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The mother of all regrets

By
May 8, 2008

Among the many “thou shall nots” of the Ten Commandments, the Almighty in his wisdom threw in a couple of positive ones to keep folks from becoming too depressed.

It so happens that my favorite one of these is “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

Not surprisingly, this is also the favorite of greeting-card makers, florists, brunch providers and chocolatiers dedicated to honoring parents on designated days, like this Sunday, Mother’s Day. Why, if Moses had known what a boost to the economy it was going to be, he could have asked the Lord to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and pets.

Like all self-interested parties, I have my own reasons for liking the parental commandment the best. It is not just that I never wanted to make graven images or that I have probably become too decrepit for any adultery that might qualify as a serious sin.

No, it is because I am a parent myself and I gratefully accept any honoring my two children bestow. (They are grown up now and live in New York City, the great Pied Piper for children in cities like Pittsburgh.)

In the honoring department, I don’t covet flowers, chocolates or brunch — well, come to think of it, brunch is nice — I just need a regular call from the kids to tell me that I am great. (Hey, someone’s got to do it — it’s not a mother’s job to further inflate the ego of the man who made her a mother in the first place.) Of course, it is the mother’s turn to be honored this Sunday and my turn will come on Father’s Day in June. Fair enough. But I think the Almighty thought of honoring parents as a continuing project, not as a one-day celebration.

In my own way, I still obey the commandment. There is not a day goes by that I don’t think of each of my parents, who died 10 and 12 years ago. But on many days, I regret that I did not honor them enough when they were alive.

My father was a large, jolly, humorous fellow and he liked to tell the stories of his youth, which was spent in the Far East. He was a colonial Englishman, a type more British than the Brits back home.

He had amazing stories that became commonplace in the telling — how he was in the horse artillery in Shanghai in 1918 and was almost sent to World War I, how he escaped from Singapore just before the Japanese conquered the island in World War II, how he became a war correspondent attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters and had many unlikely adventures.

The trouble was that he told these stories over and over (a trait that I inherited) and I would sit there like a dumb-cluck kid zoning out and not listening to the details. Now I would give anything to hear that old dear voice tell how he and his pals once pushed a grand piano into the Yangtze River in a fit of musical colonialism (alcoholic beverages seem to have been involved).

By contrast, my mother was very Australian. She had an accent as broad as a billabong. Years later, I would call home and marvel at the mother of all vowel sounds coming out of the phone receiver.

However, “no worries” — which is what many Australians would say if they stood on a crocodile by mistake — was not her philosophy. She worried about everything. She was the world champion worrier (bantamweight division) and I suppose this was quite natural, given that she was married to man with a history of going to other people’s countries and clogging their waterways with large musical instruments.

She worried about money (we didn’t have much of it), she worried about her two sons (including the one always off on a reverie of his own) and she fretted over her health (which was never robust). Dad didn’t worry at all, so I suppose she worried about him as well.

So heedless of her situation was I, that only in recent years has it dawned on me how sad a life she must have had. She did not drive. She rarely went out, even to a store. She never had a job except being a housewife and mother. She did not have any close friends and did not see her relatives nearly enough. She was a virtual prisoner.

As if this weren’t enough, she had me in the house, a tall, thin streak of self-doubting misery who was too self-absorbed to understand. Now, too late, I understand.

Honor thy mother and thy father. Eternally good advice.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)