In Defense of the Much Married

I’ve noticed that when people are talking about why someone is a mess they often cite their number of marriages. As in “What do you expect? I think he’s on, like, his fourth wife!” In a biography of Clementine Churchill, the author supports her claim that both the Roosevelts and Churchills were bad parents by totaling the marriages of their offspring –impressively large in both cases.

Lately I’ve started speaking up. When someone made a disparaging remark about a relative who was now on her THIRD marriage I said, “Careful now! Some VERY nice people have been married three times.” The speaker had the good graces to look chagrinned.

Not that I can throw any stones. I used to be the biggest judgey-pants on the block about divorce—right up until I GOT one! In my youth pretty much nobody I knew was divorced and I thought it was a truly terrible thing. Just the way the folks on Mad Men felt about the divorcee down the street.  A few neighbors felt pity, most were convinced she was after their husbands and all thought she and her status were deeply troubling, very odd and mostly to be avoided with eyes averted, like something distasteful on the sidewalk. Such was the tenor of 1950s America. It seemed completely natural to assume that there was something wrong with someone who was divorced—they were lazy, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t value long-term commitments or, worse still, had a fatal flaw like infidelity or substance abuse.

Walking down the aisle for my first wedding I clearly remember thinking I was making a mistake. But marriage still seemed de rigueur to me in 1977 and I had not received any better offers. No shock then to the thinking person (not me!) when the marriage ended 10 years later. But still I drove to my parents’ house with actual fear and trepidation at the prospect of telling my long-married mom and dad that I was about to have the first divorce in our family—possibly even in our extended family.  I’m not really sure when it was that a far-away and little-known first cousin got divorced but I do remember it was attributed entirely to being raised in the no-rules, free-wheeling atmosphere of that bastion of sex, love and rock and roll—-CALIFORNIA!!

In order to continue getting up in the morning following this colossal life failure, I had to temper my judgment of divorced people. I now said things like: Things happen. People grow apart. Problems ensue and only one half of the duo may want to work on them. I then quickly shifted all my anti-divorce feelings to people who did it when they had CHILDREN. I believe I even spoke the words on more than one occasion that once you had children the divorce option was simply off the table. It was so morally reprehensible to shatter a child’s in-tact family that no matter how miserable you might think you were with your spouse, you were obligated to suck it up. I remember a friend’s shock when she decided to leave her husband when their only child was 12 and her mother said, “Couldn’t you just hang in there for 6 more years until she goes to college?” Uh, no mom. Not really possible. But in truth I was kind of thinking the same thing and pretty much stopped speaking to this woman in favor of siding with her “abandoned” husband.

Of course, this judgment also had to be suspended when after 16 years, 2 kids and 5 years of therapy I finally mustered the courage to leave a toxic marriage. My self-loathing was immeasurable. Leaving had seemed utterly impossible right up until the day when I could not stop crying or get out of bed. I realized I could not go on living if I stayed in that marriage and that, no matter what pain might ensue, my children would be better off with a living mother than a dead one. That is literally what it took for me to leave because I was so convinced that people who divorced when they had children were lower than pond scum.

My years in scum-ville were the darkest of my life. I hated myself and what I had done to my children.  Leaving was horrible in every way except that suddenly I could breathe and no longer felt my heart sink every time I pulled into the driveway and saw his car there. Even in the midst of wracking guilt there was this tiny whiff of lightness and freedom and ………joy at having found the get out of jail card and used it.  And I was, of course, forced to alter my opinion of people who divorced with children, given that I was now a member of their club. I had to accept that sometimes wanting a family and actually being able to make it work were not the same thing. Divorce was still wrenchingly sad, but it was sometimes necessary for the survival of one or more of the parties. And the constitution does guarantee each of us a right to life.

It was four long years before I even contemplated trying again, but I eventually tired of being alone and went on line. The result was a giant gift from God called Tom. We have already covered that all-too-short, exceedingly sweet chapter and its tragic end. Just promise me that you will never say to someone who had a wonderful short marriage any of the following: “Well, at least you were together such a short time that you know you can live without him.” OR “Really you never had a chance to see if you would get sick of each other.” OR “Still in the honeymoon phase. Who knows how it might have played out.” As another widow recently wrote in response to such idiotic comments “Right! Thank God I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life with my beloved soul mate. Really dodged that bullet!”

Losing Tom was the greatest loss of my life. It made me doubt everything. God, the universe, the possibility of lasting happiness, redemption, the fucked-up health care system—EVERYTHING. Except love. He taught me how to love. He taught me how to BE loved. And those were lasting lessons that haven’t gone away.

I know I am still a super judgey person in many other arenas. But on the topic of multiple marriages I now get it. Shit really does happen and often it is not in your control. And sometimes the only way to keep living is to end a relationship. And sometimes the best way to keep living is to stay hopeful and have the courage to start another one, knowing full well that there are no happily ever after guarantees outside the Disney franchise.

I don’t know if John and I will ever get married. But we might. And he will no doubt have to explain away the fact that he is marrying someone who has had THREE previous husbands. Am I proud of that? No. Am I happy my life has gone that way? Uh-uh. Do I now accept that some basically well-meaning, not horrible people have multiple marriages? Yup. The right number used to be one. Now it seems to be pretty acceptable to have had two. I’m going to argue for a little more latitude since my third was a love match ended by cancer. But I also think there might even be something admirable about Liz Taylor’s eight for she always said, “At least I MARRY them!”.

So here is what I’ve decided. In almost all cases people are just doing the best they can in life. At least at that particular moment in that particular circumstance. Some people get lucky and are able to create and sustain a 1950s-style family that eats dinner together and stays in one piece. God love them. I truly wish that had been me. But it wasn’t. I tried pretty hard but apparently what the universe thought my soul most needed in this life was quite a few different tries at love.  I’ve learned a lot. At least enough to caution you about drawing too many conclusions about Aunt Susie or the lady down the street based solely on how many husbands she’s had. Some pretty nice people have taken a few tries to get it right. At least they didn’t decide to give up on love and sit home being bitter. That’s something.

So if one day there is a #4, let the tongues wag away. I’ve learned the hard way about the perils of throwing stones when your house turns out to have a LOT more windows than you realized!



Lost Weekend

There is nothing like a bad bug to get your priorities straight. I teach small children. I have done this for 20 years and you might think some immunity would have developed by now but not the case. I seem to fall victim to every weird, icky germ that blows through my house/classroom and in what is surely a big joke from God, usually wind up voiceless. Yes, ha ha. Very funny. I get that I talk too much, that I need to process every waking thought by speaking it out loud, that I tell people things repeatedly and issue annoying and often useless reminders to my loved ones on what they should be doing (this would not of course be NECESSARY if they would just do what I said the first time!) but still it seems a little harsh that every sniffle goes right to laryngitis given that I make my living by singing and talking.

Today Facebook reminded me that the voice doctor I saw years ago is having a birthday. I sent greetings and my thanks for having saved me from a vocal tear that developed when I sang right through/over a bad cold. I wound up losing my voice completely and he insisted on three days of complete vocal rest in order to undo the damage. This was a bigger problem than normal as I was scheduled to be the entertainment at a kid’s birthday party the next day. I emailed the mom and offered to come anyway and hold up signs and use recorded music and cut my fee in half. She didn’t have a lot of options so she agreed. I also taught piano by writing notes and using lots of gestures and facial expressions—kind of like communicating in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language. It worked better than I would’ve imagined but I really missed talking and could not sing for weeks which almost killed me.

I come from verbal stock. This was driven home when John spent a weekend with my two siblings and me. He said, “You guys can REALLY talk!” Our parents were both pretty verbal and my mom was a grammar snob and in her later years could talk you comatose about the minutiae of life. But it was more the contrast of me being one of 4 kids and John being an only child that hit home. When you live alone with adults (as I did for quite a while after my older sibs went off to college) things are just quieter. I was always a little envious of those big loud Greek or Italian families you see in movies where meal times are utter chaos. The only memory I have of big boisterous gatherings was vacations at Silver Lake in Wisconsin and occasionally holiday meals. The rest of the time it was my mom and dad and me eating on TV trays so my dad wouldn’t miss a second of Walter Cronkite. I made up for quiet at home by being that obnoxious smarty pants kid at school who always knew the right answer and made sure everybody knew it. Teachers usually liked me a lot. Kids not so much.

A friend’s daughter just posted about germs having ruined their weekend plans but the silver lining of having some fun in her own yard with her own kids. I did not get to go to the movie I’d wanted to see with John, or take my girls to the Rhapsody in Blue performance at the symphony, but I did have a nice long wide-ranging talk with my youngest (from a safe enough distance to spare her my germs) which ended in her telling me she liked spending time with me. We agreed we could safely have a big hug if we both held our breath!

I wound up cancelling a couple weekend lessons and spending 2 solid days in bed. There was some sleeping, but mostly carb loading (that feed a cold thing is not just a wives’ tale!) and binge watching—in my case one and half seasons of Transparent. I do not really think this is a good thing—even in a sick bed. I am all for guilty pleasures but I think the old days of network TV were safer and in some weird way kept us slightly more connected as our fellow humans were watching the same thing at the same time. I remember calling my BFF Betsy Stover at every commercial of Gidget or The Patty Duke show to discuss what had just gone on. It was fun to live vicariously through these slightly older teen characters and have a friend to process it with. Binge watching alone is just a way to burn time and fight boredom. OK when you’re sick (I guess) but possibly a symptom of the great divide that now exists between humans using technology.

Alyssa and I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books together. Every single one. I was talking to her about how much I liked them and learned from them and she confessed that the content was completely immaterial to her and not really memorable. She just liked the time with me. Having her head in my lap as I read. Listening to the cadence of my voice, regardless of what the words were. I know life was very hard for people in earlier eras. All that foraging for food, chopping wood for fuel, baking bread out of scant ingredients. But there was also reading aloud by candlelight and playing a fiddle and singing by the fire. I long at a deep level for simpler times that I know will never come again. At least I think not. The best seller Station Eleven recounts the tales of a traveling acting troupe that formed to spread culture in the aftermath of a flu-like pandemic that killed millions and brought the U.S. back to pre-technology, survival basics. I don’t wish that upon us for a minute, but I do wish we could all unplug.

Without my phone and laptop I might’ve read and written more this weekend. I might’ve gotten more sleep. I thought I was doing a good thing, maybe even an important thing when I canceled cable and even moved the TV and DVD player to the chilly, sparsely furnished basement. But, as always, I was a step behind the times. My daughter has trouble getting school work done because she can just watch entertainment on her phone. (Does anyone else remember when personal computers first came out and experts cautioned that children must only use them in common areas where parents could have full view of the screen? HA! That ship left the harbor pretty darn fast, huh?) I have talked to many parents lately who have to strongly encourage their children to get out of their rooms and actually see friends!

I felt isolated this weekend. I did not want anyone to get my germs and it was appropriate to stay away. But now I crave some human contact. It will feel good to teach again, to go to a couple up-coming social gatherings, to have 4 hours in the car with Alyssa on her first college visit. I pooh-poohed Facebook for years but have lately been finding it a reasonable way to stay in touch with people—a birthday greeting or a quick “like” of a good post. It still has the ability to instantly cause me to find fault with my pretty nice life when people post pictures of their fabulous vacations, perfect children and fun nights out. But I constantly remind myself that nobody ever posts “just dropped my son at rehab—again” and yet surely somebody is living that life too.

I am either getting older or wiser. Maybe both. In younger years I would never have acknowledged illness. I worked through every single cold/flu/virus for years telling myself they just weren’t there and if they were, too bad and BUCK UP! I definitely never cancelled ANYTHING and certainly not anything I was being paid to do. It felt kind of good to just say SCREW IT —I’m sick and my body is saying “stay in bed you foolish old woman and pound a couple thousand calories of carbs while you’re at it”.

Was it a lost weekend? Yes—-and no.