Yes, I know that’s always a frightening proposition. What can I say?
Well, only that I’m 66 and still standing on my own two feet; that I’m content with how my life turned out (no, that doesn’t mean, with the benefit of hindsight, that if I had a do-over about certain things I might not have acted, thought, or said different at the time); that I’m financially and materially secure, with no need to worry about a roof over my head or where my next meal is coming from, for the rest of my life; and that I know I’m loved by the people who are most important to me in the world.
Some of that I owe to my own rationality, sanity, and general stick-to-it-iveness and competence at most things I’ve ever attempted in my life. I’ll not shortchange myself there. I’m pretty awesome. So awesome that I don’t feel the need to keep banging the drum and tooting my own horn and looking for sycophantic affirmation. No need to comment and tell me (repeatedly) how wonderful I am. So I’ll just leave it there.
I am woman. Hear me roar.
And yet, because I believe that gratitude is perhaps the most overlooked virtue in the modern age, I’ll tell you what I do owe to the two most influential men in my life:
First, My Dad. What a towering giant of a man. A war hero of World War II who saw service in Anzio, Egypt and North Africa, the product of a good, but not elite, British public (that means private in the US) school who was promoted at the age of about 24 to the rank of (the youngest) Major in the British Army. Following his military career, he joined the Colonial Service and enjoyed a storied career in Nigeria from about 1947 to 1963. At that point, he retired from the Colonial Service, moved to the United States, where he was awarded a fellowship to Harvard (to write a couple of books, which he did–ultimately he wrote over a dozen), during which time his immediate supervisor at the Center for International Affairs was a young up-and-comer named Henry Kissinger. Then to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he was a beloved teacher of African history and the Hausa language, until his retirement in 1978.
Do you think he was done at this point? Not on your life. Returning to England, he ran for County Council (sorta the equivalent of “County Commissioner” in the US), and was re-elected repeatedly with ever-increasing majorities, even after he abandoned the Conservative Party in the post-Thatcher debacle and declared himself an Independent. He retired, in his mid-70s, somewhere in the mid 1990s, and then spent the rest of his life puttering around his smallholding in the Worcestershire countryside. He died in 2007. I miss him every day.
My mother wasn’t an easy woman to live with. Today, we’d probably tag her as “bipolar” without a second thought. She was brilliant, energetic, sociable, and lovely. Until she wasn’t. Sometimes, she’d seem to be in the grip of what Churchill called “the black dog,” and nothing could rouse her from her bed, nothing could please her, nothing could bring her out of herself. She’d shriek at her husband and children. She’d act out in public in embarrassing and mortifying ways (a useful lesson for me, later in life, as it turned out–eventually I came to understand that such behavior was all about her, and nothing about me). There were times when she acted so hatefully, and so awfully towards my Dad that it was inexplicable to me that he stuck it out and stayed with her.
But, you see, he loved her. There was no equivocation. No hair-splitting about the meaning of “love” or whether she was just using him to try to survive in the world. No pontificating about the respective role of men and women in affectionate relationships. He’d made a commitment. He. Loved. Her. And it didn’t matter if it would have been easier for him, had he not.
He. Loved. Her.
Till he died.
When he died, his children found out what good provision he’d made for her. Through the small property, with house, they’d bought for £1,800 in 1950, and kept and maintained through all the intervening years (it sold for a little over £200K after my mother moved to a nursing home in 2009). Through his (relatively small) Army pension. And his (decent) Colonial Service pension. And his (small) Social Security payout from the States. Not to mention a lifetime of sensible investing and saving.
After my Dad’s death in 2007, my mother lived free from want, and without the terror of wondering where the next pennies were coming from, until she died in 2015. And when it became obvious that, due to her fronto-temporal dementia, she wasn’t able to take care of herself, her family was able to place her in a wonderful nursing home, secure in the knowledge that there was enough money to pay for excellent care. God Bless Dad. He provided for the woman he loved, to the grave and beyond.
Second, my Mr. Right: As I’ve written, he died in July of the sad and stupid year of 2020, after a lengthy struggle with serious heart issues and with dementia. I’m grateful that his dementia was fairly benign up until the last few months, and that I had only literally weeks to worry that he might be a danger to himself, as his decline accelerated so dramatically towards the end.
I’ll not lie. He always had a bit of a fear that he’d “blown it” on his first marriage. That he hadn’t stayed the course. That he’d let down his children. And, in later years especially, and no matter how his children reassured him that he’d always been present in, and a substantial portion of, their lives, I think he always regretted his divorce.
And perhaps this made him especially responsible in his second marriage, one in which I was committed to helping him stay the course, both with me, and with his children. Absent circumstances beyond our control (gruesome accidents, mental illness, familial implosion), we did that, and we made it through. I am proud of that. Proud of him, and proud of me.
So now I’m a (mostly harmless) widow, at a relatively young age (these days, and on the basis of actuarial tables as they apply to my family) and I’m trying to figure out what’s next for me.
Part of figuring that out, unfortunately, is a detailed assessment of finances. So, after a Summer and Fall or so of conversations, both virtual and IRL, with TIAA/CREF, tax accountants, and financial advisors, you know what?
I’m doing OK.
Mr. Right left things in rather good order, and left me, on his account, rather well provided for (I have my own pension, from my own 30-year IT career too).
I thought, knowing him, that would be the case, but it was reassuring to hear a stranger, with a string of credentials attesting to his competence behind his name (as well as a couple of testimonials from people I know and trust) tell me that I was doing quite well and should have no worries going forward. No need to sell the farm! No need to contemplate desperate measures (whatever they may encompass at my age–the mind boggles. Yes, it does. Thanks to those of you, who have, over the years suggested some possibilities. Ugh.)
I’m doing OK.
Thanks, Dad, for teaching me how to be smart, competent, and to to take care of myself. And for teaching me that it’s important to take care of those we love at the same time.
Thanks, Mr. Right, for quietly doing what needed to be done, for hanging in this time, and for getting to the end unsundered. We did it!
I know, from personal experience, that there are men in the world who are frightened by commitment. Who’ll bail on a woman, even one to whom they’ve pledged undying fealty, and who will bail, even on innocent children and dependents, when it seems that more is expected of them than they are willing to provide. Who’ll run, and hide, in the interests of serving their own needs before those of their own flesh and blood. And who’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to justify their failure as someone else’s fault and begging for affirmation that this was the right choice. Sadly, this seems to be an increasing feature of the twenty-first century world, as “marriage” takes a back seat to “what makes me feel good in the now.” (Plenty of evidence that this is the case, if you bother to read the news or pay any attention at all to the decline of Western Civilization.)
But such was not the case with my Dad. Nor with my Mr. Right.
Understand, the two of you, that I’ll spend the rest of my life doing my best to live up to your ideals, and that nothing will be more important to me for the remainder of my life than keeping faith with those I love, and doing the best I can to make sure that they’re provided for after I’m gone. The rest of you can go hang. Because you’re worthless.
Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Frank.
Lights of my life.