Something gained, something lost

My ex-wife's mother died last week. She was in her mid-80s. She had a very severe stroke and never woke up.

My ex-wife and I spent years not talking to each other, but we are friendly, if not friends, now nearly 20 years after our divorce.

When I heard about her mother, I called her up and expressed my condolences.

My ex and her mother didn't really get along.

But their fight wasn't one an outsider, even a husband of more than 10 years, was welcomed into.

They never really resolved their differences, I don't think, and I know my ex well enough to have deciphered her mixed feelings as she talked of her mother's passing.

At the same time last week - in one of those ironies that God, or whatever you call Whomever or Whatever created us, seems to luxuriate in - my 85-year-old mother was off on a trip to one of her favorite places, Niagara Falls. Since that wasn't enough for the Old Lady, she went on to Toronto instead of going back to Cincinnati after her third or fourth view of the cascading water. Toronto is home to nearly five million souls, and for those of us Midwesterners who don't warm to Chicago, it's the only alternative to New York east of the Mississippi River.

One dead, one healthy and on the road.

My mother and the ex's mother never really clicked. When Karen and I were married back in 1975, both mothers were already into their 50s and set in their ways.

My ex's parents wanted her to marry within her race - African American - and my mother was stunned and not bemused when I announced my nuptial plans.

Once my ex and I began raising our two daughters, both older women came around; there's nothing quite like grandchildren to knock people off their prejudicial perches. But they never became close friends.

But one quality both of them had in spades was a persistent loyalty to the proprieties of their age.

Neither ever would have considered divorce.

Both were regular attendees of their respective churches: Roman Catholic for my mom, African Methodist for my ex's mother.

Both obeyed secular and religious authority without much public questioning.

My generation, the much-touted and much-condemned Baby Boomers, lacked - as a group, certainly - the persistence, loyalty and sheer doggedness of the folks who preceded us.

It occurs to me, comparing my mom to myself, or my ex's mother to my ex, that what we gained in fluidity and choice, we lost in our generational inability to stick to anything much.

Divorce and drug addiction, to pick two, have skyrocketed over the past 20 years. I know my mother is puzzled to this day by my inability to stay in a relationship more than a decade; I'm a two-time loser in the long-term relationship game.

Of course, my mother never would have called her 27-year union with my dad or the 23 years she spent with my stepdad (after my dad died, younger than I am today) a relationship.

My mother thinks the word relationship is bloodless and doesn't fairly describe what goes on between two conjugally linked people over time. I've heard her call what she did with the only two men in her life marriage and union. Nothing else.

Once, when I asked her if she ever considered divorcing my dad - who was a much more difficult (and I would say interesting) man than my gentle, semi-phlegmatic stepdad - she laughed and said: "Murder yes, divorce never."

Of course, to be fair to us Boomers, racism, however tenacious some geographical pockets remain, is a much-reduced phenomenon in this country since we came of age.

And entertainment has profited from my generation's loosening of cultural prohibitions, too.

Mile Davis stands head and shoulders, creatively, rhythmically and melodically, over Lawrence Welk.

And the novels and journalism of Norman Mailer and John Updike, to name just two, couldn't have been written in all their profuse, profane glory if we, the Boomers, hadn't broken down the walls of cultural hypocrisy.

Still, I often think we gave up a lot to get what we got.

My mother and, to a lesser degree, my ex-wife's mother were both good women to have behind you when you were trying to move ahead with your life.

It would be a lie to say I miss my ex-wife's mother. But I am sorry she's gone.

The world we live in is diminished each time a person who has lived long and faithfully dies. May she rest in peace.

Dennis Wilken lives in Queen Anne. He can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]