The other day I was thinking about the hardest time in my life, so far. Way out on the prairie, hours and miles from my family, I found myself totally responsible for the welfare of four young children. I had a strong sense that God carried me, especially on the darkest days, but I also had a secret insurance policy in my back pocket.
I knew, without a doubt that if I called my dad and said, “My car just broke down on
the side of the road,” he would respond, “I’ll be there in six hours.” I never had to call him, but it gave me such peace just knowing that I could. His place in my life as reliable knight-in-shining armor was established at the very beginning, and sealed forever when I was five.
In my fifty-three years on the planet, I have only been clinically depressed one time, and it was the summer of 1963. It seemed to me then, that with no warning whatsoever, my newborn brother, my younger sister, and my five-year old self were whisked away to stay with my dad’s parents.
They were the good grandparents, and they achieved that status mostly from the precious nature of my Irish grandmother. We were to stay with them while my mother recuperated from surgery.
To the best of my memory, I cried all day, every day, only stopping briefly when my grandfather came home from work. My dad sent us off with the grandparents in our family station wagon, and kept their car as a logistical solution. Every night, before supper, My sister and I sat on the porch, waiting for my grandfather to come home. I knew this is what we were doing. But every time I spotted that familiar vehicle, my heart soared, because I thought it was my dad. When my grandfather got out, my spirits plummeted. I fell for this “trick” every day.
In the evenings, they took us to a park. My sister frolicked and played, while I huddled, crying, on any available surface. Once, my grandfather picked me up, put me on the merry-go-round, and gave it a good spin. I just cried louder.
“Have fun, damn it!” he snarled at me. Who could blame him? A kid crying for days can make you crazy. (In my own defense, from my current perspective, I know that being plucked from my home opened the wound of rejection that I suspect every adopted child carries.)
One day, when my dad called to check on us, my sweet grandmother couldn’t hold back the truth, and spoke of my insurmountable sadness.
“Bring her home,” he said, without half a thought.
I can’t imagine what an inconvenience this meant for my mom and my dad. It was the most extravagant act of kindness I’ve ever received.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the faith I had in my dad. Now that I’m the mother of grown-ups, scattered across the wide world, my place in their life has changed. I want to be, for them, what my dad was for me. I want to be their secret contingency plan, like a twenty-dollar bill hidden in a shoe or an ace in the hole. I want to be the phone call they can always make, but probably won’t. I want to give them what I had, a safety net that lends confidence to life on a high wire.
If my children can feel that way about me, then my gig as a grown-up mother will be a success.