We had perpetually called a rustic river house our spring break destination. Last year, we skipped it and headed for the beach, not to sunbathe in the lap of luxury instead, though we did. We skipped it because returning would emphasize our loss. Last week, however, we ventured back—without my father-in-love.
Thomas Thrower Mayo is not easily forgotten. He died just over a year ago after so many near-death illnesses that we had taken to calling him “the cat with nine lives.” I wish he had had more.
I had the dubious task of entering his life as the second wife of his eldest daughter’s husband. A much-loved Mary Lee had died at 30 years of age from melanoma, leaving behind her husband, four children, untold numbers of friends, and her grieving parents and siblings.
A young widow, I came into the Mayos’ lives two years later when I fell in love with my second husband. I would become the mother of their only grandchildren (at the time), ages 9, 8, 5, and 3, and have “an excellent opportunity for personal growth” (as my husband described it). As awkward as it may sound, embracing the Mayos as my husband’s in-laws and my “in-loves” (they described me as their daughter-in-love) was the easiest part of marrying this widower with four children.
Tom and Betty Jo played a huge role in the raising of my four plus one children (Steve and I added one to the mix). They opened their home to all of us and often took a child or two for a week or so during the summer or school breaks. They came up and took care of me and my household when I had surgery. They got together with us—at their place or ours—for holidays, graduations, vacations, and other celebrations.
They truly became my family.
This spring break, their river house appeared somewhat neglected when we arrived. A good cleaning helped, but a leaky faucet made the bathroom sink unusable, never-completed repairs to the closet limited storage, and electrical arcs emitted from a stove burner cautioned against its use. A neighbor’s new fence tightly skirted the property line; it made the outside shower nearly inaccessible. Drought rendered areas of the river impassable via boat and, actually, drivable via truck in parts.
But rather than make spring break miserable, the conditions inside and out simply triggered fond memories while we made new ones.
We knew, for instance, if Tom were alive, we’d never be sitting down to dinner three days after our arrival with a sink still unusable. His fastidious cleaning and care for his often weekend home would have negated the neglect much more quickly than our efforts did. We marveled at his handiwork–the deck that remained stable for more than 20 years. We could almost see him kneeling in the grass, removing weeds one by one. Or, with a dilapidated dictionary at his side, working the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper. As his health declined, we were often at his bidding to do what he could no longer do–with his oversight and commentary. And though he wasn’t there to direct us this time, we still did.
We enjoyed the memories rather than merely lamenting his passing. We remembered his close calls with death and his almost superhuman ability to survive. His ability to be both a night owl and an early bird, a teacher and a scholar. Some friends stopped by and told stories of the early days, way before I was part of his life. They told of his escapades, accidents, and adventures. I learned about a side of him I’d never known before. Together we remembered his comments and his commands. His childlike antics and his wisdom. The ways he annoyed us and the ways we fell in love with him over and over again.
Our return to the river house, somewhat more rustic than ever, did emphasize who we had lost. But it wasn’t overly sad. It was rich. As we recalled times past, we knew that our lives were forever positively changed by knowing Thomas T. Mayo. We loved and were loved; we lived and go on living, still loving, richer still.
Note: I wrote this post before my post titled “Unwired” (also about our river experience), but I wanted to pass it by my mother-in-love before publishing it since it contains such sensitive content. She emailed me yesterday to say, “..It was so realistic and gave honor to my man of 55 yrs. A great tribute. Have to say I didn’t have dry eyes about half way through to the end, but feel honored for you to post it on your blog.”