I was about 16 years of age, I recall, when my mother walked into the living room where the rest of the family was watching television, threw a dishtowel over a chair, and said with great restraint, “I would like you all to know that I quit. From here on in, you will all be cooking your own meals and doing your own laundry, dishes, and ironing.” With this, she turned and walked quietly out of the room.
All eyes turned to my father who, like many fathers of the day, had the social authority to mediate reality for the rest of us. “What do we think of this, daddy?” was the question that came to my mind. “Does this make sense to us or does it not?” My father decided it made no sense.
His face turned a pale pink before he jumped to his feet and shouted, “Get the hell out of here with this craziness! What in the name of God are you trying to do to your poor little children?!”
A few of us cried before piling into my father’s car to go for a soft-swirl ice cream at the local Peter Pan. In spite of the upset, we were, in some ways, the luckiest of all little lambs. My father was the warmest spot on earth. In his warmth and sensitivity, we took solace from the harsher elements of the world. To his shoulder was where I always took my tears and my tired, heavy heart.
His strong emotional reaction to my mother’s resignation would have a lasting effect on my tender, sympathetic heart. How deeply I loved my father and how well I knew him from the inside out. I hated to have to witness him feel confused, upset or powerless. I wanted to protect all that was soft, rare and vulnerable in him because, like I said, I knew him from the inside out. At the same time, there was my mother to consider, and then, of course, us. How would we survive? Had she really left us adrift? Would we starve from that day forward? Were we resigned to wear dirty socks forever?
Not surprisingly, we all did fine (in time) taking up our own chores. We didn’t die of the repercussions and neither did my father, although it would be less than truthful to say he ever resigned himself, happily, to the situation. He never did.
Still, my mother never recanted. She was a person of her very definite word. If she told you to be back in the house at five minutes to eleven, that’s exactly what she meant. As a child, I spent more days than I care to recall suffering in solitary confinement before learning this about her.
Like many men of his day, my father believed that a mother’s love was best conveyed through a lifetime of self-sacrifice and service to those she loved. But as the years went on and I would visit my parents’ home, I would see that my father was growing in self-pride and confidence as a result of caring for himself and his own person in this way. I came, in time, to understand, forgive and tolerate his relentless, passive opposition to the situation. His opposition was evident every time he’d shake his head as though my mother’s actions were something for which we all should feel terribly ashamed.
Today, as I go forward in my life and realize how much each of my parents gave me, I can honestly say that one of the best things my mother ever did for me (besides being someone who kept to her word) was to walk into our living room that day and give her notice to quit. She taught me so much through this single, solitary act. She taught me that she had a self that was worth respecting, and that my dirty socks were my business, not hers.
And my father, tender hearted soul who never missed a chance to pile us into the car and take us for an ice cream whenever the world felt too hard, will always be remembered for having the warmest heart on earth for almost any child whom he believed had been left out in the cold. And oh yes, he will always be remembered for his impeccable attire. I even had somebody say to me once they thought that my father had the pressed pants in all of Prince Edward Island.