My parents were 1950s plain-white-people pretty throughout my childhood in the 60s.
My dad wore a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.
I remember them and then in black and white.
The only 1960s hippies for me were my mother’s much younger sisters and brother. All of them animated in my mind on faded 8 mm color film, and they were always a little dirty.
And they all smoked—although my aunts and uncle probably indulged also in something illegal, pot—but old black and white photographs and the shaky 8 mm films my parents took allowed all that offensive smoke to look cool, harmless, romantic.
It has been five decades since then.
A few days ago, I bought my mother a new pair of shoes. She has two pairs in assisted living—one too small and the other too narrow.
And then just yesterday, I took her the new shoes before I drove her to a doctor’s appointment.
After her stroke, my mother is no longer her full self, having lost most of her language abilities and sounding more like my 3-year-old granddaughter than the very bright woman my mother was before.
She fretted to tears on the drive about needing to go by her house—I had no idea why—and about how to pay for the doctor’s visit—I explained as I have hundreds of time since the stroke that I have money. The trip was not unlike “Are we there yet?” round trips that most parents must suffer through, except in this case I was the parent to my mother as child.
My mother has seen the same doctors for many years, Indians who served my small rural hometown before moving their practice to the larger town hear-by. The nurses and staff have also known my parents for many years.
After a nurse conducted an ultrasound on my mother to check on the clots found in her leg after the stroke, they appeared out of the examination room. The nurse asked what happened to my father.
I hesitated as I often do now when people appear eager to discuss my father’s death with my infirm mother right there. I know she knows, but the act of discussing my father’s death, my father dead with her listening makes me want to say, “You do know my mother is right here?”
In the gap of my pause, the nurse added, “Rosie said he was killed?”
And I realized the nurse and my mom had already had a conversation, and my mother’s much reduced communication had likely caused more confusion for the nurse.
“No, he passed away,” I uttered euphemistically. “His heart.”
The nurse offered a cavalier “Oh” signaling that his death made perfect sense—more so than his being killed.
Although the visit with the nurse practitioner went well, my mother refused adamantly any further medication, even though it could help with her regaining the ability to talk. She has had a lifelong struggle with worrying about her health but refusing prescription medications.
I did run by her home on the way back to assisted living, but that simply sparked even more crying and incoherent ramblings, building on her struggling all day with simply going to the doctor.
Once in the house, she was unable to look through a closet because my nephews had been cleaning out and packing away much of my parents’ belongings. Eventually, exhausted and frantic, she gave up and demanded a couple pillows off a bed in that room, finally urging that we leave.
After my mother was once again in her recliner at assisted living, near tears and rambling further, I suggested she sit back and rest before dinner—and I left nearly as wrenched to exhaustion as she was.
For more than forty years, interacting with my parents had been mostly tension, a moral, intellectual, and emotional battle between my obligations as a son and my true self. Nothing was as simple as black and white.
Later that evening, my nephew texted that my mother was complaining to him about her neck hurting. I replied that we had just sat at the doctor’s office, and when the nurse practitioner asked my mother if she had any pain, my mother had responded with an assertive “no.”
I felt myself responding beyond the limits of patience or love.
Like many people enamored with image-based social media such as Instagram, I often choose to post pictures in black and white, usually of my granddaughter, alone and with me.
I also have an affinity for black and white movies made intentionally in black and white well into the era of color film.
As I psychoanalyze myself, I wonder if this romanticizing of black and white—few images move me more now that black and white versions of my granddaughter—is nested in pictures of my parents, 1950s plain-white-people pretty.
My dad with a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.
Some times with cigarettes gently between two fingers and the smoke static and odorless.
They often look happy and harmless, especially in staged family portraits.
Them there in black and white—I can pretend nothing existed in either of them or our future lives that would make their being alive, dead, or infirm almost unbearable.
Nothing is as simple as black and white.
Not being parent or child, not being in some important way fully human.