Novelist | Singer
My mother is nearly absent from the memory book of my first ten years. Only a few episodes remain in my subconscious film strip. Two stand-outs occurred when I was about six years old. One was when she whisked me to the sink to whack my back, dislodging the nasty morsel of melon lodged in my windpipe. The other was when my rope swing broke at the apex of the arc, sending me hurtling to the ground below—maybe six or eight feet, though it felt like thirty. I had problems on and off with my back throughout my adult life, culminating in spinal fusion surgery to correct a herniated disc, and have at last learned the true meaning of cause and effect.
Other than those few standouts—no mom memory at all. Mom was there, of course. She was always there, always over-shadowed by Dad, always the support, the smile and laugh. Always the first to suggest a game. Always game. Always.
I am ashamed to admit that when I was younger, I thought of my mother as ordinary—that she hadn’t accomplished much in her life. The naivety of youth is my puny excuse, but doesn’t free my heart from indignity.
In contrast, my father, the Reverend Doctor Harold H. Buls was accomplished. He came from the “simple” stock of America’s breadbasket; eastern rural Nebraska, from a town small enough to be called “Germantown,” named so for its original residents. He was nine years old at the start of the Great Depression. He and his brothers and sisters each had one suit of overalls. They gardened to eat vegetables, and hunted to eat meat. No indoor plumbing, and one cow for milk. His father was a teacher, but went stone-deaf in his 20s, became a rural mail carrier, first on horseback, then in a Model T. Hard life.
Dad was the oldest boy, and did not choose his own road. He would’ve been a train engineer if it had been left to him. God and Grandpa decided early on that Harold would teach in a parochial school system, and so Dad boarded at a high school seven miles from home, and he would jump the train to visit home on some weekends. After high school, he completed a Bachelor’s degree, graduated from Lutheran Seminary and was ordained into the ministry, carried out missionary work in Africa, followed by a Master’s, then a PhD. A man of the cloth who maintained a rigorous schedule of meal-time prayer and devotion, he also wrote a book series of New Testament interpretation. He survived two open heart surgeries at ages 54 (stopped smoking) and 64, followed by daily exercise (10 miles per day as prescribed by the doctor. Dad went around the world twice on a stationary bicycle), and maintained absolute dogma in everything, especially religion or the Bible. He was a remarkable man.
He knew what he believed and boy, you’d better believe that too. No free thought was allowed in his house. One of his favorite lines was, “You all vote and then I’ll decide.” This was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but we knew he secretly meant it. On one of our rare trips to a restaurant, he would say, “We’ll make this real easy. We’ll take four hamburgers, and the kids can split theirs.” Children were seen and not heard, women were compliant and supportive. He and I locked horns most of my life.
At the beginning, I was his shadow. I was there when he built our pontoon boat, “The Tortoise.” He is the reason I know the names and uses of hand tools. He built a train for us when we were kids. No, not a model train (although we had one of those, too, later on), but a real train that ran around an oval track in the backyard. It had an engine with a lawnmower motor built in, pedal car (with a tricycle mounted inside—you rode it just like a tricycle), tank car, coal car and caboose. My mother painted the cars just like a Santa Fe train, and the identification numbers on the sides depicted our birthdates as we were born. It. Was. Cool.
We were the only kids I had ever met with a real train. Dad even designed a switch plate and cut a door in the back of the garage so the train could be stored inside. He also built a tractor and a play house (for me), and of course, the boat. It was brilliant. Although I grew up in Kansas wheat country, followed by Illinois and Indiana corn country, I spent lots of time on the water because we had a boat. Not much money, but a boat—and a train.
So, you say, life was like Disneyland, eh? Frolicking around in the backyard, running our train, jumping from the roof of the Tortoise into muddy mid-western river water. What a life. Ahhhhhhhh.
But my dad—was a tyrant. There is simply no other way to look at it. My brother describes him now as a zealot—also true. The commonality of the terms is the word “uncompromising.” That one word best defined him, and part of the reason that Mom was invisible to me as a child. The much accomplished, multilingual, multi-degreed, inventive hardworking father overshadowed the social, happy-go-lucky mother, to the point that she was a mere watermark. Initially, I worshipped my father for his talent, philosophy, and larger-than-life character. But somewhere along the way, (adolescence?) I began to decipher another force – a darker angle; the love void that was never filled.
In all my life, I’m not sure I ever received an authentic compliment from Dad that wasn’t laced with stinging correction. So perfection became the bar, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing, but at some point, without encouraging lessons and positive feedback, the young ones will give up. A tragic day. I knew I would never receive approval from Dad, so what is the point? I thought possibly he was disappointed that he ever had kids, because he sure couldn’t deal with kid behavior; noise, energy, fighting. Several times in a fit of anger (which was frequent), he even said, “You kids will never amount to anything.” Seriously. He was hard.
My brothers and I flew low most of the time, but never quite developed the sibling bond that could have healed those wounds, and we scattered one by one like autumn seeds to the wind. Jon went to Arizona, Dave went to Washington, Fred went to Georgia, I went to Montana, and then to Japan. Clearly, we were putting distance between us and home.
But it is about Mom, right? So why am I spending so much ink on Dad?
Mom, alone, remained unscathed. Judgment could not taint her heart. Criticism couldn’t eclipse her smile. She had the malleability of Play Dough and found her niche wherever she landed. From Chicago Big City girl riding the El in a fur coat and high heels to her job at Marshall Field, to wife of Lutheran Junior College professor in a one-horse town in Kansas. Winfield. Ever heard of it? Probably not, unless you know about the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival held there, though it wasn’t when I was a kid. It was just a sleepy little town in southern Kansas where my Nebraska-born father brought her from the Big Windy City. That is my mother. She is just her – no matter where she is, and allows everyone to be themselves. Mom has always been an easy person to love—one of the most difficult challenges in life.
Dad has been gone eighteen years now, and I’m beginning to identify the avenue of forgiveness, but it’s taking a long time to find my way there. I can see the wreckage of his wake in the lonely lives my brothers have chosen. Until last year, none of them were married. Fred married my wonderful sister-in-law Cecile last year, thankfully and broke the Buls boys’ curse. Finally, when Dad was diagnosed with cancer, we were able to make amends and talk about precious things, but we never became huggy or tender. He told me about mending burnt bridges with his only brother, also a minister. He said he was proud of me. I think he told me he loved me. This began the process of healing the damage wrought on my young life, and I felt badly that he was dying. We talked on the phone every day. I have a photo of him in my house now to check up on how it feels today to see his face. It still doesn’t bring feelings of anything but anxiety. Thank goodness I’ve never felt that about Mom.
After Dad died, she came to visit often; at least twice a year. She talked a lot about Dad and how she missed him. While my brothers and I groused about how Dad had made us feel so small, and traded notes about little mean things he had done (teasing mercilessly, laughing AT people—that one sucked), she told stories about his wonderful work at the Seminary and the students who still talked about him and what a great guy he had been. Of course I recognized his greatness to the outside world. I wanted to be mad at her because of how she felt about him, and occasionally voiced my big-mouthed opinion about how unfair it all had been.
Mom was surprised and apologetic, of course. Took the responsibility for not having defended us more. Maybe didn’t realize it, maybe just scared or uncertain. Maybe just happy to have a family in any way that it functioned.
One incident lives in my mind. On a certain Christmas visit about a year before Dad died, my brothers and I escaped to a hot tub at a hotel near the house. Something had happened which started tempers flaring and Dad had gotten angry. I can’t remember. It wasn’t particularly remarkable; this happened all the time. Among the gurgling bubbles, we talked about Dad and how mean he could be. Then I said to Fred, “You never argue with Dad. How can you stand it?”
Always the thinker, he replied, “If I fight with him, he just takes it out on Mom.”
Ah. He was right. But the most amazing thing was that she could take it. It’s like she didn’t even notice the tone or the bite of his voice. Like water off a duck’s back. (Love that saying.)
I have never fought with her. Imagine that. A daughter who has never had a fight with her mother. I’ll bet we could make it into the Guinness Book of World Records—fifty five years without a mother and daughter fight. You can also be assured that it was all due to her restraint.
My mother is true peace. She is absolute responsibility and recognition of blessings. I have a great example of who my mother really is. After she had moved in, one evening in late fall, she came back from her darkness. I knew before she even spoke a word. I could tell by the expression on her face—something in her eyes was clear and logical, replacing that vacant Alzheimer’s stare.
She was coherent again. All of a sudden, it was as if she had woken up from a stupor, and she sort of shook her head and said, “What am I doing here?”
It was different than the confusion she had exhibited at times before. It was lucid confusion—like she suddenly came to and noticed that things were different.
“You’re living here, Mom,” I said.
“What? How long have I been here?” she asked.
“About three months.”
“Three months! Why have I been here for three months?”
I stopped for a second and checked my breath. This was weird, but Mom was back. It was important to say the right thing.
“The doctors say you shouldn’t live alone anymore, so we brought you here to live.”
“This is terrible!” she said. Her face was twisted into a gruesome mask.
“What? No, it’s not terrible. You can’t remember things very well anymore and so it’s better if you live with someone. Just a second. Al?” I called for my husband. “Mom, just a second, I’ll be right back.”
I had seen this in the movie The Notebook. I had wondered if it was true, but here was adequate proof.
“Al!” I called for my husband, who was on the computer in the office. I got up and raced halfway down the hall and hissed, “You have to get in here. Mom’s back.”
We spent about fifteen or twenty minutes with her in the living room, trying to explain what was going on and why she was living with us (without saying the word Alzheimer’s), and all she could say was that it was terrible. Finally my husband said,
“Mom, it’s not terrible. Look. Look at us, the three of us living here. We want you to live here, and we’re fine. Look. Look around you and see that everything’s fine. It’s not terrible.”
My mother tilted her head. She looked upset. I was waiting for something that I would have to solve or answer.
“No, no, it’s terrible for you,” she said.
Dead silence. Her distress was not about her diminished situation, or that she couldn’t remember anything anymore or do much of anything for herself. Her distress was about me, about us. The fact that her infirmity was a burden on our lives, and she was the cause. We sat there for a while, talking about all kinds of things. Al went to bed, and finally my mother said,
“I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep.”
I didn’t want her to leave. My Mom was finally back after months of drifting, and now she was leaving again. I thought there was a good chance she wouldn’t be there in the morning.
“Okay. That’s fine Mom. That’s a good idea. We should go to bed.”
She started back toward her bedroom in her robe and slippers. Her tiny little shuffles whispered up from the tile. Suddenly, she turned and faced me.
“You’re amazing,” she said.
“You’re amazing. Why didn’t you just put me in a home?”
Tears leapt to my eyes. “Mom, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just put you somewhere.”
“You’re amazing,” she repeated.
We all have complaints about how we were raised, about the mistakes our parents made, likely in the throes of depression or entrapment or financial stress. We all know this. We would all like to hide behind the things that went wrong for me as a child. The problem is—it doesn’t work. We all have the potential to be brave and authentic and real. Only a few people seem to find their way there.
My mother’s stature grew exponentially that day. She was a giant. A big, strong, courageous hero. I put her to bed that night like she was a little kid. We both enjoyed it. I tucked her in and kissed her.
“I love you Mom.”
“Oh and I love you.”