Remembering My Parents

February 24, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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I was going to begin this post by saying that last July was the hundredth anniversary of the births of each of my parents. While doing some research on them, however, I discovered that last July was the hundred and first anniversary of said births. I was never very good with dates. So:

Last July was the hundred and first anniversary of the births of each of my parents: Helen Dodds Ronan, born July 10, 1916, in Chester Pennsylvania; Joseph Edward Ronan, born July 21, 1916, also in Chester. During the eleven-day hiatus between the two birthdays, my father was given to saying that he had married an older woman.

I was also going to write that I did not think about the hundredth anniversary of their births last July because I was at the Grail International General Assembly in Portugal, but that I had been thinking about them a good deal since then. That last part is true, regardless of when they were born.

It’s not entirely easy to remember my working-class parents with  warmth. Each of them experienced–suffered–serious trauma in childhood. When my mother was four years old, her older brother, who was six or seven, died of diphtheria. Because the disease was so contagious, public health officials just came and took the body away. No funeral. Mom’s mother also contracted the disease and was hospitalized but did not die; when she came home, my mother said, her head was shaved. Her father, my beloved Poppie, had a nervous breakdown after his son’s death and sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in washing to pay the rent. Mom said her parents never recovered from her brother Jimmy’s death. I suspect she never did either. In photographs of her from those years, she always looks frightened.

My father’s mother, Rose Mitchell Ronan, died when he was nine or ten, I believe from heart failure related to having had rheumatic fever. His father, the rotter Tom, then abandoned my father and his sister and brother to be raised by their mother’s unmarried sisters. After my father’s first year in high school, five years later, at the height of the Great Depression, the aunts put him out because they couldn’t afford to feed him any more. Soon after, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. As soon as he was old enough, he enlisted in the US Navy. I sometimes giggle when my father and his confrères are called “The Greatest Generation” because of their heroism during World War II. Daddy enlisted well before Pearl Harbor, because, I am pretty sure,  it paid better than the CCC— though, as the chief torpedoman on a submarine, I suspect he was also nobody to mess with.

Given all of this, you won’t be surprised to learn that affection and helping my brother and me deal with emotions was not exactly my parents’ strong suit. Years later, when my brother’s children were small, my mother told me she was sorry she didn’t hold and hug us more when we were little, as my brother’s wife  did. I had a hard time responding. Some of my clearest memories of my mother are of her raising hell with me if I  got anything below an A on a report card.

Yet as time passes, and my parents are no longer with us, I have had some second thoughts about them.  A few years ago a close member of the family left his wife and moved into a studio apartment that he furnished like a zen monk’s cell. When I asked him what he liked about his new apartment he replied that he liked that there weren’t piles of dirty underwear all over the floor. It had never occurred to me to be grateful that my parents always put their dirty clothes in the hamper. Similarly, whenever I see an article explaining that it’s better for families to eat dinner together now and then, I am grateful, as I never was before, that my mother served us dinner every night at 5;30–even if the food wasn’t exactly nouvelle cuisine.

But the thing I am most grateful to my parents for is their absolute commitment to my brother and me getting an education.  One of my earliest memories of my father is of his walking me, when I was a toddler, to the post office with him to buy stamps that he stuck into a booklet. When the booklet was full, he traded it in for a savings bond, which he then put in the top drawer of his dresser, saying “These bonds are for your college tuition.” You had better believe I was going to college.

And my happiest memories of my mother when I was a child are of her reading to me, something she did a great deal. I caught hell in the second  grade because I had stopped carrying the fairly heavy reader home with me after school; I couldn’t understand the point because I had always been able to read the stories. And I will never forget the books that were waiting for us  under the tree on Christmas morning.

Not getting an education was one of the great disappointments of each of my parents’ lives. My father won a scholarship to St. Joseph’s Prep in Philly but couldn’t go because the aunts couldn’t afford the car fare. My mother graduated from high school but then had to go to work as a secretary. A generation later my brother has two law degrees and I have a Ph.D.

I don’t have  any children of my own. But I have had many students over the years. And my memories of reading and discussing books with them are some of the happiest memories of my life. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

 

 

 

 

 

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