The Thinking 

Orphaned in Later Life

November 30, 2017


A Snowy Night, George Sotter; 1939

Each morning in the silence I am struck with how orphaned I am. There is no human parent ahead of me that loves me not for accomplishment but because I belonged to them. Our children and grandchildren cannot ever love us or know us the way our parents did, because they did not watch us grow up.  



When you posted about the death of your Mother, I made a mental note to write when I had time to do so, thoughtfully.

Both my parents have been gone two years, having died when I entered my 60’s in age. Therefore, I had them for such a long time that the adjustment was not as easy as I had thought it would be. Many people lose their parents at much younger ages.

My parents died within 18 months of each other, in their late 80’s. When my mother went into a retirement place, a friend told her, “It is the end of an era,” and I think it went deeply into her that she would no longer have a kindred soul in my Dad. They had tamed a wilderness together in the 1940’s homesteading era, and she would not find many others to commiserate with that or other things they had seen and experienced.

There are some things people do not tell you regarding grief for parents.

One thing someone did tell me that was very helpful was that you will go along for several months, thinking you are fine, and then around six months, a year and then two years, the grief will hit you hard.

Someone else told me to carry sunglasses in your purse, because she said when her mother died, even a year later, she would experience “flooding”, a torrent of tears when in the grocery store. She would put something in her cart and a memory of her mother would engulf her to the point her face became wrung like a cloth full of water, and the flooding came.

It has been two years for me, and I still get up in the morning and want to call my parents number and talk to them. There is such an empty space in life where they once were, particularly in laughing together at foolishness of this present world, something the children and grandchildren don’t quite have the capacity for, yet.

As we lose our old people I regret I didn’t observe them more, especially how they handled life. That generation didn’t allow the unruly, rude, sullen and surly people to run roughshod over them, invade their homes or run their business. They were suspicious of banks and lending and usury and knew when they were being cheated. Today we think we must tolerate it and feel helpless to stop it. I believe we were as youth, too busy elsewhere and not enough at the elbow of our parents learning from them.

These thoughts keep me searching in my memory for hints of my parents sharp wit, sayings and figures of speech, humor and authoritative ways. The pictures are coming back of all the things I heard them say and saw them do.

Each morning in the silence I am struck with how orphaned I am. There is no human parent ahead of me that loves me not for accomplishment but because I belonged to them. Our children and grandchildren cannot ever love us or know us the way our parents did, because they did not watch us grow up.

Our parents loved us because we were products of their love and sacrifice. Our children and spouses will never have that relationship with us. They will never know the relationship we had with our parents and they can’t replace the communication and the understanding between us, because they just were not there in our formative years.

That all being said, I think the grief does not completely go away, and I have not found the absence of my parents “fading” as so many things do as time goes by, but it is early yet. I still think about picking up the phone at a certain time of day. I still want to talk to them. I miss the old people. They made life interesting and humorous. They thought life was exciting, beautiful and interesting. They didn’t depend on others for their own success.

— Comments —

George writes:

I miss both by parents very much although I lost my father when I was 18 and my mother when I was 52. In many ways, I miss my father now more than when he died, even though it was decades ago. A few years after my mother died, the last of that generation (on her side) passed and more recently the same on my father’s side. I cherish all the memories of my parents and aunts and uncles and miss them all very much.

It also provides a good reflection on one’s own point in the cycle of life. I recall the funeral of my mother’s aunt when I was 10. My great-aunt was the last of her generation on my mother’s side. After the casket had been lowered into the grave, my mother’s cousin commented that “All the old ones are now dead.” My mother responded, “Yes, now we are the old ones.” The cousin was stunned and didn’t reply, realizing it was true.   About 12 years later, it was her turn.

It isn’t being morbid. It’s acknowledging the end we all have to face and the judgment that awaits. Reflecting on it, occasionally not constantly, leads one to consider the state of one’s soul.

Dec. 4, 2017

Alan writes:

I want to thank Lydia Sherman for what she wrote about becoming an orphan after the loss of one’s parents.  I know exactly what she means.

The loss of my parents within a span of two years left the worst, most sickening feeling of emptiness I had ever known.  The absence of siblings made it still worse:  There is no one left afterward who shares the memories of a lifetime, who knows exactly what we mean when we talk about memories of our parents.

As to the question When do you get over it?, my reply is:  Don’t even think about it.  You never get over it.

The memories will come at unpredictable moments, may often be intense, and may be prompted by seemingly-small things.

The little tugboat night-light on top of a chest of drawers in an ancient black-and-white snapshot, or the memory of Perry Como singing the four words “Dream along with me…” at the opening of his Saturday night television program are instant reminders to me of the warmth and security my mother provided in my boyhood home in the early 1950s.

She left a collection of three thousand color slides from the years 1955-’69.  They are at once a priceless possession and a painful reminder of the loss of the most important person in my life.

When I remember some act of stupidity or misbehavior on my part as a boy or teenager, I can feel exactly how I know my mother must have felt at those moments, an awareness that youth or stupidity denied to me in those years.

To live with a vault of memories that we shared only with our parents—and now to have no one among us who can understand precisely what we mean when we talk of that person or those people or that setting or that occasion from years ago—is quite a challenge.  And never is that challenge greater for me than at Christmas.  In the only years I care to remember, Christmas Eve was always the most joyous day of the year, not because of toys or games or gifts, but because of the setting:  A houseful of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and conversations and laughter and warmth and good cheer—and my mother at the center of it all.  In their place today are only silence, emptiness, and memories in the head of a late-life orphan.  It is that “empty space in life” that Lydia Sherman describes, and I share with her the regrets of not having remained in closer contact with all the older generation and not having talked with them at far greater length than I did.

Bobby Vinton’s recording “My Heart Belongs to Only You” became one of my favorite songs on radio in 1964, and I heard it often on tranquil Sunday afternoons.  Whenever I hear it today, it reminds me instantly of leisurely Sunday afternoon drives with my mother through the winding hills and roads of Jefferson Barracks Historic Park, just south of St. Louis, and of how she would park the car and we would get out and walk and linger at a certain location to absorb the peace and quiet and beauty of that setting and the panoramic view overlooking the Mississippi River:  Wonderful moments of serenity she and I shared in 1964.

Early one evening in 2003, I was walking home along a quiet residential street.  I had stopped at a supermarket and was carrying a bag of groceries.  Some distance ahead, I saw a person standing by a car that was parked there.  My impression was that it was a young woman helping her child get out of the car.  It was the tail end of evening twilight. It was quiet and dark and we were the only people on that street at that moment.  So I crossed the street and walked on the other side because I did not want to startle her.  At about that moment, the child—evidently a toddler—stumbled or fell.  He began to cry in a way that suggested he was frightened but not hurt.  He cried but did not scream. I heard fragments of the woman’s voice as she talked to him in an attempt to reassure him that he would be alright.

All of this took place in less time than it takes to read these words.  While she was helping the child, I continued walking along the sidewalk across from them.  At that moment, I was acutely aware of nothing so much as the loss of my mother four months earlier.  Tears came to my eyes at that instant, because in that little boy, I saw and heard myself at that age; it prompted me to remember and realize how helpless and utterly dependent I had been on my mother when I was that age, and how conscientious she had been in the years when I was too young to understand and appreciate that virtue.

“She’s the best friend you’ll ever have,” an acquaintance said to me about my mother one day late in her life.

Would Lydia Sherman agree with that?  Would Laura Wood?

I know what she meant and I believe it is valid in spirit but not precisely valid in words.  To accept it would be to inflate the meaning of friend and deflate the meaning of mother.  A mother may be our “best friend”—mine certainly was, to me—but she is certainly much more than that and apart from that.  Never to any of my friends have I owed everything that is good and decent in life, but that is precisely what I owed to my mother, because that is what she was to me.

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