Half-Past Life

I am standing at the top of the hill, ready to start my descent. Before I begin the second half of my life, however, I would like to take the time to tell the story of my life so far.

I was born in the hippy generation to two non-hippies. At the time of my birth, my father was 17 years old, and my mother had just turned 18 a couple of weeks before.

Like the generations before him, my father grew up not far from the Mason-Dixon line. He was one of ten siblings, right smack in the middle of the birth order. With ten mouths to feed, my father’s parents struggled financially. They were so poor, in fact, that many of the children, including my dad, were fostered by Mennonite families across the county.

In many Mennonite homes in those days, children were not educated beyond the eighth grade, and so it went with my father. Not long after he completed junior high, my dad ran away from his foster family’s home to live a hobo-like existence, hoofing it up and down the eastern half of the United States, accepting odd jobs along the way.

Eventually, my father ended up near the Everglades, where he met a local gal. This young lady lived with her mother and three brothers, one older and two much younger. When she was 13 years old, her father was killed, leaving her mother to care for the children, alone. Around that same time, my mother’s elder brother, six years her senior, entered the Army to wage a war we would not win.

As young people sometimes do, these two kids quickly fell in love. After a whirlwind courtship, they wed, as they had put the cart before the horse and were expecting me. (So, technically, I guess you could say that I was “present” at my parents’ nuptials.)

At the time of their wedding, my mother was a senior in high school. However, when the school’s powers-that-be learned my mom had married, she was thrown out, just a few months shy of graduation. In those days, young ladies were not permitted to attend public school if they were married and/or (gasp) pregnant.

For the first few months of my life, my parents and I lived with my maternal grandmother and her two younger sons.  Because of this, I have always thought of these two guys more like brothers than uncles, as they were only five and seven years older than me.

As the first grandchild, I was spoiled. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother dressed me up like a baby doll in pretty, lace-lined frocks and socks. Alas, for almost the first year of my life, I was nearly bald with a bit of white blonde down scattered about. So many times, when strangers would comment on me, they would say: “What a cute little boy!” or “Isn’t HE adorable!”  Considering what I was wearing—pink froufrou and all, one might have had reason to question their eyesight or their fashion sense. However, at some point, my mother had just about enough and resorted to taping—that’s right, taping, as in cellophane—plastic hair clips to the top of my head, as if to declare to the world, “See, this IS a girl!”

About a year after my birth, my parents moved out of my grandmother’s house and into their own place in my mom’s hometown. My dad was a factory worker, and my mom was a housewife.

Soon, a baby brother came along. Fetal ultrasounds were a rarity in the states when my brother was born, so no one suspected that there might be a problem. Like me, he moved and grooved in utero. According to my mother, “Everything felt just fine.” However, when my brother was born, instead of a time of joy, it was a time of grief. It turns out that he was afflicted with a diaphragmatic hernia and passed away about an hour and a half later. My father and my maternal grandmother were able to see him before he died, but, sadly, my mother never did.

Thankfully, after every storm, the sun shines through. And so it was in our family. Not long after, a sister was born. Like her maternal grandfather, she was a redhead. (Yep, she had hair from the get-go.  No bitterness on my part, though… no, really!) She was my first friend. Growing up, we alternated between best buddies and arch enemies, just to keep it interesting. I cannot imagine going through childhood without her by my side.

A few years later, another sister arrived. She was a bubbly brunette. (Of course, she would have oodles of hair!  God does have a wicked sense of humor, don’t you think?) She completed our trio. We traversed our childhoods together like the three musketeers.

Three girls with three distinct looks and personalities, three high-octane, highly opinionated young ladies: I often wonder what my father did in a past life to deserve all those females in this life. During our teenage years, especially, my father was noticeably absent from the household. (I can’t imagine why.)

When I was a kid and teen, my family moved around the country…often… from Florida to Pennsylvania to West Virginia to Texas… You get the idea. So many people in so many places inquired whether my dad was a military man. “Nope.” I’d say, “Just restless.”

Through the years and the travels, my father worked a variety of professions to make ends meet. In addition to the textile factory, he also cared for racetrack horses, worked on dairy farms, managed an orchard, repaired and installed plumbing, tended bar, and Lord knows what other odd jobs along the way.

Meanwhile, my mother was a stay-at-home mom. She planted gardens, canned fruits and vegetables, mended and hemmed clothing, kept the house spotless, and raised us up right.

When I was in seventh grade, my mother earned her high school diploma. I helped my mom study for her general educational development (GED) tests. She especially hated algebra and found it frustrating that her teenager had to explain math to her, but she persevered. (Way to go, mom!)

When I was in high school, my parents learned that they were expecting another child. Of course, being a teenager, I was absolutely mortified for two reasons. The first reason, well, you know, “Ewww!” And the second reason: “How could they do that to ME?” (I did mention that I was a teenager, right?) When this child was born, another girl, she brought joy into our lives with her effervescent personality and bouncing curls. Although she might have been unexpected, she was no accident.

At the start of my senior year, my parents separated. They were divorced by that spring. My mother, who had always been a homemaker, was suddenly thrust into the role of breadwinner. She toiled at several jobs to keep us fed and keep a roof over our heads. Because of this, my senior year was a time of great upheaval and change.

Even though my parents did not advance their education beyond high school, they valued education and insisted that their children excel academically. I kept my nose to the grindstone throughout my public school years and graduated high school with good grades.

I wanted to go to college, but because times were tough, I worked for a year and a half, juggling minimum-wage mall jobs, housekeeping positions, and babysitting stints to earn enough to pay for school. (I applied to the College of William & Mary, just to see if I could “make it.” I did. I still have that acceptance letter in my keepsake box.)  After I secured scholarships, grants, loans, and on-campus employment, I headed to an in-state public university.

While at college, I met a handsome, kind, intelligent athlete. We started dating at the end of my freshman year and remained a couple through our college careers. After four and a half years of study and work, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with minors in French and women’s studies and a concentration in education.

However, I still wanted to learn more, so I applied to an academically rigorous liberal arts college. I was accepted and was offered a graduate assistantship with the women’s resource center—which included a stipend and tuition remission. I was also employed at the library’s reference desk. For two years, I worked hard and studied harder. During those final six months, I spent many sleepless nights and shed my share of tears, researching and writing a nearly 200-page thesis that now serves as a great dust collector. When all was said and done, I had earned a Master of Arts degree in English.

I considered furthering my studies, applying to an Ivy League school for my doctorate. I was accepted into their English program (another acceptance letter I have stored in my keepsake box), but after much soul-searching, I decided that I should enter the “real world” instead and start paying off those darn student loans.

And that is what I did. Every little bit of extra money I earned was used to double down on my loan debt, paying it off in half the time anticipated. And it was all thanks to some wonderful jobs. Through the years, I have been an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for both high school students from Spain and Japanese college students; an assistant professor of English and public relations; and a director of communications.

Remember that guy I dated all through college? Well, after nearly a decade of courting, we were married. Our first child was born six years later. Our second child was born approximately three years after that. Since their arrival, my life has been a whirlwind of school activities—homework, projects, and papers; sports—baseball, basketball, soccer, and track; and Scouts. Rarely do I have a moment to relax, but I love my life as it is—hectic pace, white hairs, and all. (Okay, maybe not the white hairs…)

In the little down time I do have, I enjoy seeing the world. I have traveled throughout the continental United States, as well as to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Canada, Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico, England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Gibraltar, Morocco, and Egypt. Still on my bucket list of places to visit are Scotland, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Wales, Alaska, Australia, Netherlands, Greek Isles, Scandinavian fjords, and the Galápagos Islands. I also want to visit these must-see sites: Great Wall of China, Acropolis, Angkor Wat, Petra, St. Basil’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Budapest, Forbidden City, Taj Mahal, and Machu Picchu. (Wow!  That’s a whole lot of places. Looks like I will be racking up some frequent flyer miles!)

I am hoping that I have enough time left in the second half of my life to experience all of these locales. I have been told that the slope is sometimes slippery on the way down and that the descent goes by much faster than the climb. So, I guess I will take the remainder of my journey one careful step at a time. But before I do, I will just stand here on the pinnacle and enjoy the view.

Published originally 29 August 2017, Half-Past Life

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