Some years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.
I sat listening with my ears pricked up as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for a solid two hours.
Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.
But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a lifelong love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together. The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.
In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.
I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.
She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call “happy families.” We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.
But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.
Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love, and in all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things like having babies and making sure we could feed them.
But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial roller-coaster that hit a lot of folks from around 2008 to 2011. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.
So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.
It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.
Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.
It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.
We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship most often requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”
Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.
In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness, there’s hope.”
That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.
The first time I saw the house we now call home, I thought I might kill my husband. We’d moved across country from San Francisco to Virginia in order to live a quieter life. A life our children could look back on as being filled with memories of small town wonder: playing in streams, catching crawdads, taking hayrides, huddling by a wood-burning stove after a snow storm. After years of hipster restaurants and glittering to-dos, we looked forward to doing the uncool things like Christmas caroling and knowing our neighbors well enough that we could drop by any old time just to say hello. Or ask to borrow a cup of good gin.
I’d had a baby only a couple of months prior to our move, so I hadn’t been part of the whole house hunting process. I’d left it solely in the hands of my husband, confident that he and I shared the same sensibility – a love of the very old or the ultra modern with little room for in between, an appreciation of nooks and crannies and imperfections. Or of vision. We longed for a home with story and a sense of style all its own. Or a place where we could invent the story ourselves. Such is the pathology of writers – at least these two writers. We’re people of romance, not utility. And we don’t like to keep up with the Joneses so much. To quote my husband, Jack. “I just can’t live in a place where I could see myself standing by a pool and giving a recent graduate advice to go into ‘plastics.'”
We’d always done well with our choices before – being exactly on the same page when we bought a loft condo converted from an old automotive factory, rented a shabby chic Victorian flat, and almost purchased a plot of land ready for a prefab house that would ultimately have been made of wood and concrete.
So, as we plotted our radical change of address from California to Virginia, Jack would send me pictures of this house he’d found, which I have to admit looked good. In his emails, he swore up and down how much I was going to love our new place, and I was so on board. The painted brick of our proposed home, the large, Shaker-inspired windows, all showed tremendous promise. I loved that the structure paid homage to its geography with four white columns and a big front porch begging for a couple of rockers, but upon closer look had the austerity of a post office.
The place screamed Southern Gothic.
“And it’s historic,” my husband said. Which is true. “It’ll accommodate us as our kids grow and we have more children.” Also true. “It’s got magic, sweetheart, trust me.” That was the part I had a hard time with a few weeks later as I stood staring at a gloomy and ancient brick house that looked more suitable for the Addams family. To add a sour cherry on top of this gloppy, half-melted sundae, our new house sat about a softball’s throw from an active (although not prolifically so) single railroad track. I can’t say that it looked nothing like it’s photographs, but it definitely had the quality of an aging actor seen up close. All of a sudden you’d pick up what the camera didn’t, what good lighting obscured. Like the hair dye, the pancake make-up, dentures, too many attempts at plastic surgery.
“I love it,” I said, swallowing hard. He was so excited and there was no way I was going to burst his bubble. Especially since we’d already secured financing. That night, the first time a train came by around midnight – and felt like it was thundering right through my forehead – I actually went into the bathroom and cried.
“We knew we’d like y’all,” our neighbors told us. “Only special people would buy your house.”
Hmm. Special. At least when I was growing up, special was a word used to describe kids who were different, but not in a good way. Kids who were weird were “special.” Kids who had disabilities were “special.” They rode on a separate bus and ate at a table off to the side during lunch.
And now we were special. We lived in a special house. One that, like the trains, was going to take some getting used to. The tall, tall ceilings and oddly shaped rooms – some oblong, others square and huge. Still others tiny, like prayer rooms. The heat would grind, the floors would creak for no good reason – even when no one was stepping on them. A family of snakes made their home in our basement.
We were told this was a good thing. Keeps the rodent population down.
But after about a week, the lone coal train that would come through in the middle of the night stopped waking me up. And lo and behold, rather than waking our kids up, that train actually put them to sleep. Whenever they started crying, the way children under two are apt to do, Jack and I would check the clock to see if the train was coming any time soon, and if it was – cha-ching! We knew that by the time its hard-stepping lullaby was finished, they would be fast asleep.
I figured this was a sign. A sign that I should maybe give our new house a chance before I began slowly planting the seeds that we ought to be looking for a different place. A converted barn, perhaps. We’d always wanted one of those.
So, about ten days into living in our new home, I picked up my camera and went from room to room taking photographs of each space and all of the details I liked – the antique tin ceilings, the original pine floors spotted with coal burns and oil drum rings, the handmade, flat-headed nails that held the place together, the way the light moved through the house as the day progressed.
I began to revel in the natural beauty that surrounds us. Long walks on a country railroad provide some of the most sublime back views in our county. At night, during the spring and summer, bats flutter around the moon like it’s a bug light, while local foxes scream blood-curdling mating calls.
The place did have potential. Even if I couldn’t wrap my head around when or how, with a bunch of little babies crawling around, we were ever going to fulfill that potential. It’s not like either of us had the time or skills to fix her up on our own.
It’s funny, though, about dreams. About taking on more than you think you can handle. It’s a tender process that you must surrender to bit by bit. You learn to fix the things that need fixing – or find someone who can do it for you. You learn to work with the place instead of fighting against it.
“Know what you do when you’ve got a problem in an old house?” Said our neighbor, whose home is even older than ours. “Ignore it. Usually goes away on its own.”
I started to imagine colors on the country trim that frame our doors and windows – moss greens, chocolates, rich creams, faded reds.
“If we knock that wall down, we’ll double the size of the living room.”
“Do you think we can make that chimney work?”
“How about if we blow out the ceiling in our bedroom to expose the original wooden beams?”
Just so, we began to execute to the structure’s potential, instead of complaining about its shortcomings. We started to celebrate the glorious layers of past, present and future that made up our home.
And in the process, our house became as much a part of our dreams as our work, our family, our love. We wanted to do right by her. Respect the relationship our house had and continues to have with the community at large. Seems everybody around here has a story about her. If not them, then their dad, or grandmother, or Uncle Louie.
We wanted our time here to leave behind a story or two as well. So, we did our part.
While we’ve never been much into Christmas bedazzling outside of putting up a Christmas tree, we made sure to screw green and red light bulbs into our porch lights outside. We’ve done this mostly for the train conductors who always blare their horns in salute as my kids jump and wave at them. When our son was really little, the conductors would even let him sit in the caboose when it was time for a shift change. In recent years, that same boy – not so little anymore – has mooned them at least a half dozen times. And they’ve been awfully good sports about that.
And as we’ve become the stewards of the long road of memories made here, we’ve come to understand how a place, too, can be a living thing. There is a magnetic quality to this house that not only lured us to it, but has kept us here. It is as tangible as the unmistakable something that draws us to a friend or a lover or a calling.
Sometimes we have cursed how this old broad seems to hold us captive. Other times we have thanked the powers that be for letting us stay. Mostly, it’s been the latter. But whatever the case, I’ve been forced to reconsider my initial reaction to this place, and embrace my husband’s instincts.
In that rare moment in a marriage, I’m compelled to say, “I was wrong. Yes, I was unequivocally wrong, and you were right, honey. This place does indeed have magic.”
“It feels like it’s starting to get away from us,” Jack, my husband, said as we lay in bed this past weekend, our children’s howls and thumps reverberating from the den. By “it” he means the time we have with our babes. And yes, of course, there’s plenty of time left – our kids are 13, 11 and 8, as of recently, and still love to hang, as they say.
But the fact is, our days of being parents of small children are pretty much behind us, having passed in a dog-tired blur. While I don’t miss those early days exactly, I am conscious of the passage of time – that it expands like the Big Bang, hurtling away faster with each year.
“It’s the longest, shortest twenty years of your life,” a friend once told us, back when our kids were merely toddlers. We were up most nights then, and always had a nose to wipe, a bath to give, a diaper to change. Time seemed to crawl by, evidenced only by the stubborn dark circles that had parked themselves under our eyes and would not move.
It’s only now that we’re beginning to feel the hard truth of our friend’s observation. No longer are we in the business of being our children’s everything. I think, if pressed, our two older kids could actually survive without us. Perhaps not well, or happily, or comfortably – but could they eek by? I say with a mixture of pride and dejection that the answer is probably yes. I see it in their closed doors and hear it in their self-possessed laughs to jokes we’re not in on. Our children are needing us less; the cuddles come at their convenience; they have secrets.
Just last summer, I watched through my rear view mirror as my middle daughter, Charlotte, played dreamily with a naked, brown-haired American Girl doll. Seat belt pulled tightly over her hot pink t-shirt, she sat up tall, flat-chested, with the doll perched on her lap. I was breathless at her beauty. Charlotte whispered to her doll, “Do you want some chocolate milk?” She smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead just as I have done countless times to her and her sister.
I never wanted the moment to end.
Yet, only a few weeks ago Charlotte went to her first Middle School formal dance, and with a date no less. He’s a nice boy – funny, upbeat and a good dancer to boot. And whatever “romance” they share consists mostly of “liking” each other’s goofy posts on Instagram and meeting up at their lockers for a daily download of “what’s up.”
Although she’s not in the full swing of teendom yet, with the eye rolls, the make up, the obsessive texting, her doll days appear to be over. Charlotte didn’t even move her dolls – including her once beloved nudist, surrogate daughter – into her new room when she checked out of the space she used to share with her younger sister.
“Jo likes to play with them,” she said. “And I want to put pictures of Paris up in my room.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for the way she wants to take a bite out of life and hope she continues to share her stories and passions with me – the ones she’s willing to share, that is.
But every day I feel more like “The Giving Tree.”
If it weren’t for the wonders of this journey, I might be inconsolable at the way I’ve been downgraded. Unable to hear the awe in my husband’s voice when he comments on our children’s growing independence.
But I do hear it, and his excitement is infectious.
He will point out how gratifying it is to witness the emergence in them of an interior life. They can now draw comfort from solitude that doesn’t consist only of imaginary play and fantasy, giving us a reprieve from their once constant demands for amusement or attention. And it is riveting to listen in as our children transcend the hysterically idiotic conversations that we’ve overheard from the back of the minivan over the years, diving headlong into exchanges about politics, the fallacy of “reality” TV, the effects of divorce on friends who are going through that particular family crisis.
At this very moment, I’m eavesdropping on my daughter’s on-Skype debate with a friend about the virtues of Rembrandt versus a female artist like Georgia O’Keefe. The discourse then moves to Magritte – “None of his stuff is even disturbing!” before morphing, inexplicably, into fashion – “You never wear jeans. Only yoga pants and tennis shoes. What’s up with that?”
It is humbling to learn that my eleven year-old knows more about art than I do.
They are beginning to contemplate not only how their lives are shaped by their environment – food, shelter, an education, a democratically elected government, an intact family – but how they, in turn, can shape the environment around them through acts of kindness and understanding, an ability to own up to their mistakes, and to grow from having to eat the occasional sh*t sandwich. Clumsily, they are learning to grasp how standing up for themselves boldly and aggressively if need be, can change the power structure in almost any relationship.
Even the one they have with us.
Expressions of love, while less joyful and flagrant, are true and come when we least expect them. “I don’t think you’ve ever lied to me, mom,” my son told me over the holidays. “Except, of course, about Santa and the Easter Bunny.”
“Have you lied to me?” I asked.
“Uh…can I plead the 5th?”
I’m impressed he even knows what the Fifth Amendment is. So, yes, there is much to find in the transformation we are witnessing, and ultimately, responsible for.
But my husband and I cannot deny what we will be leaving behind either. While we have always bragged about what great empty-nesters we will make, even Jack now acknowledges that he no longer looks quite so forward to our kids fleeing the nest, paying their own bills, and leaving us in peace to rediscover our pre-children relationship. Lately, in addition to dreaming up travels we’d like to embark on together – road trips to quirky landmarks, remote towns, and vistas of God-like splendor – we are starting to scheme brazenly about orchestrating fantastical trips that will be too tempting for our children to pass up when they get older. Especially if we’re paying. Christmas in Prague, a villa on the Italian Riviera, a beach vacation in Thailand and other fabulous getaways that we’ll doubtfully be able to afford.
“If we do our job right,” my husband says. “They will most certainly leave. They might even run out of here like they’re on fire, but they’ll be back. And if not… there’s always grandchildren.”
My eight year-old daughter, Josephine, has had a falling out with one of her best friends recently. I don’t know what exactly caused the rift in the first place, but the girls have found themselves in some sort of altercation on a near daily basis.
This experience has furnished me with one of the great perks of being a parent – that of being privy to some of the most insane, hilarious and strangely poignant conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.
While I’m truly sorry that my daughter is hurting, gems like the following exchange don’t come along every day, offering a glimpse not only into playground dynamics, but the inner workings of a child’s mind.
My daughter’s friend: “My life is so much harder than yours – you’ve just got it too easy and you never have to deal with anything big.”
Josephine: “I can’t believe you would say that. Do you know how many scary roller coasters I’ve been on?”
At this point in my daughter’s play-by-play of her fight with this former best friend, I said, “Well, honey, you’ve also had cancer and nearly died a bunch of times.”
Josephine: “Yeah, I know. And then do you know what else I told her? I said, ‘You’ve never even been on the Mach Tower at Busch Gardens and I HAVE! They drop you two-hundred feet in the air!”
On one hand, Josephine’s implied assertion that roller coasters are scarier than cancer sounds utterly ridiculous – the kind of thing that makes my mother flick her hand and say, “Oh, you kids! You know nothing” But in a way, she’s right. Scary roller coasters certainly feel scarier than cancer. They go at breakneck speed, are discombobulating, give you whiplash and make your stomach drop. Illness is more methodical than that. And more insidious. You can look fine, feel fine, but be just months away from death if you don’t do something about it – fast.
What my daughter was describing is the rawness of fear, as a child is apt to do. We adults tend to be far more rational about it. We soothe ourselves with statistics, recalling that the chances of our fun car derailing on a series of loopty-loops is minuscule. Grown ups tend to get all hot and bothered about the things we don’t and cannot know. Things like death, or love, or God.
Childhood is in the moment.
Charles Schultz was a genius at bringing the realities of childhood to the surface with his Peanuts cartoon. Instead of portraying children as sweet innocents who flutter fairy-like through their early years, he showed us our young lives as they truly are: periods of loneliness and ennui interspersed with tremendous surges of hope and excitement and joy. Friendships come and go when we’re children, and only the lucky ones have staying power. Some drift away then come together again spectacularly. Others end abruptly and irrevocably. Childhood is a bipolar experience, at least in my memory, and filled more with outright insults than passive aggressive slights.
The above mentioned former best friend of my daughter’s, for instance, also told my daughter that they could no longer be best friends anymore because Josephine just wasn’t popular enough for her and she had bigger plans for recess than merely playing fantasy games. There’s a game of four square that she’s set her sights on, and Josephine hates four square, so that’s not going to work at all.
I kind of appreciate the girl’s honesty, even if she is sounding more and more like a little s**t.
An adult might have simply backed away slowly, calling less, liking your posts on Facebook, but not engaging with you in any meaningful way – “I’m sooo busy!” A grown-up is more capable of neglecting to invite you to her wine and cheese to-do, then telling you, “It was all the women from my book club. You’ve wouldn’t have known a single soul,” as if she was doing you a favor.
Childhood, however, is brazen and brutal as much as it is magical and electrifying. It is crass. And those very first indignities, the ones that are shameless in their execution, are also the ones that teach us how to interpret the foggier disputes that come later in our lives.
Young people make it easier for you:
“I don’t like you.”
“My dad says your dad’s a loser.”
Most adults have learned how to duck and weave and smile. It’s up to you to decipher whether you have, perhaps unintentionally, offended a friend, or whether her life has overwhelmed her and she has, genuinely, little or no time to devote to your friendship right now. Or if she has simply moved on to greener pastures.
She’s not going to tell you it’s because you’re ugly.
Similarly, a boss might talk around your deficiencies, explaining where you could use “development” instead of outright telling you that you suck and she’s scratching her head as to how you could’ve landed this job in the first place! It’s up to you to figure it out. Make it right, if you even can. Or move on.
So, as I listen to the painful, cringe-inducing stories my children tell me about some of the profoundly horrible things their so-called friends endeavor to say to them without so much batting an eyelash, I try to remember there’s a long road advantage to these Charlie Brown episodes. To not always getting invited to the party, or getting the Valentine, or procuring the right Christmas tree for the school’s nativity play.
We are meant to learn from these barefaced encounters – the ones that sting and leave us standing there baboon butt-red with embarrassment. Those initial callouses are useful and necessary to our later resilience.
They are the scary roller coasters that prepare us for cancer.