Thursday, April 17, 2008

Remembering My parents

Pictured above: Miss Nordena Miller at eighteen, Sgt. William Harry Wayman, US Army Air Corps c 1943, Nordena and Bill in 1978 with Abby I

Dear Bloggers,
I write fiction and poetry in my real life. Diary entries and sometimes rants in Blog forum. Occasionally a true life adventure piece. I don't generally write an essay and I have no interest in attempting the Memoir genre. However, having made that somewhat clumsy disclaimer, I offer today a piece on my parents. Somebody recently asked me about my mother and it got me to thinking. Today's piece is the result. So, if you don't want to hear about Nordena and Bill, check back another time. Otherwise, read on.


The first anniversary of my mother's death is coming in several weeks. That sad fact in combination with having to pack and move all of her household goods prior to selling her home has got me to thinking a lot about my parents recently. Pouring through old letters, documents, and family photos has made me see them in new ways. It has been bittersweet. Like all children, I suppose I saw my parents as supporting players in a drama in which I always held the starring role. Busy with the process of growing up and growing middle aged, I never really paused to consider them as individual people in their own rights. Now that they are both gone and I am (shudder) the family matriarch, I wonder, who were these two people really?

I wish I could have known them as children and teen agers and young married folks. The letters and photos I found in the closets and drawers of their house help a bit in delving through my own memories and filling the blank spaces. I am in one of those 'passage' points in life –whether I wish to be or not-- and in order to move into my own final years, I feel the need to process the past. Whew! Weighty subject!

So, I ask myself again, who were these people? Were they unique or more likely a product of their time and place? My parents were members of what we call, “The Greatest Generation” and their parents were born in the nineteenth century, at the end of the Victorian Era, when America was morphing from an agricultural society into an industrial giant and world leader.

In that era, parts of America were still frontier. Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill were alive. Civil War veterans still marched in parades. Electricity and the telephone were new. So was deodorant and indoor plumbing. (I can only say "Yuck" to that). Ninety percent of America's roads were unpaved and Henry Ford was still tinkering with the automobile. The Wright Brothers had not yet flown an airplane. In that now distant century, rugged individualism was praised as was a “can do, make do” attitude, however there was a strong sense of community and cooperation as well. America was booming with optimism and bulging with immigrants from all over the world while most of the rest of the world was still ruled by kings and queens and emperors. The values and morals and social customs of the late Victorians were well defined and, by our lax modern standards at least, very strict.

My parents were raised by those strict late Victorians, who were also the survivors of World War One. My father, born William Harry Wayman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1916, made it safely through the great post WWI flu pandemic that killed millions. My mother, Nordena Carol Wilson Miller, born a year post pandemic in 1920 in Butler Pa, lost an older brother and sister. My parents grew up in the economic misery of the Great Depression and came of age just in time for World War II. They'd already learned to be tough. To place honor and duty above personal gain. Sacrifice and hard world was expected. They hoped for stability and worked to achieve it. Personal happiness was desired but neither expected nor seen as a God given right. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of Americas pioneer's, they lived up to the title we now give them. They were 'the greatest generation' of their own century. Their like may not be seen again.

But, even seen in the context of their world, who were these two people who raised me? Born in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, they were ethnically the typically pioneer Pennsylvanian: a mix of English, German, and Scots-Irish. Their fore bearers defied England's might and literally helped create America. Despite the passage of centuries, my parents retained the pioneer mentality: take care of yourself and your community. Don't tread on me and I won't tread on you, but I'm not taking orders I don't agree with.

Mother was the passionate, mercurial, fiery parent, a genealogy buff and guardian of a thousand years of her family's history. She would frequently admonish me with pointing finger when riled up about one thing or another, “Never forget that your ancestors once ruled England!” Then, she would pause and laughing at herself add, “Of course that, and the correct change, will buy you a cup of coffee.” I never forgot her words. How could I when treated to a spectacle of this lady looking and sounding like Bette Davis in Elizabeth, the Queen, pacing back and forth in the living room of our small house in the Pennsylvania burbs with her lavender-blue eyes seeming to flash fire. All she needed was Cecil B DeMille asking if she was ready for her close up. She'd have been great on film in another life.

It was true though: Mother's family tree did indeed include royalty. Also Hessian mercenaries, two American Presidents, German and Irish indentured servants, Quakers, Scottish political prisoners, Revolutionary and Civil war vets, missionaries, teachers, farmers, doctors, and lawyers... but as far as I know... no Indian chiefs. An Indian captive during the French and Indian War, though. Come to think on it, if Indians had come round the cabin door lookin' for trouble with Mother in charge, she'd have shot them between the eyes, replaced the family Pennsylvania long rifle on its hooks atop the fireplace mantel and calmly gone back to making stew. Nobody messed with Mother and got away unscathed.

With or without the drama, Mother's stories made the past live for me in a very direct way and I credit her with my lifelong fascination with history. She, the gregarious social parent, literally forced good manners on me. (It must have been an exhausting and daunting job since I resisted enthusiastically on every occasion throughout my entire childhood.) Mother was strict and persistent though: a lioness of a woman with straight back, porcelain skin and a cloud of chocolate hair. A lifelong staunch Republican, too. She admittedly melted under the warmth of the JFK charm when meeting him in New york during his campaign for President but still voted for the other guy. Opinionated, stubborn, independent, perhaps a bit of a snob at times, she was also unflinchingly honest and fair. Kind, funny, and smart. She loved to dance, loved to read, loved the theatre and films and dogs. She had her own set of quirky standards: even on the day she died she was wearing freshly self laundered clothes, lipstick and jewelry.

She was producer, director, writer and leading player of her own life story. In her later years, she grew fond of silly hats and Elton John like sunglasses. Deaf as a post, she somehow managed to stay on top of things, frequently saying, “I didn't just fall off a turnip truck you know.” True oh so true.

I wish I'd been a fly on the wall to see my mother as a young girl and young woman: riding a shiny black horse in competition, scandalizing the ladies of the bridge club on their trip to New York where she proved she really could kick as high as a Rockette, watching her finagle her way onto a military transport train for a free ride to Pittsburgh from Boston in WWII (pretending to be a pregnant woman with a pillow tied under her blouse), seeing her confidently interviewing Mickey Rooney, Katherine Hepburn, and Judy Garland for her high school paper. Sadly, I didn't usually get to see her have fun.

My father, on the other hand, was always fun. Fun radiated off him. If those same troublesome Indians of Mother's paragraph had come round with Daddy in the cabin, the story would have gone differently. No shots would have been fired. Everyone would have ended up sitting around the fire drinking potlikker, swapping jokes, with Daddy being made an honorary Mohawk or Huron. Everybody liked Daddy. I admit happily to being “Daddy's girl.” Maybe because I wear the face of his German fore bearers. Or because I have their weird wacky sense of humor. I dunno. In any case, we always got along like a house a fire.

My father, who died in 1992 after suffering for years from Parkinson's Disease, was, and remains, my hero. Calm, patient, wise, and witty, he was also our neighborhood's 'Mr Fix IT'. An Engineer, Air Force Veteran, and star college athlete in golf, he was known for creative practical jokes. Unlike me, he wasn't chatty but when he did say something it was memorable. He enjoyed kids. He made a Halloween fun house for the entire neighborhood every year and never flinched at taking a dozen of us to the circus or to ride the ponies. He taught me to ski. He tried, without much success, to teach me to bowl, play softball, and box. He read stories backwards and made up languages that sounded just like the real thing. He took me to museums and the county fair with equal enthusiasm.

As far as I know, despite his propensity for practical jokes, my father never had an enemy. He could, as I wrote in a poem, “Talk to princes and homeless folk and like them both the same.” He lead from behind. Never raised his voice, never knowingly hurt another human being. Although he would have scoffed at the term, he personified that hard to define aura of class. He was unfailingly supportive of me and gave me the positive example of treating my mother as an equal partner in their marriage. He told me that there was nothing I could not accomplish if I wanted to put my mind to it. Being born female was second to nothing in our household.

My father came home every night a six from work and helped me struggle through my math homework. He was there for every school Open House, every recital, every play. So was my mother. It may be that she fussed over my sometimes shaky health a bit too much for my liking. Mother and I didn't always see eye to eye but I always knew she was on my side. It mattered.

My parents were ordinary folks in the sense that neither did anything in their lives that the world will stop turning and take notice of. But, to me at least, they were special and unique. Now that they're gone, I truly realize how fortunate I was growing up in the loving and stable home environment they provided. I wish I'd said thank you when I could have.

Now, my parents live only in the tales I write about children growing up. If you read them, you will know Nordena and Bill even if their names in the stories are different. I guess, that is the only tribute I can humbly offer. To not be forgotten as long as the stories are printed on paper and hopefully enjoyed.

Live long and prosper.

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