Who can truly know their parents, beyond the superficial aspects they share? ‘She was a good cook.’ ‘…Tidy.’ ‘Faithful.’ Can we know more than stock phrases? Do we want to?
What key events ruled their lives? How did they see themselves? What wounds did they nurse? How did they connect with others?
Parents are like mountains. You might scale their heights. But who can penetrate their depths? What lies veiled behind those mists? Or in those distant forests seen from the paths leading to the summit?
By the time we become aware enough to ask, they’ve slipped beyond answering. Clues might be found. But no one writes letters any more. Are answers revealed only by becoming parents ourselves? Thus the saying, which infuriated my young self, ‘You’ll understand when you’re older.’
She was gone. ‘Too soon’ is a stock phrase used even for the passing of a centenarian. But for Mom, it was true. I’d lost my anchor. A senior in high school, I’d barely been conscious of anything outside my hormone induced myopia.
Her passing was no surprise. But when stuck at a crossing, fore-knowledge of the oncoming train hardly prepares one for the impact.
From his chair in the darkened room, Dad asked me to find mementoes of her life for the funeral. I climbed to the attic and sifted through dusty boxes filled with letters and snapshots. Forgotten photo albums revealed a woman I barely knew. She had a life outside our modest kitchen. She was beautiful, and picnicked with friends in the shade of ancient trees.
The question simmered, how would I find someone like her?
Tucked beneath a sheaf of letters, and decorated with faded roses, lay a heart shaped box.
I lifted the lid. Beneath a few pleated paper wrappers lay a detailed drawing, with an inscription. The skillfully drawn picture showed a frog in a frilly dress holding hands with a toad in a tux. They stood by a moon-lit pond. A smiling moon, peeking from behind a cloud, looked heart-shaped.
The artist somehow drew the frog to resemble my mother. And she never looked anything like a frog in her life. I didn’t recognize the toad. It wasn’t my father.
The inscription read, ‘To Froggie, Be mine… love, T.’
I found Dad in his chair, “Who’s Froggie, Dad?”
He looked up from the newspaper, his face in shadow. “You are, Leo. When you were a baby, Vera called you Froggie. Your smile reminded her of a frog. It was cute.”
He returned to his reading. That was the most he’d said in a week.
A few spoke at the funeral. Tears were shed. People chuckled at warm remembrances. She was well loved.
I couldn’t speak. And Dad saved his energy for sitting through the ordeal, ever the stoic.
Later, people placed flowers as they said good-bye. A man I’d never seen left an old toy, a stuffed frog, at the foot of the casket. He left immediately. Being a pall bearer, I couldn’t follow. He didn’t attend the reception.
So many people shared memories. The day ended in a blur.
After work on Monday, I brought flowers to the cemetery. A man sat under the tree near her grave. He looked familiar, the one who left the stuffed toy on Mom’s casket.
He looked up as I walked by. We nodded to each other and to the grave.
He said, “Leo, right? Vera and I were friends since we were kids playing by the river. Oh, the adventures we had, chasing tadpoles in the cattails… I teased her no end. Told her she looked like a frog when she smiled.”
I moved closer.
“She said I’d grow up to drive a tow truck with ‘Towed by Toad,’ written on the side. There was a kid’s show on TV with Froggie the Gremlin. So we’d joke.”
“Yeah, I heard about…”
“Don’t get me wrong… She was always gorgeous. Even when a kid. Nothing froggie about her. But those were our names for each other… Froggie and Toad.”
Now I knew who made the drawing. He looked exactly like the toad.
He shook his head and reached out. “Sorry, I’m Ted.”
I switched the bouquet to my left and shook hands.
“Ted the toad?”
“That’s me.” He chuckled, “Back then, I never thought we’d ever be apart. We were just a given. That’s how little kids think…”
Ted looked at the ground and sniffed. I looked away so he could compose himself.
“Like in the fairy tale, it wasn’t a big wave that parted us, but little ripples, here and there. We stayed friends, but that’s all. She saw me as just a friend, and no more.”
“Not regular. Then I got called up after graduation… Got an all-expense paid tour of Viet Nam, thanks to Uncle Sam. By the time I got home, Vera and your Dad were already married and that was that. Always friendly when we saw each other at the market, or… but we never spent time.”
He looked away.
“But Nam was a pretty big wave.”
“Sure, but it was a done deal by the time I shipped out.”
“Can I ask…?”
“No problem. Need to talk… Different high schools. Rival teams. And I played for ‘them.’ She and her friends would stand behind our bench and heckle. Or Fridays, I’d be on a bus somewhere, playing another school. And not be with her.”
“I get that. Hard to connect… How…”
“Like a dope, one day I called her Froggie in front of her friends. That about sealed it.”
“I was a kid, stuck in our old joke. She’d out grown the whole ‘Froggie’ thing. Didn’t fit the image she wanted to project. I blew it.” He shrugged. He paused and smiled. “Then I met Rose. She was a Godsend. Now, I do commercial art. Maybe you’ve seen my work…?”
“I’m sure I have…"
A beautiful young woman strolled up and smiled. I’d never seen her before. Not wanting to stare, I forced myself to look down.
She looked at Ted. “Hey… Ma said I’d find you here. Wants me to remind you about dinner.”
He stood and hugged her.
Ted said, “Leo, meet Veronica, my daughter.”
She offered her hand. “You’re Leo? Call me Nicki.” She moved closer. “Sorry about your Mom.”
How does someone balance confidence and vulnerability so easily? Staring at the ground, I envisioned her sailing away on a cloud, with Botticelli cherubs singing in her wake.
My reverie evaporated when she spoke.
I blinked. “What?”
“Would you like to come home with us for dinner?”
Ted beamed at the past and future entwining before his eyes.
“Oh… Uhm, I should check on… My Dad’s expecting me.”
She looked disappointed.
‘Dope!’ “But I could call you…?”
She nodded. “Great. Are those for me?”
I looked down and realized I was holding my Mom’s flowers out to her.
“No! I mean, I don’t think…”
We all laughed as I pulled the bouquet away.
Ted said, “Leo, I know your Mom is laughing too. Maybe harder than us.”
I walked to Mom’s grave and propped the flowers by her headstone.
Nicki asked, “Can I borrow a pen, Dad?”
Ted said, “I have paper too.”
She smiled at me. “He always has paper and pen. Just the pen is fine.”
We laughed as she wrote on my extended arm.
I said, “This way, I won’t lose it.”
“It’s indelible…” Her eyes carried me away.
We parted that day. But not for long.
I called her. We started dating. Became friends. And more.
Now, I can’t imagine we’ll ever be apart.