Everyone’s parents are giants.

I think that’s why fairy tales and myths contain giants which must be avoided or befriended. Or defeated. We’re small, the giants are huge; they can kill us. (They can also help us.)

When I was young, my parents – like everybody’s parents? – loomed, titanic, like the 100-foot-tall statue called “Colossus” of the Sun God standing above the ancient city of Rhodes. Richard (my father) and Mary Ann (my mother) radiated rage and disappointment and ambition and love; I both adored them and was terrified of them.

One way that I continue to heal from my childhood pain is to learn about Richard and Mary Ann, and to imagine them as children. And as teenagers. And as college kids. To imagine them hopeful about life, trying to live through their own pain around their own families (they both had hard and confusing childhoods, like mine). They are not colossuses – what’s the plural? – colossi.

A few years ago, doing family research, I revisited pictures of their 1960 wedding. It is an awkward wedding, because I had been conceived a few months before that, in a car.[1]

They were young; Richard was 21 when I was born, Mary Ann was 20. Richard and Mary Ann dated, or just got together, and I figure they had the wild-eyed, fumbling, rushed, unskilled-but-inspired sex of young people, like a nuclear explosion or a car wreck, after which the survivors look around, pick up the wreckage, and see if they can stand up. I smile when I think about them being just college kids. Just full of life and passion. Going to class, studying, falling in love.

Not giants.

I wasn’t close to Richard, and I didn’t get the story from him. My mother didn’t tell me that I was conceived before she and Richard married until I was about to leave for that same college.

It never occurred to do the math; my sister and I never knew Richard and Mary Ann’s wedding date because “your father” was someone Mary Ann didn’t talk about. But Mary Ann did tell me, when I was about to leave for school, I think not only to warn me about sex (a little late) but also to unload the burden of shame that she’d carried for 18 years. The trauma. The disappointment.

This 20-year-old girl, halfway through the spring semester of her first year of college, misses a period in her menstrual cycle. And another. And goes, terrified, to the public clinic (probably not the campus doctor at a Baptist college), and then she tells the tall handsome boy that they need to talk.

She’s heartbroken; she had gone to Baylor to study Journalism, to become a trailblazing female writer. Now she’s stuck. (She would, much later, in a fit of rage, tell me she should’ve had the abortion everyone advised her to.)

I imagine Richard, receiving Mary Ann’s news, saying something like “What?” or “Oh God.” And the blood drains from his face and he leans over in a spasm of oh-shit-there-goes-my-life. Maybe he leaves and gets drunk. Or maybe he holds Mary Ann and comforts her, and just swallows his own terror. Maybe they both scream at each other, because of their fear, as they would while I was growing up.

I look at Richard and his pregnant wife. Everybody at this little reception knows (that’s his very quiet father beside him), and he has to go through with this ritual, with shame hanging over his shoulders. Richard, the now-married college sophomore, has a nice smile, and I want to take that young man in my arms and hug him and tell him I’m sorry, I know this is terrifying, I know you’re in way over your head. I can see already that it’s going to be hard. But I can’t save him; this is his path.

He is not a giant, or a statue, not the imposing figure Rick at 4 or 7 or 9 thought he was. Neither is Mary Ann; though far fiercer than Richard, she’s still just a young woman who is making the best of what has happened. I see her sadness and determination, and her big smile and white dress, I want to tell her she’s beautiful, and good, and that it’s okay.

[1] Actually, I don’t know if it was a car; it could have been in a dorm room, or at a friend’s apartment, or on a blanket in a park. But “in a car” is funnier.

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  1. Lovely story. It’s so real. Most of us, I suspect, could tell a “shame story” about our own families. A major part of growing up, growing older, and growing into maturity is seeing our parents as the complex, flawed human beings that they are. Thank for sharing this.

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