Updated: Jan 17, 2022
My mother, Nita, was 97 years old when she died in 2019. But this was a narrative which happened in November before her death. We had a special little birthday party for her, consisting of the usual: family, cake and presents. But what happened to me was a little unusual.
My mother had previously mentioned to me that she wanted a new music device and certain recordings to listen to. I arranged that, packed it all up in my car and headed off to my parent's Santa Ana home in which they lived since 1962. When I arrived, I found my mother rummaging through a closet. She asked me to please come and take a look at her favorite dresses she had neatly arranged from as far back as 50 years ago. She'd put off giving them away because they were so beautiful and because, I imagine, memories of her life were attached to them. We began pulling out dress after dress, and as I saw their quality and beauty my appreciation of them began to grow, as I suspect she knew it would. I slipped in and out of them, and then I saw a dress I fell in love with.
Just about that time, I heard my father call my name from down the hall, so I set the dress aside, for the moment, and went to find him. He was putting together the music device and needed some help. We finished the job and carried her gift together down the hall, past her, into the dining room.
When she turned and saw her present she was thrilled and told us so. I keyed up some songs she'd asked to hear and asked which one she would like to listen to first. While she was making her selection, the dress I had set aside caught my eye and I went over to it and slipped it on. The dress was a perfect fit. I loved the way the wool hugged my waist and the way the fullness of the taffeta skirt flared out around my legs.
My mother handed me a recording by Jo Stafford titled, “You Belong To Me.” The song, I learned that day, was my mother's favorite. The year was 1944, she had been 21. The music began with very nostalgic-sounding horns and Stafford's sad and sweet voice singing: "See the pyramids along the Nile..." and my mother said to me, "Oh Heather, listen to the lyrics." It was a World War II song about American boys off fighting for their country across the ocean. I looked at her face, now full of emotion, eyes staring into the device, as though she could see through it to another time long ago - to the place she had been when the song was her own.
I turned to walk out and listen to the lyrics in the next room, and as I did I looked over my shoulder at my father. He was standing near my mother, further back, feet apart, both hands in his hip pockets, head cocked to one side, with a crooked smile on his lips, also staring into the device, seeing another place and time.
I went into the other room, wearing my mother's dress. It was sophisticated and elegant. I wondered at the perfect fit and realized it was so because we had figures that were remarkably alike. Looking down at my bare feet, I began to twirl in slow circles. I wasn't yet a part of the world when that had been their song, and so I gave them a moment alone in their reverie.
I heard Jo Stafford sing: "Fly the ocean in your silver plane...see the jungle when it's wet with rain," still twirling in my mother's dress of 50 years ago, in the living room in which they raised me. I began to imagine what surely they must have been remembering in the room next to me. In my mind, cloudy, foggy, images began to appear.
I saw my young, handsome, brave father, in his pilot's uniform, flying the ocean in his silver plane he named "The Nita Nell". I saw him grim and serious, living through the times that made him a medaled war hero. I thought of how those moments must have affected what he was to become, and what he is today. I imagine my young mother, sitting in the dress I was now wearing, thinking of my father, afraid for him. Both of them young, beautiful and in love. Being brave for their brave and beautiful country that was younger and purer, as well. I thought of how the houses must have been quieter and darker then, waiting for news from their boys, so far away.
Then, for just a moment I was my father. Travelling the world, waking up in the middle of the night in nervous anticipation of that day's assignment and wondering if I would awaken the following day. For just a moment, I was my mother. Shy and lonely, pretty and fun, wondering when I would see him next. Sharing the same fears with worlds between us. I was her for a second, in her dress, listening to her song, imagining him: "Seeing the marketplace in old Algiers, waiting for photographs and souvenirs."
For just a moment I knew what it was like to be both of them-on separate sides of the world- and I realized it is because I am both of my parents. A little of the light that shines in me, is he, is she. For a moment I wished the world could be a little simpler, as it must have been then. I thought how grateful I am to be the daughter of these two fine people, and what a good life they have provided for me and the sacrifices they continued to make.
As the song ended, I felt the gentle tap of reality on my shoulder. I was sorry because I had enjoyed my trip back to 1944. It felt good there. Standing alone-in the middle of the room-the house quiet now - 2020 surrounding me once again. I walked back into the room in which I'd left my parents, knowing them better now. Knowing how fortunate I am that They Belong To Me.
*Note: The late Oakley Waite flew 35 missions in Europe during WWII and retired as a homicide investigator with the Orange County Sheriffs Department; Nita Waite was executive director of United Cerebral Palsy, Orange County before her death in 2019. Heather is a freelance writer.