There's was not a romance. It was more like a liaison.
Truly great romances seem to last forever. Recollections of their love can flash, like scenes from movies made about them, into our minds with the mere mention of their names: Adam and Eve, Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet . . .
Then there were my parents: John and Thelma Prescott. Named John Manuel Pete Prescott at birth, growing up my father was known as "Sonny." The mischievous twinkle in his soul was palpable and immediately endeared him to everyone with whom he came into contact, beginning when he was a small tot. My mother, Thelma Lorraine Smith, was just called "Thelma," until a young co-worker nicknamed her "Mo," as she approached middle age. And Mo it stayed.
Unlike the romances I witnessed unfold on movie and television screens, my parents' passion was meted out in different ways. No breathless overtures or sappy lyrics for them! To this day, the scene that first captures my memory when I think of them together, and I can still vividly recall it after all these years, is that of my mother, screaming as she charged down the hall, tearing off articles of clothing as she went. She ended up in their bedroom, clad only in her old bra and granny underwear, still screaming.
My dad, head in his hands, sat on the corner of their bed. She stood before him. "Look at me! LOOK AT ME!!!" she demanded. "Who the hell do you think wants this body?" I was in high school and, thankfully, I was the only one home.
My mother was an attractive woman. Not gorgeous, but attractive. Not so much physically attractive, but attractive. And she was wholly attractive. I don't quite know how to explain it. She had dark hair, round eyes, and a quick, broad smile that lit up every room she entered. She was a pretty woman. She was never fat, but I don't ever remember her being thin. Mostly, she was a mother -- a mom. Back then, mothers didn't worry about having to keep teenaged bodies as they matured. Little pudges around the middle, the hips, thighs -- that's what made mothers. That's what differentiated them from movie stars.
Yes, more than anything else, my mother was attractive. There was an inner beauty that emanated from her, a kind of glow - invisible to the eye, but detected by the spirit. A kindness that gleamed from beneath layers of walls. She wore her kindness like a halo, surrounding her. Unless she was angry. When she was angry there was no kindness to detect, just sheer force of will on a mission to destroy. My mama's energy was undeniable. Whether affable or cruel, her energy was always on display. There was always something magnetic about her; she had an inner magnet that drew people to her. She always attracted attention - women, men, children, it didn't matter. They were all drawn to her.
But he didn't see it that way. All he saw were the men. My father was gorgeous. He had a long body, lean limbs, light hair, and stunning blue eyes. His eyes sparkled when he was happy and drilled into me like searing bullets when he was not. Either way, he was always gorgeous. He was gorgeous as a baby. He was gorgeous as a child. He was a gorgeous teenager, young man, middle-aged man. Until his death at the age of eighty-four, he was still gorgeous.
Like a sharp-clawed demon, the green-eyed monster had stripped their marriage of romanticism early on. In fact, I never remember any little intimacies between the two of them. There must have been intimacies; surely there were. I was born eleven months after their wedding. My sister, Dee Dee, was born fourteen months later; Pete, thirteen months after her and Katy, fourteen months after him. There must have been some intimacies. Yet, there they were . . . my attractive, pudgy-around-the-middle mother, in her raggedy bra and underwear, screaming at my gorgeous father, incredulous because she didn't understand how, after seventeen years, he could still be so jealous.
When I think back on their relationship, more than anything, I think about the fights. Not arguments, fights. For thirty-three years, they fought more like brother and sister than husband and wife. There was very little upon which they agreed. Of course, the fights in the early days were different than later fights. In the early days it was almost always about men, the men he knew and those he didn't. Mama always had a job and that afforded her plenty of opportunity to be around men, but that was nothing new. She was working when they met, when they married six months later, when she had me and every other child. Daddy would definitely have preferred to have her at home and there were times when I would have loved to have her at home, too. The idea of coming home from school to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and my mother, smiling, waiting to hear about my day, crossed my mind on more than a few occasions as I grew up. But, then again, that wasn't my mother. My mother was a doer. She was a mover. She made things happen. She'd have never been happy at home. Just wasn't her.
My father always worked as well, of course. For most of my life, he worked for the Western Electric Company, which ultimately became part of AT&T. He was a telephone man, and that distinction put him on the road quite a bit. In fact, he was on the road more than he was home. There were stretches when he worked in town, when he was home every night, but even when he wasn't home every night, he was home every weekend. And, when he was home, he was our dad -- and her husband. Although he loved being a dad, his emphasis was usually on being a husband. When any one of us was in trouble for backtalking Mama (we never backtalked him - he had a backhanded swing like Matt Dillon), he didn't say, "Don't talk to your mother like that." What he always said - more like growled - was, "Don't you ever talk to my wife like that again!"
The weekends were spent in family time. We cleaned, we worked in the yard, we went fishing, we went on picnics, we visited relatives; did family things. As we grew older, we entertained a lot. Our house was the house where everyone wanted to be. By the time my brother was old enough to play little league sports, our family activities revolved around whichever athletic season took up calendar space both spring and fall. Little league football, little league baseball, those were the sports we followed. There was no such thing as little league basketball or soccer back then. Not then, anyway. My parents helped form Corpus Christi's first little league football organization. My mom was active in leadership roles, my dad coached, we girls cheered. Pete played. Little League whatever was a family sport. On weekends we usually bar-b-qued, and there were few weekends we didn't have guests. No, they were never guests, not really. Perhaps that's why our house was always so full. My father's motto was, "Mi casa es su casa." My house is your house. It became the family motto. We never knew any different and we're all thankful for it.
Yet, as much as I'd like to remember us as the Walton family, our family bore few resemblances to theirs. Ma and Pa Walton seemed to share a bond my parents did not. Even Grandpa and Grandma Walton, as cantankerous as she could be at times, shared little looks, glances, special moments now and then when those watching with a discerning eye could see the love they had shared for so many years, twinkle; they were comfortable with one another. I don't know that my parents were ever comfortable with one another. They always seemed to be competing. My mother was a fierce competitor. She had to win. My father was a competitor as well, but he was able to keep the fun in competition. She was not. It didn't take long before there was no fun in their competition. I'm not sure they ever understood how much they competed, how fierce was the competition -- or the effect it had on their children. I'm not sure they ever understood each other, either. But the crazy thing was, although they fought, there was never a question about his love for her. She knew that. She had to have known that, everyone else did. It had to have been hard for him to believe she loved him, though. I'm sure there were many times he didn't believe it. I'm sure there were equally as many times she didn't believe it. She had a restless spirit. It wasn't that she loved anyone else. There were never any other men. She just flat didn't have time for them. She was always driven, so driven, but I doubt she ever knew what drove her.
He drove her away with his incessant jealousy. At least that's what she believed. At least that's what she said.
When I close my eyes, I can see pieces of memories. Fragments appear like flashes of lightning lighting up the broad, black sky in a West Texas storm. We're at the bowling alley. It was her league night. He was working out of town. She was bowling. We kids were playing. It was always so cold in the bowling alley.
"There's Daddy!" someone yelled. "Daddy! What are you doing here?" We were so excited to see him! He had come up behind her just as her buddy had draped his arm across her shoulders, mumbling something about a bet he lost. We couldn't hear what Daddy said, but whatever it was she sure didn't appreciate it. Storm clouds appeared in her eyes. "Come on, kids. We're going home!" Then the scene stops.
A new scene begins as I remember Mama picking up Mexican Food on the way home. Two dinners. She had already fed us kids and had even sprung for ice cream at the bowling alley. "Time for bed," she told us. "Go get into your pajamas. I'll be in to check on you in a bit." I remember we were all hesitant to leave. We could tell a hurricane was brewing but, rather than face the wrath of them both, we followed orders.
At first the voices were muffled, and we couldn't make out what they were saying as they spat back and forth, like cats in an alley. The spats gave way to screaming, yelling, then S P L A T! It was her screaming. It was her yelling. It was Mexican Food dinners hitting the kitchen wall. And then she was in our room. "Kids, get some clothes together. We're leaving!"
Next, I see us kids, slowly moving through the house - slowly, like slugs creasing the dirt in slow motion. We're crying. We don't want to leave. It's the middle of the night, where will we go?
Then there's my mother, loading the station wagon. Where's my dad? Quietly, I slip into their bedroom. He's there, sitting on the edge of the bed, head bent low, crying . . . sobbing. His world is crumbling. I can feel the ground breaking away from under his feet. I am scared. I had never seen him vulnerable. We can't leave him by himself, he'll kill himself. What if he kills himself? He didn't notice me as I sneaked into their bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. There it was: the little tin box that held his razor blades. "He'll use these razor blades and he'll slit his wrists if we leave him," I thought. We didn't have a gun and I didn't know people hung themselves. Like a dam breaking in a silent movie, tears burst out of my eyes and onto my clean pajama top, but I willed myself to not cry out. I couldn't make a sound. If he heard me, he'd know I was there and, in a flash, his sorrow would turn into the rage I knew would come if he was embarrassed. I held my breath as I shut the cabinet door. Like the coward I was, I left them there. I couldn't take that little tin box. I was afraid that if he didn't kill himself, he'd get up the next morning, get ready to shave for work, find he had no razor blades, realize I had taken them and then he'd kill me. That's when the scene shifts again.
That storm lasted three days. Mama had taken us to her parents' house, about an hour away. It was summertime, so we didn't have school. She got up every morning and drove to town, to work. Then, she'd drive back to us in the evening. Friday evening, they came in together.
"Get your stuff together, kids. We're going home."
That was the last big fight -- caused by his jealousy, anyway -- for a long time. She must have made a believer out of him that time. She told him if it ever happened again, she would take us and be gone for good. Oh sure, every now and then there would be a minor flare up, but not another fight -- caused by his jealousy, anyway. He spent the rest of their lives together trying to make up for those early years. Besides, why fight over that? There were plenty of other things to fight about - money, kids, the future, the weather, kids . . . whatever. Yet, through it all he was determined to be her man. He was determined to do what he was supposed to do -- make sure she got her way. He didn't always agree with her . . . all right, he rarely agreed with her . . . but no one was allowed to treat her badly. They could fight, she could scream at him, she could infuriate him, she could even hit him, but no one better hurt her. I remember times when, fists clenched, every inch of him shook, every muscle screaming, "Let go!" Only his fierce will kept him from slugging her. He had a mighty strong will.
There was one period of time, though, when they actually had a normal relationship - the kind of relationship I thought all parents had. We kids were all married and moved out when Dad was transferred to Modesto, California. It was a temporary transfer but would last over a year. She had nothing keeping her home, so she went with him. From what they both said, there had never been a better time for them. He had always said she was a totally different woman when her children weren't around. She was a good wife; he was the husband he always wanted to be. They did things together. They had fun. There was no room for competition. No reason for it.
Then they moved home.
Soon afterward Daddy took a permanent transfer to Abilene, Texas. West Texas. Clear-out-in-the-middle of-nowhere, Texas. We kids were all in Texas, too, but Texas is a big state. Katy and I were in North Central Texas and Pete and Dee Dee were both living in Corpus -- South Texas -- our home. Katy was closest to them, only two and a half hours away, but not long afterward, Katy's husband was transferred to Singapore, half a world away. It only took me three hours to get there, so I visited whenever I could, but Pete and Dee Dee were over eight hours away. We all had young children by that time, and we were all working to put food on the table, just like they had done for us. Still, between us visiting them when we could and them visiting us more often, we continued to spend a lot of time together. And every time any of us were with them, Daddy said the same thing: "She's nice to me when you kids aren't around. The minute you walk in, everything changes!" It seemed to me nothing had changed. His feathers were still easily ruffled, and she was always the mama bear, charging in on her hind legs, claws ready to gouge.
When Mama was diagnosed with cancer, I was the only one of their offspring in attendance. Daddy was there, too, of course. He was devastated. For the third time in my life, I watched as the very ground underneath his feet seemed to crumble, threatening to swallow him up. His grief didn't last long, though. She came home from the hospital. He was determined to be strong for her. After all the years of her fighting to be the strongest, it was his chance to finally take care of her. That's what he thought. She had other plans. She was determined to battle. She was going to beat the cancer. And she'd do it herself . . . her way.
I spent as much time with them as I could; I was there quite a bit. Same 'ol Mom. Same 'ol Dad. Same frustrations, same competition. As she deteriorated I, too, became frustrated. She'd still goad him into a fight, and he would still accommodate her. He didn't seem to get the fact that she wouldn't be around much longer. Still, I understood that he couldn't understand -- or accept -- how bad it was; she refused to let him see her suffer. She had to be tough, it's who she was, but how could he not know? I'll never forget her last Easter. It was early Sunday morning. My children were still sleeping. She was out of bed and in the kitchen, he was in the shower. I came out of our bedroom as she walked back toward theirs. Her knees buckled and she started to fall. I caught her but couldn't hold her up. As my mouth opened to call for help, she started crying, and she never cried. "Don't tell your daddy. Don't tell him! Please don't tell your daddy. Please!" she begged. She continued to fall. The shower was no longer running.
She didn't make it to church that morning, and she had so looked forward to it. He had the Pastor bring communion over for her, though.
Throughout her illness, Dad tried to get a transfer home. She wanted to be home, in Corpus, her home, our home. I had moved back by then, so Katy, who was still in Singapore, was her only child not living there. Mama wanted to be home, but she didn't want it for her. She wanted it for him. She wanted him home with us. I'm not sure he understood that, either -- at the time, anyway. At the beginning of her battle, when the doctor told her she was terminal, she asked how much time he thought she had. He couldn't say for sure, but he didn't think it was much. She disagreed, as adamantly as she had when, before the biopsy, she had told him she did not have cancer. As time moved forward, she managed to convince almost everyone around her that she was going to beat the demon that assailed her. I knew she wouldn't and, by the end, she knew she wouldn't, too. But it was a secret she harbored in the furthest point of her heart, behind the miles, the memories, and the love for her family. It was sheer determination that kept her going, talking, smiling until she had all the pieces where she wanted them. Weeks and then months trudged by and still no transfer appeared. But Mama fought and fought, then fought some more. The demon wasn't going to take her, she wouldn't let it. She had a plan, and she would stick to that plan come hell or high water. That's how it had been her entire life; that's how it would end. When the transfer finally went through a year and a half later, one of their many, many friends flew his airplane from Harlingen to Abilene to take her home so she wouldn't have to suffer a long car ride. It was Friday and she had been discharged from the Abilene hospital so she could go home. Daddy drove. Eight hours later, he arrived to make sure she was resting comfortably. She was comfortable, no, more than that. Pete and Judy put her in their big king-sized bed and, bolstered by pillows, she put on a show her doctors would not have believed. She was home and, once again, she was the life of the party.
A day and a half later, on Mother's Day 1987, we all praised God she was home. Daddy hit the highway early. Just like the old days, he was there for the weekend but had to leave Sunday morning. The movers would be at the Abilene apartment Monday morning to pack up their belongings and move them home. It was finished. Once again, she got her way. By the time he got back to their apartment, we had had to have Mama rushed to the hospital. She had begun having seizures and drifted in and out of coherency. He caught a few hours' sleep, made arrangements for the movers, and was back on the road. For the last time, he was on the road back to her. By the time Daddy got to Corpus, she was in a coma. For two days, she was in a coma. Her doctor wanted him to make the decision whether to put her on life support, but it wasn't his decision. True to form, she had already made it; we would not hook her up to a machine. Still, she clung to life, determined to have her way until the end. The very end. We were all there except Katy, who was nine months pregnant with their last grandchild, still in Singapore. There were friends in and out, saying their final goodbyes to a woman who had left an indelible mark upon their minds and hearts. Even through the illness, her physical body far from attractive, she attracted them -- like a magnet.
I had gone to the hospital in the ambulance with her and refused to leave her side until fifty-four hours later, as it became obvious she was determined to leave this earth when she wanted, and not a minute before. Dr. Sam had promised to keep her comfortable as she transitioned from this life but had no idea how long the process would take. It had been two days at that point, and she seemed to be drifting away. Until the prayer.
The preacher had come in and we all held hands around her bed as he prayed. As we were praying, I could feel her spirit buck up. I know that's an irreverent thing to say, but it's the truth. Her body was perfectly still but her spirit seemed to be thrashing. She seemed to be fighting - no, arguing. "I think she's arguing with St. Peter," I said after Pastor Dave left. "I can feel her standing at the pearly gates, ARGUING with St. Peter! He's welcoming her in, and she's saying she's not ready!!!" We all laughed, not because the image was so funny - but because we all knew it was probably true.
She wasn't ready. I could feel it as strongly as if I was standing at those pearly gates beside her. After everyone else left the room, adjourned to the visiting room down the hall, I took her hand and whispered in her ear, "Mama, give up. Let go. It's time." She didn't move. She didn't talk. She didn't open her eyes and tell me to mind my own business, like I prayed she would.
When it was clear that she was not of a mind to leave us anytime soon, we kids made the decision to go home for a little sleep. Walking through the darkened hospital hallways, we talked about her, her determination, and the fact that it would be just like her to refuse to go while her children were still with her; she wouldn't give up until they were alone. After almost thirty-four years together the thought that Mama would wait to pass into her next adventure until it was just her and Daddy seemed almost as right as it seemed strange. We had lived through over three decades of mountains and valleys in their mostly tumultuous liaison. Theirs had been more a liaison than a marriage. There wasn't one of their children - or those who had known them for any length of time - who could use the word, romance. But, through it all, they had somehow managed to hold on to the bond they had forged all those long years before. Through it all, the tender green sprig that began fresh under shade of the tree of life had turned into a solid, sturdy trunk that had survived time and all the upheavals thrown at it. No, theirs was not a tale of roses and romance, but they had managed to make it memorable. And they had done it together, maybe not hand-in-hand, maybe more like fist-to-fist, but they had done it.
As we were walking to the parking lot, getting into our cars and making our ways to our respective homes, Daddy was turning off the TV in her room, pulling his chair closer to her bed, and trying to get comfortable under the thin hospital blanket. Later he told us that once he was settled in, he could feel her watching him. She had not opened her eyes for almost three days, but he could feel her watching him. When he turned to look, her eyes were open, taking him in. When their eyes met, she smiled that broad smile. And then she was gone.
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