In my prior post, Walking in My Father’s Footsteps, I recounted a detour I made to Galena, Kansas and Picher, Oklahoma that allowed me to reflect on my father’s life in the early 1920s (as well as his sister’s adventures in the frontier of Alaska – a future stop on my journey). I also visited the University of Kansas where he was a student for several years before joining the military. I’ve recently bookended that trip with a walk around Elmira College where my mother was also the first member of her family to go to college. What is gratifying is that neither stop was planned – it is all part of the serendipity of rambling.
On both campuses I searched for the buildings that stood in the 1920s and 1930s when my parents were enrolled. I find the experience of walking the same paths as they strode deeply touching. I sought to envision the campus through their eyes. Fortunately, my mother was the editor of her college yearbook, the Iris, which helped guide my steps.
I lost my parents at an early age and that played into my decision to take a year traveling around the United States. There were of course myriad contributing elements but the reflections that arose as I attended my 40th high school reunion in Geneseo, New York last year were powerful prods. My mother always loved education and became a high school English teacher after stints in the Red Cross in France, Germany and Korea. Many are surprised to hear that I was assigned to her classes in the 9th and 11th grade of high school at Geneseo Central (GCS) but it was a small school with class sizes under 100.
It was at the end of my junior year that she was diagnosed with lung cancer and at the mid-point of my senior year when she died. My father was 55 when I was adopted and struggled with ill health most of my life. My mother’s loss precipitated a period of further decline. He struggled with depression and turned to alcohol to help cope with the loss. As a result, I had to sell our home and move him into a nursing home the following year. Fortunately, that home was a blessing where he made friends and was well cared for in his final years until his death four years later at 78.
As I paged through the GCS Class of 77 yearbook in anticipation of the reunion, I was palpably struck by the loneliness of that period of my life. My mother is featured prominently in the yearbook since she was a beloved teacher but none of the notes scrawled throughout the pages referenced her passing. Of course, my friends and most of my family didn’t have the language or the maturity to deal with such a loss and neither did I. Fortunately, I was taken in by my loving Aunt and Uncle and provided a home base for my college years but closing the house was a solitary task and there were no outlets to share my grief.
I desperately wanted to escape and one of my fantasies was to jump in the car and head across the country. Well it may have taken 40 years but I’m finally on that journey. I think my mom and dad are smiling.