By Tom Demerly.
All families have history. My family’s is part train wreck and part adventure novel. I hadn’t talked to my mom in 12 years. Until this Thanksgiving.
Dad suffered from depression and landed in a mental hospital. Mom battled addiction. One sister married early and left, the other moved to Ethiopia with the Peace Corps. I stayed in the basement and read books until I could join the Army after college. After that it got interesting.
That’s the bad stuff. But our family is also a collection of remarkable characters.
My dad worked for Boeing in WWII on the B-17 and B-29. Afterward he earned a high-level security clearance and worked on the first nuclear powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. My mom worked in the shipyard in WWII then went on to manage two printing facilities and kept a house as a single mom while I grew up. She put me through college. My two sisters earned degrees in chemistry, nursing, education and law. One is an advanced nurse; the other is a retired attorney. Her daughter teaches English in Japan, her son an artist in New Orleans.
Our family is weird. I won’t even begin to tell my story. You would never believe it.
This Thanksgiving I saw my mom for the first time in twelve years. We had a falling out over a girl I was engaged to over a decade ago and didn’t talk for over a decade. The girl is long gone.
I was worried about my mom’s reaction after 12 years. It has been the talk of our small city, Dearborn, Michigan, hometown of Henry Ford. People at the fruit market checkout wanted to know if I had seen my mom. A waitress at my favorite restaurant asked me if I had seen her. My friends told me she asked about me. So I mustered the courage to call her. She’s 92 now and legally blind, lives in a big house on a corner. The house I grew up in. I had no idea what she would say as I dialed the phone.
“Tommy?” She calls me that. “Tommy? Why… Good God… Is that you?” I assured her it was. I told her I was in Dearborn now. For good.
The phone went silent for a long time. Her voice sounded weak and hoarse.
“Well… I’ll be. Can… you come over?” I told her I would be there in thirty minutes.
My mom is smaller now. Her skin is white. The house is identical to when I left 32 years ago. Same paintings, same furniture. Frozen in time. Blind people need familiarity. We chatted. All sins were forgiven, and then laughed about. How trivial these past disagreements truly were. Twelve years, gone. What a waste. But this is a beginning, and a time to be thankful.
I brought a book to read to her, Robert F. Dorr’s Mission to Berlin about B-17 bombers in WWII- the plane her husband, my dad, worked on. She listened intently as I read. I was careful not to read too long, just a chapter on one of the missions in the Flying Fortress. She hung her head when I recounted how only one crew in a flight of bombers returned from a bombing raid over Germany.
“I remember that. They kept it secret. But the wives… the wives got telegrams or a visit. We all knew. Everyone knew. We were losing the war. God knows how we eventually won. It was a miracle.” Her voice trailed off. “It’s time to eat.”
The connection a family has with history is a vital link to our past, and the key to our future. No family is perfect. Every family has their skeletons. But the ability to put their differences aside for even a short time and give thanks for the history we’ve made and survived, suffered and created is the essence of family and the meaning of thanksgiving.
This year I was particularly thankful I made that long trip home.
Notes: Author Robert F. Dorr is a friend on Facebook. He wrote Mission to Berlin and Mission to Tokyo about the history of the men who flew in WWII along with nearly 70 other books. Mr. Dorr worked in the U.S. diplomatic service for years. He just came home from Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, where he underwent surgery. He would appreciate your best wishes on his Facebook page here.
My mom is doing well but suffering from a heart condition that may require a pacemaker, a risky proposition at 92. She still lives in her big house. An army of generous people pitches in to help make her life easier. She also is afflicted with chronic stubbornness and a propensity to tell stories, both conditions I’ve inherited.