By Terry Boers-
(CBS) So many years have passed that the memory plays tricks, but to the best of my recollection the fights with my mother began in earnest during the summer of 1963 when I was 12 years old.
And we’re not talking just an occasional tiff. We’re talking about knockdown, drag-out battles that would go on for several days. And as I got older, the duration would sometimes stretch into weeks at a time when we were both on edge, when the slightest provocation by either of us would spark a confrontation
My dad, ever the quiet one, hated it. He didn’t like the constant tension because it made his life miserable, too. He even tried to mediate more than a few times, but my mom and I were far too much alike, stubborn and pigheaded, neither of us willing to admit that there was even the slightest chance we could possibly be wrong.
I’ve sure changed, eh?
What was the catalyst? I know that in early August of ‘63, a couple of friends and I had ridden our bikes to the Woolworth’s dime store that once sat right in the middle of the Chicago Heights’ business district, such as it was.
Now this wasn’t a trip that I was allowed to take too often, but I had permission. And yes, there had been other trips to the Heights that were, shall we say, unsanctioned.
We were probably in the store all of about 10 minutes, not exactly a shopping spree, but just enough to get what we wanted. What it was, I don’t even remember. What is permanently etched in my brain is that when we came back outside, only two bikes remained in the rack.
My red Schwinn was gone, never to be seen again.
I had a brief crying jag, mostly out of pure anger. Having anything stolen can be traumatic, but I didn’t know then the repercussions of that day’s event would last for years.
I walked the three miles or so back home that day, alternating between the tears and the rage, finally calming down a bit as we hit the Steger city limits, managing to compose myself for what lay ahead — telling my mom.
The way I had it figured, she would smother me with sympathy, completely understanding that none of what happened was my fault and quickly promise that we would replace the bike.
I was half-right. She did her best to make me feel better, offering consoling words and a tight hug.
What she didn’t offer was a new bike.
Not then. Not the next day. Not the next month.
I tried my best for a few weeks to make her see it my way, that being without a bike was a tremendous inconvenience that no child should have to suffer. Now I probably didn’t put in those exact words, but you get the idea.
I even tried telling her that when I started to play Pony League baseball next summer, it would be way on the other side of town, not just a block away like it had been my whole life.
She paused a second that day, knowing how much baseball meant to me. I thought at the very least I would get the bike replaced before the season, which was still about eight months away.
Nope. “Walk,’’ she finally said. “It won’t hurt you.”
That was “it won’t hurt” in the same sense as when she told me to cut the grass or take something to my grandma’s house. Anyway, with that it was over. Only later would I figure out that we simply couldn’t afford it. There was no malice intended, no form of punishment, just fact.
Did that begin the rift? Possibly.
I know she held firm. And so did my dad, who was far from an easy mark.
Not only wouldn‘t he spring for the bike, he never let me use his car even after I had my driver’s license after turning 16. That it took me three tries to get the license didn’t seem to enter into my thought process, even though he certainly wasn’t happy to have to drag me to the Kankakee driver’s license facility twice before I passed the driver‘s test. It was my bad. I had failed the test at Bloom in my first try.
It should be noted my dad was exceedingly particular about his cars, even though he always bought them used from a dealership in Peotone. He didn’t believe that I was all that particular about anything I owned. After a while, I stopped asking. No explanation was ever given, but I guess he could have been thinking I was a bad driver.
And while I ultimately did have a few friends who would consistently give me rides to work after I turned 16, the bottom line here is that I never had any other form of my own transportation until I had saved enough money to buy a car, roughly six years after the bike was stolen.
But enough of my childish petulance.
What I felt then has little to do with the way I feel now.
Aside from everything else, it was my mom who taught me to love reading, who pushed me at a very young age more than any of my grade-school teachers ever did.
She would take to me to downtown Chicago on the train three or four times a year on a supposed shopping trip. But she never seemed all that crazy about browsing the stores on Michigan Avenue. I soon discovered that the only place she really wanted to go was the old Kroch’s & Brentano’s, then the biggest bookstore in the business.
She steered me to The Hardy Boys series, and I would later make the Doc Savage books a huge part of my early reading matter. She didn‘t even mind that I would soon stretch it out to the James Bond collection and then find other books that might have been beyond my years. But I loved them all, most notably “Northwest Passage’’ by Kenneth Roberts.
I also know that when I was no longer the wide-eyed little kid who couldn’t get over the sights and smells of Chicago, I was a problem.
As I matriculated into Bloom Township High School, I gave her plenty of reason to worry. After getting over the shock of my freshman year when I was thrust into a school with more than 1,200 students, I was in drifting mode, discovering little of it was interesting, especially the advanced classes that I had been assigned.
And, yes, my mom hated my attitude. And I mean hated.
She didn’t think I was trying. Keep in mind here this was long before the days when parents were saddled with helping their kids with homework every night of the week.
Parents back then certainly didn’t seem quite as engaged during the school years, certainly not as obsessed as millions are today, understanding that the competition for everything can be downright cutthroat.
I didn’t have much of a plan, but then the majority of my friends weren’t much different. It’s possible all of us were idiots.
That I hit so many academic roadblocks didn’t help our relationship, although mom rarely would tell me what she really thought. Instead, we argued about other things, never quite getting to the real issue.
But we got to the gist of it often enough to make me feel pretty damn guilty about all of it. I know how right she was.
When I limped to the graduation finish line, I told her and my dad I wanted to apply to a few colleges, including Missouri, where journalism was supposedly king.
I could tell by their reaction it wasn’t going to happen. There was no money for such a grandiose plan. Actually, there was no money for any four-year school at that point.
OK, Prairie State Junior College, you got me.
Not long after, I used the money I’d squirreled away to buy a new car, promising that I would find a better summer job and save for the rest of my college tuition. I did get the job, but I didn’t manage to save much.
I quickly went from feckless to reckless, enjoying my new Dodge Charger well beyond the letter of the law and completely bamboozling the Steger police, who never had the pleasure of giving me a ticket.
But shortly after I began to speed through life, I met the love of my life in the summer of 1969 on my first day of work at Jack-in-the-Box. I was out painting the curbs when Carolyn Imgruet walked into my life.
She’s still here, 45 years later, miraculous considering until that point I’d never even had a steady girlfriend. Not even close. My occasional dates were almost always disasters, no doubt owing to the fact I was generally completely uncomfortable and it wasn’t all that important to me.
What’s great here is the two women in my life seemed to provide a necessary balance. And they quickly bonded because Carol was more than willing to listen to my mom reveal all the things wrong with me, a list that was never ending.
I completed the majority of my general education classes at Prairie State and eventually settled on Northern Illinois for my last two years.
Shortly after my first weeks at Northern (I came home every weekend), I noticed my mom didn’t ever seem to feel well.
She told me not to worry, it was nothing. I believed her because she always bucked the ways of my father by making steady visits to her doctor for years and years. She had taken care of herself as best she could. I didn’t recall even a day when she’d been ill.
By the time my senior year began in the fall of ‘71, Carol and I had already been married, had our first child and my mom still didn’t seem to be herself. I’ve got a picture of her holding baby John in our driveway that I cherish. Like most grandmothers, she was over the moon about the child she would never get to really know.
Given the circumstances, we didn’t get back to visit quite as much that final year at NIU, trying to conserve the small amount of cash we had.
Meanwhile, things with my mom had changed. She was going to the hospital for treatments, but I didn’t know it, her hiding that fact when we would manage to get home on weekends.
As April of ‘72 arrived, the prognosis had grown much darker. Still, I was kept out of the loop, even after she was hospitalized for the last time.
She wasn’t able to attend my graduation. Neither did my dad, who lovingly remained at her bedside. It would have been the proudest day of her life, the day she’d long dreamed of, the day when I would become the first college graduate in her family’s history.
I learned all of this well after the fact. Not long after the graduation ceremonies, she was gone, dead at the age of 56.
And even though my dad had known it was coming for months, he was in the deepest pain you can imagine. The usually emotionless one was a blubbering mess. So was I. After the initial shock, my dad told me mom didn’t want me to know what was really happening for fear that I would either miss my intended graduation date or quit school altogether.
I had put all of it so far out my mind during those awful days that my wife knows the story better than I do.
As an aside, I’ve gotten better over the years at expressing my true feelings to loved ones, understanding that you’re not guaranteed anything. I’m far from perfect, but I‘m way better than I used to be.
No one should have to bear the heavy burden of guilt, of things left unsaid for more than 40 years. And sadly, I regrettably fall in that category.
I did get that final moment to tell my mom how much I loved her before she slipped away for the final time.
But it would have been important to make sure she knew that I would have never, ever quit school, no matter what.
I would have been so proud to tell her she raised me better than that.