You’re Sixty

Today would have been my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday. On last May 1, my father would have been one hundred.

When I take the time to really think about that, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t imagine them at those ages.

Mother used to tell a story about my great-aunt Lydia’s sixtieth birthday. Lydia, her mother, her two younger sisters, and two of her nieces–my mother and her youngest sister, who was generally referred to as “that cute little Betty,”*–went to dinner to celebrate.

Back home, my great-grandmother put on her nightgown and got into the big four-poster bed in Lydia’s downstairs bedroom. The other women sat around her and did what they always did when they got together–talked and laughed. No topic was off limits and everything was funny. A quiet child could learn a lot in those sessions.

That night, my great-grandmother, whom the younger ones called Grannygirl, sat propped against her pillows, old but still the quintessential sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued) Southern belle. While the others talked, she said nothing.

Finally, looking into the distance, such as it was, she uttered a single sentence: “Lydia, you’re sixty.” Her tone was contemplative, but it also carried an undertone of surprise.

In the silence that followed, Lydia said yes, she was.

A few minutes later, still gazing somewhere above her descendants’ heads, Grannygirl broke in again. “Lydia, you’re sixty.

Again, Lydia agreed she was.

Another few minutes passed and Grannygirl said it once more: “Lydia, you’re sixty.

Obviously having heard enough on that topic, Lydia responded, a bit sharply, “Well, Mother what does that make you?”

End of conversation.

I thought of that story because, like Grannygirl trying to get used to having a sixty-year-old daughter, I can’t quite get used to the idea of my parents at the century mark. At the same time, I believe, were they alive today, they would not have changed. I know, however, that to them, I would be radically different.

I wish they could have attended my wedding. I wish they could know my husband. I wish they could read this blog and my fiction. I wish they could read the pieces I’ve published. I wish they could know that, though I miss them terribly,¬† I’m secure and happy.

One thing I’m certain of: If my parents had been here to celebrate my birthday a few years ago, we would¬† have gone out to dinner, and then we would have come home and changed into more comfortable clothes. And then, while we sat in the living room talking about anything and everything, my mother would at some point have looked into the distance and said, “Kathy, you’re sixty.”

Crystal Barrow Waller and Billie Waller, 1942
Crystal Barrow Waller and Billie Waller, 1942

*

*Betty was short, had red hair and a sweet Irish face, and was drop-dead funny. She was everybody’s favorite, her nieces and nephews adored her, and she left us much too soon.

betty-and-kathy-19521
Betty and Kathy, 1952

…considering what you have to work with

Crystal and Bill Waller. October, 1942

My mother told a story about the first time she hosted Thanksgiving dinner in her own home. She’d laid out the china and the crystal and the sterling and the silver gravy boat my grandmother insisted every married woman must have (even when the married woman was going to live near an oil field where the silver would immediately turn black.)

Finished with the table, she indulged in whimsy. She went outside and picked some purple wildflowers she thought particularly unattractive. (“Ugly” was her exact word.) She arranged them and placed them on the table.

When my grandmother arrived, Mother said, “What do you think of my centerpiece?”

My grandmother, missing the humor, replied, “Well, dear, I think you did as well as can be expected, considering what you had to work with.”

That line entered the Waller Book of Familiar Quotations. We used it for every achievement: making pies, mowing the lawn, climbing on top of the house to turn the TV antenna, explaining first semester grades from college: I did as well as can be expected, considering what I have to work with.

I wish my parents could read that story. I wish they could see other things I’ve written. They would laugh at Miss Pinksie Craigo whacking her cane against a chair, and Mr. Archie Parsons using his favorite (marginally) un-blasphemous expletive, and Aunt Lydia…Oh my, I can just imagine them reading about Aunt Lydia.

Some old ladies are worth more than an ode. Some, however, are marked 75% off–too good to resist.

My parents were generous. They gave me language and laughter. I think they would approve of the way I’m using them. They would be pleased to know I’m trying.

If I could ask, I believe they would also grant permission: We gave you words. Use them as you will. No secrets. No holding back.

With such a blessing, a writer doesn’t have to be ruthless or to rob anyone.

She just has to do as well as can be expected, considering what she has to work with.