Every once in a while, yielding to some ideopathic spasm of curiosity or boredom, I drift into the attic storage room and pull something from a box. I have many boxes in there. Some have known contents: the Christmas stuff, the Easter stuff, the Halloween stuff, the unloved-toys-and-neglected-hand-me-downs stuff. Others are packed with mystery, decades old, never sorted, sitting and crumbling with patience. After I lost my parents and sister in the early ’90s, I became the archivist by default, amassing milk crates and suitcases of papers and photos that I’d always meant to organize and someday actually will. Once my kids are all grown. Once I have all that free time. Once.
In the meantime, I drift now and then into the storage room and pull something out — a folder, an envelop, a binder that smells of paste and cracking paper. Tonight I pulled out two taped-together pieces of cardboard with my sister Lucy’s handwriting on one side: “DO NOT THROW AWAY (Precious Contents).” The tape looked undisturbed; whatever lurked within hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.
I disturbed it. And there I found an artifact I hadn’t known existed: a contact sheet featuring black-and-white photos of my mother and father years before I entered the picture. Late ’50s sometime. It’s a stunning relic, and not just because my parents are stunning, too: lovely ash-blonde Jeanne smiling on the lawn in a low afternoon sun; shirtless Louis, 16 years her senior but ever the show-off, in his beefcake poses and high-waisted pants. It stuns because I see in their faces and their bodies, in the beam of her smile and the brashness of his stance, the sexy, electric charge of early love.
This was a gaping-mouth moment for me. Not that I hadn’t seen the current of love between them throughout my childhood. It never faded; it grew. But it changed as they changed as he changed. In the strange and draggy years following my father’s suicide attempt in 1974 and the nine-day coma that followed, he lost both his short-term memory and his ability to do much around the house beyond washing dishes and dishing out praise.
He never lost his ebullient personality, thank God, and he retained an interest in other people that allowed him — even at his most senile — to greet strangers as friends, including those he had forgotten were friends already. They were all the same to him. The constant was my mother, and she was, indeed, constant. Mama did all the driving, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the planning and bill-paying and college-hauling, all the money-earning, all the tax-paying, all the years and years of caring for her once-brilliant, always idiosyncratic, beautiful, caring, damaged husband. And all this while continuing to practice and play the violin everywhere and anywhere she could.
What hits me, now that I’m a single mother, was how alone she was in so many ways and how faithfully and abidingly she loved him. She never abandoned him. I can’t imagine that she imagined abandoning him. Sometimes she got angry; often she got tired, slumping at the end of the day with a bag of gummi worms and a crossword puzzle before some silly episode of “Magnum: P.I.” (“That man is so handsome,” she’d say. “Your father was that handsome. Handsomer. Hoo-boy.”) Her own health wasn’t great, and I often thought she stayed alive and moving forward on the steam of everyday busy-ness.
And love. “Jeannie,” my dad would say, “I worship you,” and she’d wave him off with a “cut that out.” But then she’d get up and kiss him, go off and cook for him, snap on the radio and work at the stove as he sat at the table behind her. They listened to the news together, then ate together, then he did the dishes and she did the bills. It wasn’t shirtless or sexy or giddy or brash; it wasn’t flush with desire in the sunshine. But it was love.