When Both Parents Are Gone

Reading: When Both Parents Are Gone

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When Both Parents Are Gone

Even as a parent herself, she had always had mom and dad. Until she didn’t

By Harriet Riley

I am starting a walk with my dog after work on one of those mild winter nights in the far-too-early dusk of December. I watch the interior lights flickering on in the houses that line my suburban street. My mind drifts in that relaxed state of free-flowing thoughts: what to cook for supper, which outfit to wear to teach tomorrow, a chore I need my husband to do.  

Then I am struck by a sudden thought. My breath stops and my chest catches. I realize I am no longer a daughter. 

I have no idea why it’s taken me almost two years to have that epiphany. I have always been someone’s child, the daughter of Lib and Billy. That is my earliest memory. My first identity.  I remember being in my backyard sandbox and seeing my father’s car pull in the driveway and hearing my mother call me inside for dinner. Now, more than two years after my father’s death and 21 years after my mother’s, reality is setting in.

There is no one to call me daughter.

Becoming a Parentless Daughter
This feeling came out of the blue. Walking with my dog and looking from afar into the homes of neighborhood families made me suddenly realize my own status had drastically changed. My children have grown and no longer need my day to day care. I feel like I’m no longer a parent and no longer a child. I’m somewhere I never anticipated.

Joan Didion said, “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”  

I remember and appreciate my past, but I never saw this future for myself. 

I never envisioned myself as a parentless daughter. I’ve lived away from home for so long that I’m accustomed to not having parents in the same city. It’s been 30 years since I graduated from college, and I have only lived in my home state for one of those years. But I’ve always had a parent to call and make me feel like someone’s beloved child. I would call my mother and ask her any silly question that came to mind, like, How do you iron a shirt? What’s the best way to boil an egg? After her death, I continued to visit my father several times a year and call the new house he lived in home.  

No matter how old I got, I always felt like a child when I visited my parent’s home. Emotions that I didn’t think much about the rest of the time, both good and bad, couldn’t be stopped from rising to the surface when I was home — jealousy toward a sibling for getting more attention, unexpected tears at departures, impatience with Mama or Daddy for their endless stream of questions about my friends, my work, my relationships.

Every time I visited my father’s house after my mother’s death, I would find myself standing in front of the refrigerator staring at the contents for several minutes before finally selecting an apple, just as I’d done since I was big enough to open the refrigerator door. I still expected to be greeted in the driveway and hear the same blessing before the meal: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” When my mother was alive, I continued to receive a basket from the Easter Bunny, complete with a chocolate bunny and a new swimsuit, no matter how old I was. My father always, without fail, pressed a $20 bill into my hand in the driveway each time a visit came to an end.

Seeing the End of Being a “Daughter”
It’s hard for me to believe neither parent visited the home that I’ve lived in for the last seven years and my mother never met my younger daughter, now 19, or my current husband. I feel like they all know each other. But they don’t.  

I didn’t know this daughter thing would end one day. I thought I’d always feel safe and protected in my father’s house. I’ll never forget when I first divorced and my children went to their father’s, and I’d go visit my own father. I would let him take care of my meals and I’d sleep until noon. I needed to let go of being a parent and become a child again, even if only for a few nights.

As my evening walk around the neighborhood continues, I think about my visit to LBJ White House in Stonewall, Texas, the day before. On my tour, I kept thinking, “Daddy will love hearing about this.” When I arrive home after a trip, I instinctively reach out to call my mother to let her know I made it back safely. Every day, I want to tell one of my parents some story or ask some question or get some kind of approval.

I want to be able to drive home and lie down next to my mother in her bed, as I did so many times when she was ill. I want to hug my father one last time and make sure he knows how much I love him.

On my evening walk, the night has become completely black. I look one last time into the windows of my neighbors and see families gathered around the tables sharing a meal. I want to tell the children to appreciate their parents. Like Emily in Our Town, I want to cry out for them to notice the feeling of being a son or a daughter. It goes so fast. It goes too soon. 

I realize that I am the adult in the room. There is no one else to turn to. It’s up to me. All those years with the comfort and security of having a parent are gone. I yearn for those days again, but this time I’m no longer a daughter. Just a mother, a wife, a teacher, a writer, an aunt. As I draw to the end of my evening neighborhood loop, I accept that there’s a big gap in my identity that I wasn’t prepared for.

It’s hard to see the end.

Harriet Riley is a New Orleans–based freelance nonfiction writer focusing on personal essays and journalism. She has her MA in print journalism from UT Austin and taught creative writing for 11 years with Writers in the Schools Houston. She has published articles in 64 ParishesMississippi FolklifeMinerva Rising, and the Wanderlust anthology. You can reach her on Instagram @hatrireads or on X @hatriri.

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