Friday, June 26, 2009

Life Sentence

Life Sentence

My mother no longer says my name to me. I visit her once a week. I bring her candy which I have to leave in the hands of the caretaker as there is an issue with regard to extricating some melted chocolate from her purse. She is, as always, sitting ramrod straight, chocolate besmeared handbag primly on lap. Her face lights up when she sees me. She knows that Richard and the boys are significant too but her response to them is foggier. I talk to her but nothing I say registers. She asks the same questions over and over but she cannot process incoming information.

The huge television plays Turner Classic movies. My mother and her two elderly roommates are comforted by the black and white images, a Hollywood better-than-real world to ignite the tiny spark of nostalgia that God has left them. My mother played hostess for hundreds of movie parties in the screening room my father designed on Fulton Avenue. There was a balcony with a mural of a Paris street scene and cigarette boxes and fancy lighters placed strategically and Moscow Mules in chilled copper mugs. When my father left she’d sit alone in the dark den on a Naugahyde loveseat working crosswords and watching KCET.

We visit her at the board and care and Some Like it Hot is on. My mother has seen it a million times. Marilyn, at her peak of bursting ripeness is seducing Tony Curtis and it catches Mom’s attention. “That woman is kissing him. Why is she kissing him?” and then she is gone again. I have nothing to say to her. It is nice to see her meticulously groomed, in pristine surroundings and surrounded with patient affectionate caregivers. It is a lovely place to sit a while and I wish I could but I cannot get out of there soon enough. I stay for fifteen minutes and the caretaker walks me to the door and says, “She loves it so much when you come. Every night she cries ‘Layne, Layne, Layne.”

Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest piece in the Atlantic
"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" warns us off marriage but, on this week of my 18th wedding anniversary, I will say that I love being married. Getting married is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life and if Himself feels otherwise he knows better than to express it, let alone submit this for publication in a national magazine. And he is no less hungry to be published in a national magazine than I am. The short of it is that after Tsing Loh’s extramarital affair was discovered, her husband of twenty years neatly packed and labeled all her possessions, moved them to the front yard and thoughtfully covered them with a tarp. It seems that many of her married friends have secretly confessed to her, that they no longer have sex and also would prefer not to be married. I intuit that her circle is not a credible control group but her findings lead her to the conclusion that marriage is an anachronism.

It is smugly superior of me to claim that my own research subjects/ intimate friends are more reliable but I suspect that they are. The sixteen year old hangs still with a gaggle of kids he’s known since Mommy and Me and many of our own friends are their parents. There have been a few divorces but most of us continue to slog it out and find it gets easier as the children grow more independent. Tsing Loh says that most of her married friends no longer enjoy connubial relations. My research is less scientific and comprehensive than Alfred Kinsey’s but I don’t think this is the case with most of our social circle.

I try to find accurate statistics on the Internet as to what percentage of married Americans surveyed admit to having had a relationship with someone other than a spouse but the numbers are disparate-- some surveys say 30% and others report as many as 60%. I am not going to get into the infidelity thing except to say that I am probably more of the European disposition that it happens constantly and it’s only because Americans are uptight about sex and our society has become more and more punitive that it receives so much attention.

Apparently true to statistics and as Mark Sanford sneaks back from Argentina and weeps for the press, one or both of the partners in a number of our friends’ long marriages has had an extracurricular romantic relationship. And they choose to stay married and consider their marriages happy ones. I ask my first choice for divorce attorney, Dianna Gould Saltman in what percentage of her cases is infidelity the cause of divorce.

She responds: “This is a little "chicken or egg." If someone's spouse announces he never wants to have sex again and she then develops an affair with someone, is it the "cheating" that brought down the marriage? Or if one spouse cheats but doesn't leave and, when the other spouse cheats, the first spouse leaves, was it spouse #2's cheating that brought down the marriage? Also, if someone develops a romantic relationship with someone outside the marriage but never has sex with that person, is that "cheating"? You'd be amazed at the number of cases I get like this. I can say that probably half the cases I get involve someone developing a relationship outside the marriage, but I can't say that that relationship is the reason for the breakdown of the marriage.”

I wish though there was a statistic for the number of compassionate mature adults who quietly mend their marriages and avoid retaining Dianna’s services. The pre-scripted American infidelity reality show is insufferable but has inspired for many mere mortals the blueprint for a programmed reaction to extramarital relationships. Boo and hiss the ambitious man, career hopes dashed, bawling contritely on CNN. Now weep at the stoic dignity of the humiliated wife. This is the price of opting for the political life in such a priggish country, a price that’s unfortunately exacted disproportionately on the children of the indiscreet. Chelsea Clinton OMG! But Ms. Tsing Loh is not running for office. Did she cynically expect that her confessional article in the Atlantic would spur enough controversy to boost her book sales now that she has an extra residence to maintain?

Given American tight assedness about such things, it seems imprudent to make a public confession about such shenanigans if you are the parent of a young child. I ask a writer friend, whose famous writer mother has recently written a memoir, about Tsing Loh’s postmortem of her marriage and she responds, “…it seemed fairly tame compared to other memoirs in terms of ‘mothers writing memoirs which send their kids to the couch.’(It was nothing compared to my mom's memoir, which had some fairly explicit oral sex descriptions, which I basically had to just separate myself from.)”

Perhaps Tsing Loh’s public confession was more discreet than it might have been. She also makes a good point that we, the children of the swingin’ sixties, often cling to our bleak marriages to spite our reprobate parents who married and divorced at the same rate Patty Duke popped pills in Valley of the Dolls. Himself was not a child of divorce but he was such an alien creature to his well meaning working class adoptive parents that he has other issues he can talk about on his own blog. My parents got divorced when I was seven. Infidelity was an issue, but as with Dianna’s clientele, there were deeper underlying causes, amongst them, the naturalness with which both of my parents lied. I stuck through some icky points in our marriage to prove something to them because I felt personally betrayed by their divorce. The first act in the movie of my marriage was propaganda for my parents to prove I was better and that if they had been better people they would have toughed it out and made me a better home. “I love my children enough to endure what you didn’t love me enough to endure” might have been an apt title.

Maybe I say it too often, but regardless of real or perceived transgressions, the complete passage to adulthood requires you to stop being angry at your parents. As I strive to shed my anger, I examine what I experienced as meanness and selfishness to find at the very core, an inability, borne of fear and self hatred, to tell the truth. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it dawned on me that this legacy hobbled and demeaned me. I try to accept that my truths, even though I’d been raised to lie on automatic pilot, are just not that weighty or shameful. What a sweet gift to gradually cast off a lifetime of humiliating secrets to my beloved and to be held more fast and discover that it’s not a movie, but miraculously real.

Himself gets screwed because I am spread too thin to properly regale him with Father’s Day, wedding anniversary and birthday falling so close together, within seven days. We’re not big celebration people but on a couple of cool summer evenings we lie in bed and remember trips we’ve taken. We drove through France one summer, the two lamest people in the world unable to even COUNT in French, just holding open my wallet for toll collectors and getting stopped by police and never figuring out if we were going too fast or too slow and they got so exasperated that they just shrugged and waved us away.

The sixteen year old asks if I’ve seen a movie and I say that I haven’t and Himself says that I have and reminds me of the theater we saw it at and who we were with and feeds me detail after detail until it returns to me in tiny vague flashes and I am finally I am able to conjure an image or two from a screen we gazed at twenty years ago.

We recite long rosters of bygone pets. When we met there was Bowser the dog, and cats: Clarence with six toes, Louie a big sweet gray tuxedo, Beatrice, a meek affectionate little calico, Baby Sunny who had some brain chemistry off and an insatiable appetite for buttered popcorn and a gray and white cat whose name we cannot remember. Himself often wonders how many cats I would have now if he hadn’t married me. For anniversary dinner the You Tube videos of the keyboard cat is the evening’s puerile entertainment. On birthday morning I grab our indolent cats, brother and sister who sometimes curl up together purring until with no apparent provocation they explode into a hateful screeching fight, and squeeze them together, legs swinging, into an involuntary happy birthday dance on the bed until one scratches me.

My mother doesn’t recognize me on my brief visits as the one she cries for in the night. She sits finely clothed and regal as the movies of her youth roll by on endless loop. She lived alone for almost 40 years and there is always someone with her now. Usually, not me. Sandra Tsing Loh dismisses the whole institution of marriage, instead of facing that maybe her dishonesty and not a flawed and corrupt institution, was the catalyst to the crash and burn of her own. I am down to two cats now and my beloved knows most of the shittiest stuff there is to know about me and he still loves me. Details of our twenty year history fade and clinging together in our bed in the cool summer nights we whisper and try to remember.

Shabbat Shalom


FionnchĂș said...

So, if "one or both of the partners in a number of our friends’ long marriages has had an extracurricular romantic relationship. And they choose to stay married and consider their marriages happy ones." is true, can I have an open marriage?

Anymore such revelations two weeks going while you're a-blogging and lord knows I'll be blushin' xxx me

Jamie said...

This is such a tender post.
I put marriage right up there with parenting in the "toughest job I'll ever have" category.
Congrats on 18 years... despite the statistics and our uptight society you are making it... as am I and my pain-in-the-ass beloved of nearly 12 years. And truly the reason may be, to quote you, that "I love my children enough to endure what you didn’t love me enough to endure". In times like these that is reason enough for me.

oddlyme said...

"Sandra Tsing Loh dismisses the whole institution of marriage, instead of facing that maybe her dishonesty and not a flawed and corrupt institution, was the catalyst to the crash and burn of her own."

Rock on!

Neither my husband nor myself is perfect - but we rejoice. To have a partner on the journey of life who know you and not only still loves you, still delights in you? A true gift to be treasured, on both sides.

Bo said...

You both look lovely in those pics!