Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day: Not Labor, but a Labor of Love

It's May Day and a warm breeze is lifting the fruit tree blossoms off their boughs and through the air like desert snow. The yellow-green of new leaves on our deciduous trees, and the auburn of our Japanese Maples contrast with the deep blue of Lake Washington and white wispy clouds that slide by majestic Mt. Rainer, still covered with snow.

May Day is traditionally Labor Day in Europe, but when I was growing up, I knew nothing of this. May Day meant picking some flowers from the yard, placing them in a construction paper cone, and leaving them on the front doorsteps of neighbors. It meant a performance in school for our parents, where each class did a different dance. Always floral and happy, May Day was also the day my parents married, at the chapel of Fort Lawton in Seattle, in 1943.

My dad was in the army, stationed at the time at Fort Lewis. As a major, he was entitled to use the small white wooden chapel. My mom flew up from her home in Los Angeles; only a few fellow officers, friends of my dad, and their wives, were present for the intimate ceremony.

It was the beginning of a love affair that lasted 60 years, until my mom passed away in 2002 at age 87. My dad, completely bereft at the loss of his true soul mate, followed her in death in 2004, at age 90. The way they related to each other taught me what mutual dependence of the best kind could be.

My shy and sweet mother, the consistent optimist, never raised her voice. When one of her children--i.e. ME--got insolent and demanding, which I could do with great success since she was so kindly and pliable, the worst she could muster was an exasperated, "some day, you'll see! You'll have children of your own!"

My father, also gentle, could sometimes be driven to the edge, however. At that point he'd explode, raising his voice (never raising his hand), and would scold us and send us to our rooms. But we knew that withing five minutes, he'd be back, softly knocking on the door in contrition, apologizing for his outburst, forgiving us and welcoming us out to freedom.

He spent his 35-year post-military work career as a public servant, the Veterans Employment Representative at the California state unemployment office's Hollywood branch. He sat at a desk in an open room, interviewing veterans and making calls to find them jobs. He also enjoyed brushes with movie stars he'd recruit to speak at annual luncheons he organized to drum up public support. Charlton Heston was a regular volunteer, happy to address the group, represent vets in the community and shake their hands at the luncheon affairs.

My mom was mainly a housewife, until the property taxes on our home escalated to where she had to take a job as a secretary. She'd honed those skills during the war working at Douglas Aircraft, and in their married decade before children came along. It pained my dad that his modest salary couldn't keep up with the taxes and forced his wife to work. Finally, in the days just before California's famous Proposition 13 was passed, the taxes surpassed even my mother's income, and they were forced to reluctantly sell the home of my childhood.

They never complained, but moved to a boxy little house in a lesser neighborhood. After my dad's retirement, they spent no time apart, traveling some and enjoying their grandchildren. They took pleasure in daily highlights--lunch at a chain coffee shop, watching old movies, but mostly each others' company. That's where I learned that a spouse is your best friend.

Anniversaries, if you listen to advertisements, are occasions to buy jewelry, go on a trip, have an expensive dinner out. Not for my parents. My dad would make my mom a card on construction paper with markers, writing a cheesy poem saying she's the love of his life; he called her "Poogie." My mom, a bit less artsy, would buy him a card and write a sentimental message; she called him "Paddy." That was it. They really didn't need documentation of their affection--no gems or bouquets.
The flower gifts on May Day were tucked in paper cones and dropped on neighbors' doorsteps.


  1. oh so sweet. what a lovely testament to the beautiful dance that marriage can and should be. happy may day!

  2. I think you favor your father! It's the eyes. What a great legacy they left you.

    I had similar memories of May Day.

  3. Oh how dear to see this post. Your parents were such gentle, kind, and cheerful souls. I loved both of them, and I'm SO glad we share a few sweet memories...the tulip fields, the time I took them to Seattle Center while you were overwhelmed with finishing the book, flying to the San Juans. Precious....

  4. your beautiful post made me tear up, diane. thank you for sharing more of your lovely parents with me/us. i always remember how tender they were with everyone - both family and friends. definitely much for me to learn from their marriage.

  5. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! No other words--except what *amazing* photos. Your parents looked exactly the same when I met them, and "gentle" is the perfect word to describe them..