Today is my parents’ 70th anniversary, if they were still alive. My mother would be 92, my father 99. Hard to believe it’s been that long. Their marriage wasn’t perfect. Not their first one, nor the 2nd, when they remarried each other following a divorce. As beautiful a couple as they were — and they looked like movie stars of their era: the tall war hero in his dress whites, the breathtaking bride in her perfect white suit — they often didn’t ‘fit’ together.
They rarely ‘talked,’ in the sense we use it today. Oh sure: they talked about old times, or where we were going for dinner, or what to do on Sunday. But communicate about dreams, hopes, worries, and all the things I share w/ my beloved? I don’t remember any of that. When my mother first sued my father for divorce, she had him served w/ papers — didn’t discuss it first. He just opened the door to the papers. I do remember that.
Were they happy? I know they were, many years. They were happy when I was small, on the Christmas I still remember when despite our straitened circumstances (my father was on retiree pay, 1/2 his paltry light colonel’s salary, with a wife & 3 small kids), my father bought my mother a diamond she wore ever after. I’ve no idea how he paid for it, probably traded it for one of his (many) rare guns.
And they were happy ~ I remember my mother reminiscing ~ when they were first married, living in a treed villa in Baguio, northern Philippines. My mother — in her early 20s — would talk of the shining teak floors, waxed by a maid younger even than she was, who skated across the floors with waxy rags tied to her feet. My father was overseas, his favourite place. I see this nomad’s heart in my younger son, so much like his grandfather’s. They pulled up roots routinely, resettling every few years.
Because of my father’s jobs, my mother learned early to be a hostess, despite her working class background. She could make base housing into something comfortable & cosy in a matter of days, pulling together a home from a bleak series of rooms. Soon there would be fresh flowers, and a few potted plants she picked up at a local market. Linens would drape the scuffed table, and she would sew pillows for beat-up sofas & chairs.
While my father would go off to do what fathers did then ~ mostly travel for the government, in his case. Always there were hugging reunions on his return, and a long retreat to privacy. Passion, it seemed, was not a problem.
Still, I never wanted a marriage like my parents. Nor do I have one, despite certain superficial similarities (travel, moves, a long time not working outside the home, & passion, of course). I wanted more talking, more sharing, fewer secrets. I modelled love not on the ersatz storybook romance of my mother & father — so very beautiful — but on my beloved in-laws, who were beautiful in their own understated fashion. In the way that movies are never as complex (or as good) as the book, I wanted the messy, nuanced, complicated book. Not the preoccupation with roles and expectations played out in my parents’ double marriage. I wasn’t certain why they bothered to divorce (they still spent holidays together), nor did I ever really get why they remarried. I suspect it was the embers of that passionate early love: my father wanted, still, to take care of that beautiful girl he married. And my mother wanted, still, to care for that gorgeous hero.
Me? I wanted someone real, someone I could talk to. I don’t remember my mother & father laughing together the same way I do w/ my beloved. And though they did many things together — entertained, traveled, made a family — I don’t remember them talking books, or ideas the way my in-laws did.
What my parents’ marriage did for me was show me that love comes in all colours and shapes and sizes. It can be friendly, and sharing, and entertwined like vines, as my in-laws’ was. Or it can be full of drama and movie-star glamour, as my parents’ was. That doesn’t include the marriages of aunts, whom I watched like hawks to see how they too navigated the seas of love & marriage. I never intended to get married, to be honest — I didn’t see my parents as all that happy with the institution. And then I met my beloved, and his parents’ very different marriage. For years I revised what marriage could be, according to this very different story I learned from Mom & Dad.
Next month I will have been married 40 years to my beloved. We aren’t a movie, by any means (we never were!). Nor are we the hard workers my in-laws were. We have created for ourselves our own version of love & marriage, inflected by both sets of parents, by the marriages of aunts & uncles & even books (well, at least I have!). And today, that seems like a huge deal, looking at pictures of that young couple so full of glowing promise. There has to be more than just the storybook romance, I learned watching my parents. Despite what my mother told me, I don’t know that love really is enough, all alone. There have to be shared ideals, values, goals, even tastes, at some level. I don’t know that Mother & Daddy shared those things. Luckily, what they did share was enough to last them through some rough times. And I guess, ultimately? That’s what really matters.