Monthly Archives: July 2012

“every day is a celebration”

One morning last week, as I was thumbing through my paper and munching my English muffin, I came across an article that stuck with me.  Various parts of it have been playing through my mind ever since.  It is about a local couple who are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.  Yes, you read that right — 70 years of marriage to the same person.  That alone is mind-boggling in this day and age, but it is other aspects of the article that I find more poignant….  and perhaps those other aspects are the explanation to the time-honored question of “What’s their secret?!”

Before I go any further, I’d suggest you read the article, here.   It’s short and it will open in another tab, so you won’t lose me!  I’ll wait.

[Cue the on-hold Muzak version of The Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love”…]

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s continue…

The first time I read the article, something tugged at me, but I turned the page and put it down to sentimentalism, plain and simple.  But it was more than that, and when I returned to the article later that night, I saw clearly and with amazement the pieces that are profound and precious to me in this article.

1.  Don carries a scrapbook in his briefcase of memories of their life together.

Sure, this is a little cutesy for most people, and most guys wouldn’t be comfortable putting together a scrapbook, let alone carrying it around for years.  But the point here is that it embodies his priorities.  Just from that one fact, do you have any doubts of where his personal priorities lie?  Do you suppose his children ever wondered if their parents loved each other?

2.  Don remembers particulars about Dorothy.

Most of us sketch our distant memories in broad strokes.  It is only the truly important moments that we lock away with all of our senses intact.  I, for instance, remember exactly how Sabrina felt and smelled when they first placed her in my arms — the weight of her, the color of her hair, the pain my body was still accommodating to from my emergency c-section, the tears in my husband’s eyes, the stuffiness of the room — all of it frozen in my memory.  But Don, it seems, has many, many memories of Dorthy that are like that.  I love that he remembered “how the humidity melted her hair” when she stepped off the plane.   I am lost in imagining him watching her, absorbing her, after missing her for a while.  Sigh.

3.  Don is proud of Dorothy’s accomplishments.

Before any of you start shaking your head and saying, “Well, of course he should be!” let me point out two very important things:  FIRST, let’s remember that they were married in 1942.  They are almost two generations removed from most of us.  Feminism was not even a word then, and women’s rights still referred to the suffragette’s successful battle to obtain the vote.  This was an era and a generation when most women did precisely and only what their husbands allowed them to do.   No kidding.  And look what Don allowed Dorothy to do — to live up to her potential as a human being.  She did amazing things, in an age when only men did such things.  And she did it with a husband.  Seriously wow.

SECOND, let’s to be truthful here:  this is still rare.  I hear story after story after sad story about women who bind their lives to men who are threatened by their potential or desire to be more than a wife and mother.  Being a good wife and a good mother are both laudable goals, to be sure, but for most of us, they are not the end of our aspirations.  When I was married, had I suggested that I was going to attend a civil rights march, my husband would have looked at me like I was crazy.  It was all fine and well for me to pursue my personal interests and causes, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him too much.  And I’m not alone in having lived that at the turn of the 20th Century.

So kudos to Don, for selecting an amazing woman and then supporting her dreams.  Nicely done.

4.  When Don describes Dorothy’s attributes, he lists aspects of who she is, not what she does for him or anyone else.

This is the part that makes the romantic in me want to cry.  Don says this about Dorothy:

“She’s a caring, kind, empathetic and a super good listener.  She says very little but she’s extremely effective. She charms people and gets groups together and makes things happen.”

This is who Dorothy is as a person; he sees her fully — her abilities and personality as they stand on their own, not simply in reference to him.  There is no mention of how good a cook she is or how she starched his shirts for 70 years or how she played with the kids when they were toddlers.  But this is how we usually reference our  love for our partners — based on what they do for us, not on who they are independent of us.  Listen closely the next time someone describes their husband or wife — “He’s a good provider.”  “She’s a good mom.”  “He mows the lawn every Saturday.” “She makes a great pot roast, and that’s my favorite.”  and so on and so forth.  At first glance, this sounds sweet — don’t we all hope that the people we care for and nurture will notice and appreciate that? — but it’s actually a failure to fully see each other.  Appreciation is important, but if you look at the kinds of things I just listed, you’ll see that those are appreciation for roles we fill in our partnerships and lives, they are jobs we do, and an acknowledgment that we do them well.  Those compliments are not an acknowledgment of who we fundamentally are inside — the special parts of us that we bring to the people whose lives we touch everyday.

Now look again at Don’s list.  See the difference?  Hear the respect and admiration?  He sees her.  Fully.  And admires her.  Not for the roles she fills, but because she is those things, and she brings those things to everything she does and every role she fills because they are who she is.  It is possible that Dorothy was a terrible cook, and maybe Don would have liked a good pot roast once in a while, but how many of us want someone to choose us for our culinary skills?  Or for any particular role, in fact?  In all likelihood, she wasn’t a perfect mother (still looking for that animal…), but if she was “kind, caring, empathetic, and a good listener,” how bad a mom could she have been? Don’s description speaks of who Dorothy is in every role she fills, because it is simply who she is, period.

The difference is subtle, but very, very important, I think.  Because as we move through a lifetime together, roles may change.  Skills may be gained and even lost.  But I think what most of us want is to be loved for who we simply are, when the roles and academic degrees and accumulated professional accomplishments are stripped away.  We want to be loved for our sense of humor, our way with words, the gentleness of our caress.  Filling particular roles well can be rewarding and appreciation is always good, but to be appreciated without being fully seen is hollow at best and soul-crushing at worst.

Now, I will admit that Don is probably a bit of a romantic sentimentalist.  But the man is 90-years-old, so I am going to grant him the right to be gushy and mushy and over-the-top about the accomplishment of notching a 70-year marriage.  But really, how many of us are in a position to criticize his approach or his feelings?

Certainly not I.

So instead, I wish the Stonebrakers a very happy anniversary and many more scrapbook pages to come.

Not the Stonebrakers — but I looooove this photo! 🙂

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Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, men, personal growth, relationships

if I had known then what I know now…

Lately, for possibly the first time in my life, I am becoming familiar with Regret.  And she is not a pleasant companion.

I don’t mean the regret of “I wish I hadn’t said that!” or “I wish I had handled that situation a little differently.”  We all have those moments and hopefully we process and learn from them rather quickly. No, I am talking of regret deserving of capitalization.  Regret of major decisions that may have permanently altered the course of my life.

This week was full of small lightbulb moments, glimpses into what might have been, realizations (yet again) that each of us sits with the consequences of our choices.  With the benefit of many years’ removal, I saw some of my choices from an angle I’d never had the privilege of before.

I have always believed that regret is wasteful.  Reworking the past is a futile task and understanding of it can only go so far.  Certainly, introspection and comprehension of motivations and prejudices at play are useful and help us grow, but true regret — the wishing of a different path taken — has seemed to me to be another form of self-abuse and wallowing.

My birth mother and I do not enjoy many shared beliefs or values. We had a conversation about regret once and she scoffed at me.  “Regret,” she pronounced, “is the purest, most effective course correction device ever!  To avoid it is to run from your fear that, just maybe, you have truly screwed something up!”  When she assumes her “Of course I know everything more and better than you do” posture, I tend to immediately stiffen and reject her theories, as I did that day.  But I have been re-thinking her approach lately.

Part of my distaste for regret stems from my overall outlook on life and personal growth and development.  I have clungly steadily to the belief that one small change in my path could have altered me irrevocably, changing both the wonderful and the less so.  I saw every experience, every choice, as an opportunity to grow and learn, and I saw those opportunities as the bricks that formed me, laid one on top of the other, depending on each other for their mutual strength.  Pull one away and who I am — including all the parts that I love and value — would collapse.  There is solid comfort in the idea that your bad choices as well as your good led you to the things in your life that you cherish most.  Additionally, this belief system allows you to examine your choices and learn from them, without having to label them as mistakes and sacrifice self-esteem over things or decisions you can no longer amend.  And it is empowering to see ourselves as creatures of our own creation, in control and responsible for all of the texture of our lives.

This belief system was challenged several years ago when, during my separation, I read a book called The Post-Birthday World.  Its plot is essentially simple and the theme is not particularly original:  What happens if you pick a different path?  In the book, a woman agrees to go out with her husband’s best friend for his (the friend’s) birthday.  The husband is out of town, the friend has very few other friends, and even though the woman doesn’t particularly like the friend, her husband convinces her to be a sport and celebrate with the friend.  So she does, and in the course of the evening, after several drinks and much conversation, the friend leans over to kiss the woman.  At this point, the book splits into two stories — the one travels with the woman on the life she has after she kisses the man, the other takes us down the road if she were to pull away from him and decline.  The writer is not exceptionally talented and the story can drag in places, but what makes this book special is the answer it posits to the original question:  It doesn’t matter.  Throughout the remainder of the book the two stories diverge and then intersect again, back and forth, until finally, at the very, very end, the woman ends up in essentially the same place.  Two ways of getting there… basically the same destination.  And neither path was easier, really.  Both had challenges and pain and happiness and moments of light and darkness.  And they both led her to the same destination.

This end result left me uncomfortable. On the one hand, it confirmed my belief that regret is useless because we will all eventually get where we are supposed to be regardless, and no one path is “right.”  On the other hand, it meant that perhaps I could have chosen those other paths and still be just as happy or miserable as on my current path, whereas I had been assuming that by doing my best, I was creating a better life than the ones to be had down those paths.  If this was not true, why bother trying?  If we are simply going to stumble through life and ultimately reach the same destination no matter our choices, what do they matter?

First, my heart and mind railed against this — free will must matter! they screamed. We must have some control over our destiny!  And then I heard an equally strong (yet noticeably less manic) voice remind me that there is something comforting in the possibility that no one decision — no matter how great — ever throws us truly off course.  Risk can be taken without fear, because it doesn’t really matter; we’re not giving up a much better road for one less so.  It’s all basically the same in the end.  Perhaps had I made different choices at some of those forks in the road, I would still be exactly who I am today, the good and the bad.  Perhaps in a different location, perhaps with slightly different circumstances, but essentially the same woman.  The only thing that is certain is that I will never know.  And that is Regret’s seduction.  The “maybe.”  The tantalizing “what if.”  Perhaps I would be happier if I had done that or hadn’t done this.  Maybe I was short-sighted there or didn’t fully appreciate the value of that.

Oprah used to like to say “If I had known better, I’d have done better.”  So, perhaps with the benefit of experience and reflection, now I know better.  I am not sure what of my regrets can be altered, fixed, changed.  Perhaps none.  Perhaps some can be retrieved and salvaged over time and effort, but possibly not.  Reality is a hard and cold taskmaster, unmoved by sweet and inspiring platitudes that insist that anything is possible.  Under that harsh light, I must come to terms what is past and salvage what might yet be saved.  Regret might indeed be a useful teacher, but I’d like to learn her lessons and move on and away from her.  She feels like a black hole that could swallow and snuff out all hope and optimism if I share her company for too long.

So, hopefully my acquaintance with Regret will be brief.  I am cataloging the things I might change, considering where those roads might have led, wondering which of them might still be options.  But I suppose the main thing I will take away from this time is the sense of Regret as a course correction, as my birth mom said all those years ago.  I will spend just enough time with my regrets to understand why I wish I’d done differently, and then I will be mindful of those discoveries next time, and possibly take a different fork in the road, make a different choice, live a different life.

Or maybe not.  And maybe it doesn’t matter.

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Filed under dating, divorce, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom