A year ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and I wrote this little essay for them. Since then Fork in My Eye was born, so I thought I would post it here to honor another year added to their tally:
This is the story of an artist and an engineer and how they have weathered 51 years of wedded bliss including: parenthood to three neurologically atypical children, a multitude of pets representing at least 4 of the vertebrate phyla, 10 years living at the command of the US Navy, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on the road, a sandstorm, two earthquakes, 39 years of Mississippi heat and mosquitoes, and several hurricanes including a category five that washed their house away. Together they’ve witnessed the elections of ten US presidents, the end of the Cold War, and the doubling of the world’s population. They survived cars without seat belts, lead paint, asbestos, mercury thermometers, second-hand smoke, McDonald’s transfat French fries, Hare Krishnas at the airports, and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door.
During the Navy years, they spent more time apartthan together. While Kennedy and Khrushchev sparred in the news and the young officer’s ship stalked a Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba, she was home in Norfolk, Va, caring for their firstborn infant son and still unaware that she was pregnantwith their second.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and she watched from home with their three young children, he was serving his country 9,000 miles away in My Tho. During these first 10 years of their marriage, they drove roughly the equivalent of the earth’s circumference, up and down the Eastern seaboard, then ocean to ocean and back again on shiny new interstate highways. And they did most of it with 3 kids and a dachshund in a Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning.
In the seventies, they settled in the deep South and upgraded to a Freon-cooled, blue Mercury station wagon with genuine, faux woodgrain paneling along the sides and a profile longer than some baby limousines. As the decade got rolling, the Beatles broke up, Nixon got caught, bell bottoms became hip huggers, Happy Days premiered on TV, and two men were abducted by a UFO from the west bank of the Pascagoula River just a few miles from the Gallaghers’ new home in the Mississippi woods.
Dad designed warships by day, went to school at night to earn his masters degree in business, worked most Saturdays, and served in the Naval reserves one weekend a month. He came to every softball game and soccer game and refereed a few of the latter. He would always play chess or Scrabble or gin rummy on request. And notably, he gave up smoking at the request of his youngest child.
Mom took art lessons and soon was giving them, planted beautiful gardens, decorated the house, joined the garden club and the Hickory Hills Country Club and the PTA. She sewed clothes for the kids and costumes for school plays and Halloween, attended umpteen swim meets in the sweltering Mississippi heat, read Erma Bombeck’s books, and listened to Paul Harvey every day on the radio.
Together they dutifully attended three years (one for each child) of beginner band concerts without once pointing out to each of their children the clear deficit of musical talent in our family. They took us to see Jaws and Star Wars and the King Tut exhibit when it came to New Orleans. The house was always full of books and art and animals. Their family expanded at various time to include not only dogs and half-feral cats that wandered in from the woods, but also tropical fish, parakeets, mice, gerbils, box turtles, rabbits, snakes the boys caught in the woods (these, our mother asserted, were temporary guests), and one mean duck.
The eighties rolled over. The boys graduated high school and left home for college. Dad took up jogging, read all of Dr. James Fixx’s books, and amassed an impressive collection of tacky t-shirts from 5K and 10K runs. Mom realized Father Cleary, the stern, sexist, philanderer of a rector of the only Catholic church within 15 miles had finally been replaced and dragged her youngest child back to mass, started arranging flowers for the altar, and then dragged the same child through fields full of fire ants, chiggers, briars and bull thistles in search of wildflowers (which the youngest child thought was way more fun than church). She taught a year of art at a Catholic high school and then went to work part time at a florist where the ladies always had the latest gossip because they did the flowers for every event.
Finally, the youngest child left home and they were alone. But not for long, because we came back – each one of us for some length of time over the next few years ran back to Mom and Dad. And then we didn’t for a while. Dad had to quit jogging because of a bad back so he focused on scholarly interests that come naturally to him – genealogy, history, world economics, politics, applied sciences, new technologies. He became active in local politics when their tiny community finally incorporated and became a city. He retired as a captain in the US Navy in the early nineties but continued to work until just last year because he said, he was still enjoying himself.
Mom began to sell her paintings at galleries along the coast and still does. Her gardens became even more extensive havens for local wildlife including, almost every summer, at least one water moccasin which she dispatched herself with whatever garden implement was at hand. Her house became a showcase but always a comfortable one. She was also active in local politics and always had her finger in a dozen community pies.
They took their first trips alone since their honeymoon posing for photos on a Canadian glacier, exploring Yellowstone, strolling through Stonehenge and Blarney castle (and yes, Dad kissed the stone). Their children finally grew up and grew more interesting, probably because one son travels the world and brings back cool stuff and stories and photos, and the other son and daughter acquired children of their own and by virtue of being parents themselves suddenly had more in common with their own parents.
After the turn of the new millennium, Mom and Dad decided that 30 years in one place was long enough, pulled up roots and moved 50 miles west to a charming artsy little community on the beach. A year later, Hurricane Katrina roared in with a 30 foot surge and washed their new house, and everything they had accumulated over 40 years together including all the family photos, away. In the months that followed, as they and their children scoured the debris field, they found no piece of their house bigger than half the staircase. They salvaged a few things in the rubble – some jewelry and silverware and knick knacks.
They have rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than before, and several feet higher – their new home is full of light and air with high ceilings, lots of windows, and big screened porches. Mom’s new gardens are maturing beautifully and the wildlife is coming back. The pool that was a festering swamp for two years is sparkling blue again and surrounded by new foliage. Visiting them is like staying at a beachy bed and breakfast run by my own mom and dad and it’s is one of my favorite places on the planet.
And I wish I could be there today. But since I can’t be, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for any time I may have vomited on you, wiped my nose on your shoulder, or kept you up all night. I am also heartily sorry for years of making dubious noises with brass instruments in your home, any time I bitterly complained about helping out around the house, and especially for my late teens and most of my twenties.
I love you and miss you both. Happy 51st anniversary, Mom and Dad.