MARRIAGE


marriage“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” – Unknown

My husband came home from work today, after hanging out with some guys at the bar to watch the Masters, and said “I think we are becoming a minority.” Knowing my husband as I do, I could have gone in so many different directions with that comment. I looked quizzically at him and, as has happened hundreds of times in the 21 years we have been together, he realized I had no idea what he was referring to. “It seems like we are the only ones left married,” he said smirking. I laughed, knowing he was being facetious but I also stopped for a second and took in a deep breath. He is right. Maybe it’s because of our age, maybe it’s because of where we live, maybe it’s because of our circle of friends and acquaintances but, whatever the reason, it seems like every day we learn of more and more couples splitting up. Today he learned about yet another and, as is always the case, it sends chills down your spine. You can’t help but wonder if one day it will be you. I cannot deny that there have been moments – more than I care to admit – that I wondered if our marriage would survive.

I entered into marriage completely clueless. I had no role models. I had no reference point. Frankly, I had no interest in getting married. I had determined, at a pretty young age, that I wanted to have a fantastic career and would not submit to giving up my dreams for any man. And, I certainly did not want to have kids. Sure, I was a feminist. I was also broken from all that I had experienced in my childhood that I couldn’t even imagine a reality where I could be happily married. By the time I was in college, my mother had been married and divorced 3 times and was on her way to her fourth. My father had 2 under his belt and my sister, 14 years my senior, had just split up with her husband. She would go on to marry 2 more times. I wanted nothing to do with all this. I was not interested in participating in this ritual that seemingly always had an unhappy ending.

I was a serial dater after I got out of college. I would meet guys, date them, break up, find another, date them, break up, find another and the cycle went on and on. Nobody lasted more than weeks or maybe a few months and the relationships never went very deep. I had so much intimacy with all of my gay boyfriends that I never felt needy in that way. If it were not for sex, I would have been content to hang with my gay posse forever, collect some cats and become a living, breathing stereotype. I simply did not see a pathway that would ever lead me to wedded bliss. I had a great career, was starting to make some money and had, what I believed to be, a relatively glamorous life. I worked for a major movie studio optioning books for movies so I spent my evenings going to plays, movie premieres, parties, fancy dinners – all surrounded by the largest group of gay men imaginable. I guess, perhaps one of the reasons I could not see the pathway was because there were not very many suitable candidates crossing my lane.

I met my husband when I was 24. When I think about it now, I realize how I was still an emotional amoeba. I simply knew nothing about the world yet I had lived what felt like 5 lifetimes sorting through the turmoil of my family’s drama. We met as friends – he and I were both dating other people (he was living with someone!) so there was no pressure on the relationship. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, much to my amazement, I found myself quickly intrigued by him. The relationship became romantic very quickly and, after we sorted out our other conflicts, we started dating for real. Both of us being somewhat impulsive, dating lasted about two minutes before we fell remarkably, passionately, overwhelmingly in love. He was my soulmate. I could not imagine how I could spend one minute away from him, which was extraordinarily difficult since he lived 3000 miles away on the other side of the country. We managed to find ways to see each other several times a month and each visit was filled with anticipation – heart-racing, soulful expectation. And every goodbye was marked with tears, sometimes painful and gut-wrenching, because we could not imagine how we would be able to fill our lungs with oxygen without the other to move the diaphragm. We so quickly became a symbiotic unit and every thought I ever had about not wanting to marry went out the window like a paper floating away in a brisk March wind. My fears or uncertainty about how I could sustain a relationship seemed foolish and immature. Here I was madly in love and all I could think about, even at the tender age of 25, was how fast I could begin my life as his wife.

We got engaged in less than 6 months and just a little more than 2 years after we met, we walked down the aisle in a lovely spring wedding and began a whole new chapter in our lives. We set out to right the wrongs of our parents. We vowed to do it differently. We committed to break the cycle. We blindly, ignorantly, whimsically set out on what seemed like a perfectly paved pathway together.

Next month will be 19 years since that lovely spring wedding. 19 years – nearly two decades! In contrast, his parents’ marriage lasted 13 years, my parents stuck it out for 15 before they separated, my sister’s ended at year 14. There was a moment, several years ago, that we realized that we had hit some magical milestone in our family. We were officially the longest married couple. We made a toast. And returned to our blissfully banal life. We have expanded our symbiotic union by two with sons that keep us grounded and focused and remind us why we decided to enter this extremely challenging and complex obstacle course.

In 19 years we have had more than our share of fights and far too many moments, through tears, that we each gritted our teeth and questioned our beliefs. That perfectly paved pathway has revealed many cracks, uprooted roots that have pushed up the concrete and we have tripped and fallen many, many times. We have been challenged to find the intoxicating love that left us in tears when we could not be together every moment of the day. Now the tears were rage-filled and that love was nowhere to be found. Well, actually, it was buried beneath piles and piles of hurt feelings, unkind words, bad choices, anger, resentment and all the wonderful things that are often hallmarks of long-term relationships riddled with financial woes, exhaustion from child rearing and general disappointments that life did not turn out to have the fairy tale ending you dreamt of. For some couples that is where it all goes awry. For many, the challenges become too untenable and the relationship dissolves. For us, we had many sleepless nights, raging battles and days where we could barely look at each other because we loathed the sight of the other but we pushed through. Perhaps the fear of splitting up was more overwhelming than the notion of trying to tolerate each other another day, but we persevered. Despite our efforts to hold it together, I was certain we were doomed. Everyone around us seemed so happy. Their marriages looked so healthy. Everyone seemed to be having sex ALL THE TIME while I couldn’t muster the energy to even think about it most of the time. Everyone appeared to be blissfully in love, even after the trials of marriage had weathered their bond. They all seemed to have a healthier, stronger, more powerful attachment and I didn’t see how my marriage could ever compare.

The joke was on me, of course. Sure, some couples seem to have the good fortune of peaceful and loving relationships and personalities that are not like firecrackers with short fuses and a lit match. Many couples, however, put on a good show when everyone is looking in order to make the pain of their own unhappiness less visible in hopes that it will make their misery more manageable. They sweep it under the rug and put on a good face, hoping no one will notice, existing in silent desperation. For me, I had to learn to stop looking around for comps and spend more time looking at my own relationship and understanding what it needed to work properly. When I searched my soul, I knew I loved my husband on the deepest level and could not imagine a life without him. I needed to focus in on that and stop worrying about the window dressing. None of that shit mattered.

As I watched so many friends delight in the sparkle of new relationships after their marriages ended and they were reborn into these new loves, I had to dig deep to find a way to reconnect with the man who changed my life and brought peace to a war-torn girl. I doubted, I questioned, I ached, I cried, I searched, I begged for mercy. And then I fell in love all over again. This time, I fell in love with the old pair of shoes lying in the back of the closet that I had forgotten were hiding out, stuffed underneath some boxes of new shoes that were so shiny and inviting. I slipped into those shoes and they felt warm and comfortable, and my feet knew exactly how to mold themselves into the leather. They were perfectly suited for me. I exhaled and I opened my eyes wide to find that nothing ever changed between my husband and me. We still loved each other deeply – in fact, we were much more in love than we had ever been but we had lost our way. We fell victim to the complications of life. We stopped paying attention, took our eyes off the road as the car careened into the woods. It was a bit dented but still ran pretty well and just needed someone to get behind the wheel and steer it onto a new road.

I love my husband more today than I ever could have imagined that pretty spring day 19 years ago. I look into the eyes I have stared into millions of times and I see our lifetime together. Soon we will be together longer than we have not. Now we fit together like two puzzle pieces that slide together so easily. There were days we had to shove ourselves together, taking a second look to see if, in fact, we were the right pair of pieces but, now, it is easier. Sure, we still take each other for granted at times and we still have trouble finding time and energy to have quiet intimate moments but I know, without any uncertainty, that there is no one else I would travel the road of life with. We are a real story, a 3-dimensional, full-color, reality of married life. We are imperfect, we hurt each other, we make mistakes. And, we love each other with everything we have. And we fall in love over and over again.

THE BEST GIFT EVER


christmas presentIn 1980 I was 13 and, for the first time, shopped for Christmas presents on my own, with my own money saved from babysitting.  I can still see the images of the busy street late one December afternoon, shortly after John Lennon was shot.  I felt the heaviness and significance of his murder despite not yet having discovered the Beatles in any meaningful way.  I knew a song or two but did not understand how legendary Lennon was and had never heard of The White Album or Abbey Road.  It was the first time I heard the powerful lyrics of  “Imagine” which was playing in every store I entered and I can still hear the words in my head as I walked from Woolworth’s to the stationery store to a few more little shops on that blustery cold afternoon in search of gifts.

What does not stand out to me as much, thankfully, is the heaviness I often felt during the holidays, particularly that year with the bittersweet freedom of shopping on my own darkened by the reality that I really had no one to buy for.  Christmas in 1980 was just going to be me and my mom and, frankly, we didn’t even really celebrate.  My mother was Jewish (lapsed, obviously, after having married and divorced a Catholic).  We didn’t have much money and, even in the best of times there were never any big holiday celebrations.  This year would be no different.  We might have been seeing my sister and her husband but that would have depended upon whether or not she and my mother were speaking.  Likely, it was just Mom and me, sitting alone in our house with me fantasizing about what Christmas could be.

Christmas, during my childhood, was often lonely.  My mother resented Christmas because it was not “her” holiday but she also did not observe her own Jewish holidays so there was no Hannukah celebrations either.  Both of my parents were often estranged from their siblings and parents because of conflicts which arose from their unwelcomed marriage and, as a result, we sufffered.  When we did actually celebrate the holidays, they felt small and joyless, often ending in conflicts between my parents or my siblings.  They were heavy, burdened events.  As a result, I felt like an outsider to all those around me who were showered in joyful traditions and family.  One of my more memorable Christmases was the year my parents first split up and my dad came to take me and my brother shopping for presents.  I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time and was filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of going to the toy store and picking out anything I wanted.  He came to fetch us in his little blue Mercedes convertible, the car he bought when he left my mother and moved in with his girlfriend.  It was the car he parked in our driveway one night in a drunken stupor and sat on the horn screaming obscenities at my mother.  I remember the police coming and I remember the frilly nightgown I wore as I stared out the window filled with shame.  I hated that car.  On the day he came to get us, I knew exactly what I wanted and could hardly believe that my father would agree to such a purchase.  But, I suppose a silver lining to divorce was parental guilt on his part and  I secured myself the Barbie Town House.  It was the most coveted toy of the year and  I could not believe my good fortune that I was getting the mack daddy of all Barbie residences.  Sure, the beach house was cool but this was the Town House – with an elevator!  When we brought home our loot, my mother, who was resentful and angry that our father had chosen to shower us with gifts, took everything from us and prevented us from opening our new toys until Christmas day.  It was on that cold, overcast day that I was sent outside to the backyard, suited up in my hand-me-down winter coat that my mother secured from my sister or one of the older girls on the block, where I set up my house on the redwood picnic table and, in gloved hands, assembled the furniture and let my Barbies have the Christmas celebration that was fit for such a dream house.

As I grew older, I loved the idea of buying gifts, wrapping them in beautiful papers with bows and matching name tags. I would buy presents for anyone I could, even if it meant buying a Hello Kitty eraser for one of my friends at school – as long as I could wrap it up in a neat little package and pile it with any other gifts I had assembled.  We never had a tree so I kept my gifts on the floor of my closet, usually hidden from my mother who thought such indulgences were unnecessary and wasteful.  I would stare at the packages, all beautifully stacked in all their colorful splendor.  I dreamt of becoming a gift wrapper at one of the department stores and, the first time I saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, I fantasized about what it would be like to work at a store like Macy’s during the holidays.

Every year, since that stroll down the boulevard in 1980, I dreamt of big festive Christmas celebrations.  I longed to have a big, extended family with a tall, proud tree, glimmering with lights and ornaments that took my breath away.  I wished for the nonstop arrival of guests, bearing gifts and plates of food and the laughter and storytelling of Christmases past.  And every year, especially after my children were born, I tried to make that happen.  My husband and I celebrated our first Christmas in NJ in our little apartment, with a little tree but we spent Christmas Eve at his uncle’s house with his big Italian family.  They got a live tree every year and would collect it and trim it on Christmas Eve.  It was an event filled with tradition and merriment and I loved it.  In later years, after we had children, we celebrated here in our home, relishing in the delight of the kids as they prepared on Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa and awoke with amazement at the abundance of toys Santa managed to squeeze down our narrow little chimney.  There has always been a beautiful tree with lights and ornaments that we collected over the years, imprinted with photos and dates and memories of our life as a family.

It all seems so perfect and magical, just as I always imagined it being.  But, alas, my baggage is heavy.  My memories are dark.  My loneliness associated with the holidays is still so vivid that I can taste it, feel it, smell it.  So, as we have created traditions for our children over the years, I recognize that I have spent a lot of effort overcompensating and creating manufactured events to make up for the shortcomings of my life before my husband and children.  It never occurred to me, even once, that I was inadvertently repurposing the demons that haunted me even though they were not part of my children’s reality.  They never had a reason to feel that their holiday celebrations were anything but magical regardless of how many people came to our house, how many presents were found under the tree or whether or not we got dressed up or used fine china for our dinner.  Those were issues that mattered only to me and the pain attached to these ideas were rooted squarely in my past and resulted from my lacking.

This year, as we began our planning for the holidays, I talked to my husband and children about all of the possible activities and events.  I talked about going out to cut down our tree with a group of friends and shared the various invitations to holiday parties.  We discussed who we might want to invite over for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or options for spending the holiday with others away from our home.  And, to my shock, both of my children, now aged 9 and 12, said they wanted the holidays to be at home with just the four of us.  They did not want any big events.  They did not want to go to lots of parties.  They wanted us to go together, alone, to find our tree, trim it ourselves and carry out our family traditions together.  All I could hear was that we would be alone and all they communicated was that we would be together.  For them, our little family of 4 represented peace and comfort and security and love.  For me, it had always felt too small, too simple, too alone.

I stopped speaking.  I listened to their words and literally felt myself healing.  I allowed myself to be buoyed by my children.  I indulged in their sense of love and security and borrowed it for myself.  For right there in that discussion at our kitchen table my children assured me that they were not me and that their reality was nothing even close to mine.  They assured both me and my husband that we had given them the one gift neither of us had been afforded – unconditional love.  They were happy.  Happy with our little family of four and our quiet traditions of baking, playing games and watching movies together on the couch without the distractions of others who might burst our little bubble. There need not be more tradition, more festivity and more stuff.  They required nothing more than Mom and Dad and each other and they released me from my penance of working feverishly to create events to make the holidays special and memorable for my kids. It already was.

Yes, in 2012, the tables began to turn and my kids started to teach me.  My kids provided a much-needed  reality check that the world does not always exist in the way that I think it does.  My kids reminded me, without ever saying the words or even knowing the stories to share, that they did not have to play outside on Christmas day with the new most treasured toy because I was too angry or resentful of my ex-husband to let them play with their new loot inside.  My kids shined a light on the fact that they never sat alone in the house on Christmas lonely or bored and never had to stockpile gifts in their closets because there was no tree to place them under.  My children never knew anything but a beautiful magical Christmas and, to them, Christmas was wonderful because the four of us were together, regardless of who else showed up, even if we never went anywhere and despite the packages mostly coming from mom and dad.  To my children, the most wonderful and precious memories were the ones that included the four of us being together on Christmas morning, opening our gifts, laughing in delight as they screamed and cheered at their acquisition of “THE best present EVER” over and over again.

So, for me, in 2012 I certainly got THE best present EVER.  I got the gift of knowing that my children are happy and that their memories of Christmas will be joyful and, hopefully, filled with traditions that they will pass down to their children.  Mission accomplished.  Amen.