(with thanks to W. H. Auden)
Every family has its own myths and folk tales. Some are innocent; some not so much. But they are all sticky. Children are porous and absorb everything.
My parents almost never argued. I only realized this by contrast. At our neighbor’s house I’d hear Mr. Fontaine scream down the stairs that he didn’t have any clean socks. Mrs. Fontaine would stop dicing onions and brandish her knife in the air as she yelled back what he could do with his dirty socks. I was mesmerized. Such things never happened in my house. In the first place, my mother was a scrupulous housekeeper; there were always clean socks. But secondly, if there were no clean socks, I couldn’t envision my father making a big deal about it. Unimaginable. Nothing like the Fontaines. And this alien environment was exactly why I liked to go over to Megan Fontaine’s house. Well, the yelling plus my fascination with their real Dutch door over which a multitude of cats jumped in and out of the house. Who knew life could be so exciting?
Megan was used to the shouting. She would just roll her eyes and turn up the television. Yet, even with the calm and quiet at my house, she always preferred to play at her house. It could have been because her mother was not such a scrupulous housekeeper (to put it mildly), so eating popcorn in the parlor was allowed, as were cats on every surface. But even though she favored her own home, Megan had only a superficial grasp of how the two households really differed.
One particularly noisy day when Mrs. Fontaine’s brother and his family were expected from Georgia for an extended visit, Mr. Fontaine actually told his wife in our hearing his life would be better for him if he divorced her. Mrs. Fontaine told him to go ahead, she’d pack his bag and don’t forget to take his stupid harmonica which she would be happy never to hear again. I loved to hear Mr. Fontaine play the harmonica and thought Mrs. Fontaine liked it too. I asked the beautiful red-haired Megan if she ever worried about her parents actually getting divorced.
“Sometimes,” she said as she continued to pick cards off the deck for our game of crazy eights. “But it never happens. She never even packs his bags. I don’t think they mean it.”
“They certainly sound like they mean it,” I replied. “My parents never yell like that.”
“No, they don’t.” Megan considered for a moment and her eight-year-old brain visibly shifted from looking for a three or a club to fondling her braids and considering the state of the marriages around her. “Your parents must be happily married. They must be in love with each other.” We knew what love was from watching situation comedies and from spying on teenagers at the park.
Now it was my turn to contemplate the models of marriage in our lives. “No,” I said. My parents aren’t happy. And they aren’t in love with each other. My father loves my mother, but my mother is just married to my father.”
“Why does my father love my mother?”
“No. Why did your mother marry your father if she doesn’t love him?” Megan had bought into the American ideal of marriage for love. It was only later we would learn about the American ideal of marriage for money.
This was a question I knew the answer to. My older sister and I had spent many hours eavesdropping as my mother and her friends rehashed this topic over coffee and cigarettes. (In later years, these women gave up smoking and all became pleasingly plump – except my mother, who prided herself on her self-discipline and never gained an ounce.) On occasion, Mom had even addressed her daughters directly on the dynamics of marriage as she handed down her own mother’s advice and counsel.
“My mother always told Bev and me,” she said solemnly (Bev was her younger sister), “that it was better to be the one who was loved than the one who loved. It was better to be loved more than you loved the person you were marrying. Then you would be treated well and you didn’t have to worry too much about hanging onto him. And he couldn’t make you upset.”
It seemed my maternal grandmother, whom I never knew, was upset a lot. She apparently married a man who gave her a run for her money – women, gambling, unemployment. Not a bigamist in the eyes of the law, my grandfather (whom I vaguely remembered from visits to the nursing home where he died) had maintained another family across town, a fact his daughters had learned upon becoming acquainted with their “brother” in high school.
Their ill-treated mother, crying in despair and rage while scraping together modest meals in her sunny yellow kitchen, gave her girls the benefit of painfully garnered wisdom on the subject of love and marriage. The root of the problem with her marriage, she had concluded, was she loved her husband more than he loved her. She had misplayed her hand, made a wrong move at the very beginning of her life. Dayspring mishandled. She had gotten the wrong end of the stick. She wanted to be sure the same thing did not happen to her daughters.
“Someday you’ll fall madly in love. That’s the guy you should avoid like the plague. Then there’ll be that guy who adores you. Who worships you. Really. Not just until you give in. The right guy doesn’t care if you ever give in. You will look at him and go – not for me. But he would do anything for you. That’s the right guy. That’s the one you marry. Then you don’t have to worry. He will consider himself so lucky – well, he’ll be good to you. And, anyway, you’ll never care enough to be miserable.”
This is what my grandmother told those girls. And that is what my mother did. And she thought she was right – and her sister was wrong. Her sister Beverly married a nice-enough guy with whom she became smitten during her sophomore year in college and married him. He wasn’t a snake, but he wasn’t a go-getter either. The end result was neither of them finished college and Wayne drifted from one job to another while Beverly held down multiple part-time jobs to keep their heads above water. And they had three kids. They didn’t bicker as much as the Fontaines, but a lot more than my parents.
My Aunt Bev did not seem unhappy, but my mother knew better. “Hand to mouth” was the verdict. In my mother’s eyes, “hand to mouth” seemed to designate some kind of disease and meant the worst kind of servitude. As a kid, I couldn’t quite figure out what it meant, but I knew it was a condition to be eschewed. And one of the ways you avoided it was by not marrying a man just because you thought he was cute. I asked my mother if the Fontaines lived hand to mouth. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Have you seen their new car? The Lincoln?” People who lived hand to mouth didn’t have new cars, I surmised. But people who had new Lincolns still bickered with each other, so I was perplexed.
My mother might have been perpetually polite, but she did not treat my father well. She hated his relatives, and he often visited his parents and siblings without her. We loved to go with him on those visits; he was an entirely different person when she was not there. He laughed and joked and did not seem to be carefully considering every action, every remark. He never said anything negative about our mother, even though he was often provoked, led on, teased. They raised their eyebrows when they asked why she wasn’t with them, asked him if he had redecorated the doghouse lately, wondered aloud what she did at home alone. Clearly, his family did not think highly of my mother; just as clearly this made no difference to my father. He never took the bait.
Dad bought our mother beautiful gifts for her birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day – and always an orchid at Easter. Dawn and I inherited the jewelry he picked out over the years – actually only some of it was his choice as Mom had no compunction about exchanging anything not meeting her standards. I’m sure we all gave Dad presents, but I don’t remember anything as special as the triple strand of pearls Mom got for their twenty-fifth anniversary.
My sister and I felt sorry for our father; we thought he was unappreciated, undervalued. As our parents aged and we reckoned with the hierarchy of mortality, we hoped Dad might be the survivor so he’d have a few good years to be on his own, perhaps to find a woman who appreciated him. And it so happened my mother did go first, of high blood pressure and stroke and simmering unhappiness. Dad took wonderful care of her, keeping her home and working through her litany of polite complaints. And through that long dying time – which coincided with the period when my second husband and I were going through divorce and settlement proceedings – she continued to pass along her mother’s advice. Surely the reason I had two failed marriages was I had followed my heart. There was still time, my mother said. But there was no time for her. By the time I made another heartfelt commitment, she was gone. And my father grieved tremendously and – despite the efforts of all the women in his church and neighborhood – never found another love.
But here is the part which makes this a tale worth sharing. When Dad was failing badly and waiting for the results of tests which tell us whether further surgery was possible, I was sitting in the hospital making conversation with him about my current situation in a feeble attempt to take his mind off the tubes and the smells and the uncertainty. At this point I was about to marry husband number three and confessed to my father that perhaps I was making a mistake because I loved this man too much – he had difficult children and not a lot of money, and I might be walking into another disaster, but, oh, I did love the man. Possibly, my mother’s daughter speculated, it was better to marry someone you could consider more rationally, someone your stomach didn’t flip-flop over, someone who loved you more than you loved them. As I said it I wonder if he realized I was echoing my mother’s advice, her first commandment.
“No, no,” he said with more strength in his voice than I had heard for weeks. “I don’t know about this guy of yours and if you can’t stand his kids and he loves them, maybe you better think again. But it is always better to be the one who loves. Who loves more. Who loves as much as possible. I just warm up to the way you girls love me, but the best part is how I love you. To love someone, darling, that’s the best there is. Don’t forget it. Hurts sometimes, but it’s still love and love is better than anything.”
I got married again and it looks like it was a mistake, but I still think he was right. But then again, it’s not a matter of thinking.
From “The More Loving One” by Auden:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.