboat. True, my father would have looked great in white and he did have the patience to help a child decide between a fudgicle and a cherry ice pop.
My mother was crushed as she sat on the recliner, sun pouring in through the wall of bay windows to her left.
What was he thinking?
She had finished applying her scant make-up, holding the hand mirror that lived on the end table to her left. Next to it were the blue eyeliner pencils that had celebrated too many birthdays, the tired out eyebrow pencils, and the powder puff compact that refused to self-destruct. There was the steno pad, a throwback to her days as a secretary, tissues, and a collection of used white envelopes on which my mother wrote the grocery list, as well as the weekly dinner menu. She had created menus for 50 years and as children, my sisters and I knew what we were going to eat on Thursday when it was Monday. My mother posted the weekly menu inside the pantry cabinet for as long as I can remember until she settled in the Florida Room and created the menu on the back of an envelope as she sat on her scratchy recliner. She used already sent- through- the- mail envelopes and wrote down words like new potatoes, skirt steak, meatballs and spaghetti, sauerbraten, and lemon meringue pie. On the opposite side of the envelope were the words First National Bank.
Within hours after my father had told my mother about the Good Humor job, he called back to refuse it. I wish my father had stayed firm about being a Good Humor Man.. I wish my mother had said, "Go. Go do it. I'll be fine." But my mother was devastated.
"Joe, what were you thinking?" she said. Her legs crossed at the ankles on the footrest. Her hammered toed feet fell naturally in opposite directions.
"I won't take it." My father said. What prompted my mother to express her great displeasure at the prospect of her husband driving the Good Humor truck in the summer was simple. She didn't drive. She worried about being stuck in the house while he drove around town and sold frozen banana splits and ice-cream sandwiches. However, somewhere in the corner of her heart, I think she also knew staring at the vacant recliner across the room, five days a week, would prepare her too soon for a future she dreaded. My father had read the ad in the classified section of the local newspaper. He kept the paper by the Wall Street Journal on the end table by his recliner. It was in between the circular magnifying glass, the plastic calculator with the extra large numbers and a single coaster. Thick, hardcover books changed names from Michener's Hawaii to anything written about a Kennedy. I wonder if my father was a slight bit disappointed not to drive the white truck. Instead he wore a formal white dinner jacket each August at the Candlelight Ball, a fundraiser sponsored by the local Catholic Church, and he and my mother danced in each other's arms in a variation of the embrace they curled up in in their double bed at night. With visions of ice cream dixie cups far, far away.
There were no tears the only time I saw my father cry. They stayed caught in his throat and made choking sounds that begged to come out. Instead he breathed hard, gasp like noises. His chin fell long into his chest as he sat and cried behind closed eyelids on the leather recliner across from my mother. I had been visiting my parents and had brought with me a photo of my 9 year-old son, Dave, waving good-bye to the 9 year-old French student who had been living with us. As the bus pulled away to bring Jean-Marc to the airport, my son's tears started to fall down his soft boy cheeks. His arms reached towards the bus and his beautiful eyebrows wrinkled. Dave looked sad in the photo and my father was instantly moved. My father never said anything nor did my mother or I. She and I locked eyes as my father's chest moved up and down and he swallowed his tears. We didn't move. We listened. Later, I wondered if I should have thrown my arms around my father and kissed the hairless spot on the top of his head.
When one day I asked my mother if she and my father were still having sex-by now they were into their late 70's-she puffed up a bit, flipped the lever on the side of her recliner to sit upright, turned to face me sitting on the piano stool-we had no piano-and with the blue in her eyes looking clearer said, "We're both still healthy."
I took that as a "Yes."
What was I thinking?
I knew it was none of my business to ask but I believe my mother was secretly delighted I had. As I drove back home, I wondered what the conversation might be that night in their bedroom. I don't know if they would have howled laughing or turned over in each other's arms, heads close together on their newly purchased down feathered pillows and kissed in the dark, touching each other in familiar places where they had met over fifty years ago.
The day my parents decided to move from the neutral territory that the recliners provided and into the chairs at the kitchen table to play scrabble, the temperature rose in the Florida Room. The games took place after dinner, with my mother enjoying beginner's luck. Eventually, my father caught fire and he started to win until after two weeks, my mother decided she had had enough. She hated to lose. He didn't need to win. We stopped hearing about the scrabble games and soon both mother and father had climbed back into safer ground on their recliners to doze and watch television. Their scrabble game was safely packed away in the bottom drawer in my mother's roll top desk under the wall mirror in the Florida Room.
As my mother aged, she grew more tolerant of my father's love for football and together they cheered from their recliners, as the "The Rocket"-Notre Dame's Raghib Ismael-made touchdown after touchdown. My father loved the fighting Irish; my mother loved to wear green. Together they celebrated the success of the thoroughbred racing horse, Secretariat, as he championed into the Kentucky Derby Winner's circle and again at Belmont. My father sat on the edge of his recliner and yelled. My mother joined in from hers-legs stretched out, feet smothered in baby powder. My father's legs reminded me of a well-trained horse and when I watched my son run track and cross country through high school and college, I saw my father's legs cross the finish line.
My parents disagreed but not in front of their children. Strangely, I never heard them yell; although my mother started to say "shit" after my oldest sister started college. A long time before retirement and recliners. Saying "shit" came as naturally to my mother as chewing Chiclets, which she did on long car rides. My father's closest transgression was "jeez." My parents kept their temperaments even and although my mother had always been the talker, my father caught up when he retired. They tossed words back and forth without having to move from their recliners. My mother got up to check the oven; my father to pour himself a late afternoon vodka martini. They had an unspoken respect for one another that kept them close and enabled them to move out of each other's way with ease. Whatever the dividing lines, they were invisible. My mother adored my father. She called him "Jodi," a nickname she dipped in chocolate when she didn't call him Joe. My father knew he had the prettiest woman on the dance floor. Kay was his lady.
One warm Sunday in May, my father squeezed in behind the television, sat down at the kitchen table after church, and ate the fried eggs and bacon my mother had prepared. He started to choke. Fell over and hit his head on the table. His heart stopped. His life ended.
Does it happen that fast?
After my father died, my mother whimpered in her sleep like a wounded animal. "Like a wounded bird," my sister said. Life without her partner of fifty years was unbearable. The sounds I heard outside my bedroom window each morning were unlike my mother's middle of the night cries. I worried about the exchange of her usual ebullient self for a smaller melted down version. My parents' breathing had balanced one another without apparent struggle. They had sewn together a story they lived each day so full of love that I had grown up thinking loving was easy.
Two days into my mother's widowhood, I walked into my parents' home where the family was gathered in the Florida Room. I had just come from the funeral parlor. My mother had asked me to check with the funeral director to see he had followed her instructions to prepare my father for the wake. Seated on her recliner, she didn't move when I entered the room.
"How's his hair?" she asked.
"Does his wave fall to the side over his forehead?"
"Yes," I said. "Daddy looks handsome."
I crouched at my mother's feet, held her hand, and looked up into her crystal blue eyes, now fixed on my face. Her body stayed stuck to the seat. She never leaned forward. The weight of her grief held her captive. I noticed she had already begun to melt from its heaviness.
If you asked me if my father had more happy times than sad, I would answer "yes." My mother planned it that way. So it was especially sad when my father was no longer five feet away asleep on his recliner with his head against the green towel. I understand why my mother whimpered in the middle of the night. I imagine she traced my father's face in her dreams. The face my mother resembled.
Long love does that.