I’ve called my dad on the phone every Sunday since college. We talk about normal, boring, old man things: the weather, the meals we ate that week, how our respective cars have been running, our cardiovascular health.
The only thing that has really changed about our calls in the past couple years has to do with my dad’s housemate, who is usually gone when I call. Each Sunday his housemate volunteers at the aquarium, or as my dad calls it, “fish prison”.
His housemate is a woman five years younger than he is, single, divorced. The house where they live is hers and coincidentally, I have been there many times. It was built in 1979 but it’s kind of mid-century modern, in that the exterior is angular, the floor plan is open, and everywhere you look is a different shade of brown.
Except that nothing is modern. Everything from the curtains to the toilet bowls has been there for decades. It is dark and cold, and much of the linoleum and carpeting has been torn up and never replaced. I fondly call it “The Mildew Mansion”.
So this woman and my dad cook dinner together. They pay the bills together. She does his laundry, he walks her dog. They play cribbage, sit by the fire, smoke cigarettes on the porch and watch the sun set. “It’s just nice to have someone to talk to,” he says.
It’s weird. Mostly because of who his housemate really is. She is my mother.
As my dad tells it, he fell for my mom before he even met her. He saw her sculpture in an art school showcase and instantaneously loved the woman who had made it. He likes to omit the fact that he was at art school as a janitor.
Forty years ago they got married and lived in Oakland, California. They wore bell-bottoms, they rode motorcycles, they did drugs, and then my brother was born. Nine years later, bell-bottoms had been replaced by Levis 501s, motorcycles by a couple Toyotas, acid by caffeine, and I was born.
Neither of my parents had been particularly happy or mentally even-keeled. Like a lot of our parents, they hung on for a few years, but ultimately split up and went their separate ways. Twenty-five years ago, my parents got divorced.
I stayed with my dad, who despite being bipolar and an alcoholic was the more fit parent. My mom met another man, my dad another woman. They both remarried. My mom moved into her late father’s house in Monterey, and my dad moved me to rural Idaho.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with my mom growing up. A week or so at her house each summer turned into a couple days each year, which turned into a single afternoon every few years. I remember the day I didn’t want to hold her hand anymore to cross the street, and the last day we slept in the same bed. I realized that beyond the essential, mammalian compulsion for physical affection that exists between mothers and offspring, we didn’t have much of a connection. Even though she is technically my mother, I don’t know her very well.
I left it that way. I left my mom to her life, and my dad to his. His second wife left, so he moved back to California. I went to boarding school in Colorado, and never really came home. I found that distance made the heart grow fonder, but it didn’t make me wish I could be living with my mom or dad. Distance was more convenient, and ultimately more comfortable. From Colorado I went to college in Vermont, and came home even less. After that, I moved to Chicago.
Then came the summer of 2012. At the time, my dad was living in a dilapidated yellow school bus in the woods, outside of a little surf town north of San Francisco. He’d just received his third DUI, which in the Golden State is a felony.
Apparently some felons can either go to prison, or opt for house arrest. In my dad’s case, that would be “bus arrest”. Except that when you live off the grid like he did, you don’t have electricity, and can’t charge your ankle monitor. When the battery on your ankle monitor dies, it pings your parole officer, who comes to the last known coordinates to find you, and imprison you. When your daughter is in Chicago, she can’t bring you gas for your generator to charge the ankle monitor at home, or drive you to prison and drop your truck off. So you get special permission from your parole officer to drive half a mile to a neighbor’s garage, where every few days you nap while your ankle monitor charges. Problem solved.
In another coastal town 300 miles south, my mom came home to find precisely half of her possessions gone. Her on-again, off-again husband was in the midst of another epic battle with his schizophrenia. He had put all his stuff in storage, and was really leaving this time. He bought a new car, had the dog, he was off his meds and flying high – so high that he crashed that new car, dog in the backseat, into the hills above Santa Barbara, and died.
Six weeks later, my dad’s bus arrest came to an end. He drove those 300 miles to find my mom alone in her cold, empty house. She had lost a lot of weight, started smoking again, got a tattoo to commemorate her late husband. My dad bought her groceries, cooked her dinner, and chopped her firewood. He slept on her couch. He stayed the whole weekend. And the next weekend, and the weekend after that.
Meanwhile, the owner of the property where my dad’s bus sat was foreclosed upon. My dad was evicted from his bus, which didn’t have a working engine anyways, so he just left it there. “Where are you gonna go?” I remember asking him, panicked that homelessness was imminent. “I’ll stay right here for now,” he sighed. I pictured him leaning back on the couch, sitting by the fire in my mom’s dim living room.
He’s been in my mom’s living room for almost three years now. When I hear “Hi, Momo!” in the background, it’s my mom, just saying hi. I tell my dad to say hi back.
I don’t call the house phone. I call my dad on his cell; inane conversation is so much more gratifying when delivered with familiarity and tenderness. I have this with my dad, but not so much with his housemate.
It’s Sunday when I call, and they’re making meatloaf for dinner. They finally replaced the toilet in the downstairs bathroom. The new rescue dog is crazy, and chewing through his harness again.
They are living in a quiet, miraculous harmony, which they found only after losing nearly everything. After marrying forty years ago, building houses together, making children, falling in and out of love, making totally new lives; they are buddies, they are companions. It is totally weird, yet totally right.
I got married this summer, and my parents were both there. They smiled and laughed, ate and drank and danced. They even held hands for part of the ceremony. I was gratified by their familiarity, their unity. I don’t want my parents to rekindle any romance from their earlier lives. I want them to be there for each other, just as they are now.
Ramona Richards is a CPS schoolteacher, and when she has time for fun she reads, writes, cooks and does crafty things. She enjoys hanging out with her husband and enormous golden retriever, Sandy Paws. She lives in Logan Square.