My mother and father got married in the Byzantine Catholic Church in 1945 after Dad came home from England at the end of the Second World War, Mom having waited for him, writing to him every day, and saving herself for him.
Our Dad always loved our Mom and saved his heart for her alone, but he did have a girlfriend in England too. I don’t know if Dad ever told Mom about his English girlfriend, but there is a brief passage in his brief diary that he kept as a young man in England during this time that refers to this other young woman and, even, to a church they were in once . . . so maybe they had even thought of marriage. Had they wed, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Dad probably did tell our Mom about his wartime girlfriend, but we never heard anything about it from him or from her. Our Dad was also overseas for the Korean War in the 1950s, as well as twice in Vietnam during the 1960s. Dad may have also had a wartime girlfriend or two in Korea and also Vietnam.
I never would have thought about our father being unfaithful to our mother, but war does things to people that no one can foresee. And another reason that I think that maybe this was possible is because our cousin Richard who was an army grunt in the Mekong Delta in the then “South Vietnam” once told me that he and my father had visited the bars and whorehouses in Saigon together at least once in 1968. But Richard was also a lifelong womanizer and drug user and not a reliable witness to the truth. Richard lied like he breathed. If there was any truth to our cousin’s account then maybe my Dad was going out with his nephew to these places to keep watch that Richard didn’t get himself into more trouble than he could get out of all by himself. Our Dad was very responsible like that. But still . . . temptation comes to everyone, I know.
Our Dad was raised a Lutheran, but he converted to the Byzantine Catholic Church for our Mom. So, therefore, Dad was never a staunch Lutheran obviously. But he did have a faith in God, which he lived and modeled for his children, and he took us all to church every Sunday. After they were married and had to move around so much when Dad had re-enlisted in the post-war, newly-formed United States Air Force, the Hessingers started attending the Roman Catholic Church on the various bases where Dad was stationed, wherein they raised all five of their children: Joseph Julius, Mary Frances, Susan Jean, Mark Edward, and Kathryn Marie.
Our Mom was the first person to tell me about Jesus Christ, the God/Man in whom I devoutly once believed, then didn’t, and now do again, but who I never understood and still do not. But our Mom portrayed Jesus to me all her life . . . and so I have some understanding of Him through her.
Our Dad and Mom lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Maine, Arizona, Spain, New Mexico, Bethlehem again, New Jersey, Bethlehem a third time, Oklahoma, Kansas, and then Arizona for good and then good byes. The first time in Bethlehem was when they got married. The second and third times were the two times that Dad was in Vietnam and Mom took Susan, me, and Kathy to live in our grandparent’s house, once with our Pappy and Grammie in ’64, then later in ’68 with just our Grammie after our Pappy had died.
Unless I missed one or two, those were all the places that our parents lived, had their five children, and raised their family during their marriage that only ended when our Dad died in 1991. Mom then lived out her widowhood in the only house that our Dad and Mom had ever owned in Tempe, Arizona, until she died in 2005. During those years, our Mom raised us kids mostly alone even if our Dad was home.
Our Dad was good for family vacations, backyard barbecues, fishing trips, and celebrations from graduations to weddings, but Mom did all the heavy lifting of parenthood like helping us with our homework, doing ALL the household chores, except yard work outside, which was a man’s job, and all the child discipline, sometimes with her infamous wooden spoon, or whatever else she might find handy in the heat of the moment. Dad contributed his hollering when he was upset and a very varied colorful vocabulary that all us kids learned from him.
Mom NEVER cussed until she was in her eighties . . . and then it was just funny but not scary like when our Dad used to holler and profanely curse God, Mom, us kids, and just life in general. But Dad didn’t do that all the time, and he was never abusive in any other way, and so life was generally good, but it was hard . . . as is all of life hard for everyone, I guess.
Our Mom and Dad raised their children across at least three or four worldwide cultural upheavals that deeply effected each of us and caused no small strain in our family, if not also in our souls. Our parents’ marriage, child bearing, and child rearing began in the so-called “Golden Age” of American post-war economic prosperity. It was the Eisenhower era of the “baby boom” and the rise of the emerging middle class in our country. Our family was always at the bottom of that so-called middle class, but we were all grateful to be there if we ever thought about it at all, which I don’t think that we did.
Then came rock and roll in the 1950s, that great cultural corrupter of youth. After that was the morally devastating sexual revolution of the 1960s, followed by the rampant use of illegal drugs in the 1970s, and then even harder drugs and even worse sexual debauchery in the 1980s. If you don’t think that we kids didn’t give our Dad some things to holler about and to take out all his frustrations on our Mom, then you likely don’t know people very well or human nature at all.
By the time we kids had somehow gone through our respective youthful rebellions, either subtle like my older siblings’ or blatant like my own and my kid sister’s, our Dad and Mom were exhausted. I will always be grateful that the last few years that our parents had with one another they got to live together in their own home alone like at the short but sweet start of their marriage so long ago. But now they were surrounded by their finally straightened out kids who each had somehow managed to marry good spouses and who were bringing over grandkids regularly for our Dad and Mom to love and enjoy, even as they now got the chance to re-enjoy their long lasting marriage of just “Joe and Julie.”
I’m not writing a book here about all the life lessons that our Mom taught us kids, but I could if I took the time. However, I’ll conclude this post with just two memories, the first one I was present to see because I was the protaganist and the second one my sister Susan told me about a couple of years before our Mom died, and I wish that I could have been there to see it.
The first one was when things at home were at their most tumultuous because I was in such blatant teenaged rebellion, setting a horrible example for my kid sister Kathy who would soon follow in her big brother’s footsteps, and it seemed that Dad was now hollering ALL the time and Mom’s trusty wooden spoon couldn’t work it’s magic any more because rebellious teenagers just laugh at a little old woman wielding a wooden spoon.
I remember when I was seventeen counseling my own mother who looked like she was bearing the weight of the world on her small, soft shoulders to “just leave Dad, Mom . . . just LEAVE HIM.”
“You don’t NEED all this goddamn bullshit, Mom!” I said. “You’ve got a job. DIVORCE DAD. Get the fuck out of here!”
It hardly helped that the giver of this sage advice was the originator of so much of the family stress at the time and was delivering his counsel in words that he’d learned from his Dad and which surely grieved our Mom even more and must have made her feel like such a failure in the one thing that she wanted most to do right in her life, that is, to lovingly “mother” her children.
But my Mom DID think long and hard about what her worldly wise son was saying to her.
It must have been such a temptation for her to maybe DO what so many other American married couples had done in the three decades since she and Dad had begun their marriage . . . just end it . . . LEAVE all that “bullshit” behind and start a new life of peace and love and happiness somewhere else.
I watched my mother deeply consider what I had just advised her to do, her head bowed in thought . . . perhaps also in prayer.
After many minutes passed, our Mom lifted her head, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after He was finished praying and was resolved to do His Father’s Will even if that led Him to His Cross. Mom didn’t look at me. She simply looked straight ahead with a flint-like gaze, and she said, “No. We DON’T do that.”
And because of her decision that day, our Mom and Dad got to finish what they had started in 1945, and they made it all the way to the end . . . to the JOY.
Two years before she died, our Mom was eighty five and visiting our Dad’s grave with my sister Susan who had then recently survived four horrible years of what could easily have been terminal cancer. During that terrible and tortuous time our Mom lived every agonizing moment with her desperately sick daughter because Susan had called our Mom everyday to wail and to curse God and then to pray and to seek some strength from our Mom so that Susan could fight for her very life . . . for herself . . . and for her loving husband and their little son. I think that Susan got her heroic fighting spirit from our Mom then because she had always been before that such a weakling.
When they got to our Dad’s grave that day, it had been some dozen years since his body had been laid to rest there in the national cemetery with full military honors where a meticulously uniformed airman had knelt before our grieving mother seated in her graveside chair and presented her the ceremoniously tri-folded American coffin flag that he had lowered from his chest nearest to his heart into her hands while looking into her eyes now filled with tears as he whispered these words . . .
“On behalf of the President of the United States . . . and the United States Air Force . . . and a grateful nation . . . please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service to our country,”
Susan said that when she was with our Mom on this visit now twelve years after our Dad’s burial that Mom knelt her tired, old body down beside our Dad’s grave, kissed her fingers to her lips, touched this hallowed ground with her hand, and said to him . . . and to herself . . .
“Ah, Joe, it gets harder every year.”
Leave a Reply