A Wedding in the Garden of Eden
On our wedding day, I knew things were not going to be smooth sailing in my new family when, at the reception, I overheard two older women in the church ladies’ room commenting to each other – in different stalls, oblivious to others who might overhear – that “she could only have caught him because she’s pregnant.” He was, after all, eight years older than was I, with a secure job, handsome, considered a good catch.
A few months earlier, I had simply over-looked another female family member who asked me, “So, what birth control method will you two use?” At the time, I had refrained from spilling my first response, which was, “Oh, we don’t have to worry about that – we are into anal sex.” What a delightful welcome-to-the-family greeting, either way. Obviously, there are those in this family who are expecting that I will spawn the anti-Christ, child of a she-wolf that I am.
I met him in a bar. I was waitressing there, since I had already learned to my cost that tips were the only way to actually make a living at a part-time job while enrolled in college. He was at the very crowded bar, and we met eyes. I asked him “how’s it going,” and he said it would be better if he could get some service. I assessed the situation at a glance: he was standing with the twenty-dollar bill held below the bartender’s view at the edge of the bar. I told him to raise his hand so that the bill was visible, and he’d get service, which he promptly did. I hope that’s not why he married me.
It was five years before I got pregnant with my daughter, our first child. That was planning. It was also because I was too afraid that having children earlier would spell the end of our shaky relationship. Years after my first husband’s death (actually NOT at my hands), after his children were launched into the world, a friend and I were discussing ancient history, and I commented that he was not a bad man. I dutifully told her that he did not commit any of the cardinal sins of husband-hood: he did not drink to excess, he did not gamble, he did not hit me (or the children), he did not run around with other women – or men (at least that I knew of), he went to work every day, he came home to his family, he did not waste his money on too many frivolous things, etc. It was not until she looked at me pityingly, and observed in a sarcastically sympathetic tone, “You really set yourself lofty goals in a man, don’t you?” that I realized how abysmally low my expectations actually were.
He was the sensitive type. Not the romantic-poetry sort, the weak-stomach sort. For the entire seventeen years of our marriage, I was the one who took out the garbage, because if there was anything in there remotely ripe, he’d puke. Once when we were dating, we stopped by his parent’s (his) house, and he ran in to get something. Since he was gone, and the truck’s door was wide open, I took the opportunity to pass some rather painful gas that I had previously, for modesty’s sake, refrained from passing. It was some minutes before he returned. When he was half-way into the driver’s seat, his head snapped up, he gave me the look, and promptly turned outside the truck door and emptied his stomach. I learned he would also toss his cookies if I prepared egg salad.
The one time I recall him making a sincere effort at fatherhood, I was passing the nursery door and had to backtrack to verify what I had seen in my peripheral vision. He was standing at the diaper table, our infant daughter on the table waving her hands and feet, and there was about four inches of white facial tissue sticking out of each nostril. He had crammed a Kleenex up each side of his nose, and was manfully addressing a stinky diaper. When he realized I was at the door, he commented, “Stuff smells so strong I can taste it.” I think that was the first and last diaper he ever touched, for either of his two children, except under extreme duress.
When he died, a few days before Thanksgiving in 1999, I was teaching school. It was the last day before the Thanksgiving vacation. Apparently, he’d felt poorly, and had driven to the doctor’s office uptown, where he made it to the receptionist’s window and said, “I need to see a doctor,” before he passed out. There were several physicians on duty in the office who promptly came to his aid, and they were unable to revive him. When they called me at school, they told me only that he had been taken to the hospital. I collected my children from school, and we went straight away.
When we arrived at the emergency room of the county hospital, they put us in a private little room by ourselves. I knew this was not a good sign. I called my parents, and his family, and my pastor. My husband had declined to attend church, like he had declined to visit with my family, though he visited with his own family often. In the last years, I stopped attending these his-family visits with him, after I realized how seldom he attended any visits with me to my family. I’m a slow learner. For years, my family attended church together on Sunday mornings, and went to my grandmother’s home for Sunday lunch. For years, my upright, gentle, prayer-warrior, silver-haired grandmother set a place at the family table for my missing husband. For years.
My marriage had been shaky all along. We tried counseling several times. Counseling was useful to the relationship only because my husband was willing to hear from the male counselor the same things I had been trying to tell him for years with no success. Recently, only months before he died, I had turned my marriage and the worry over it, to God. I figured He was in control, and HE could effect changes that I could not. So, when the two serious-faced physicians came into that small room to tell me that my husband had not made it, and to reassure me that they had done all that they could to save his life and that they had failed, the first thing out of my mouth was, “This is NOT what I had in mind!” I was NOT expecting God to kill him; I was expecting God to FIX him. Killing him was NOT in MY plans. I saw the looks that the two doctors gave each other at my utterance, and it crossed my mind that they were wondering amongst themselves exactly what it was I HAD expected – that whatever I gave him was only supposed to make him sick, instead of killing him? Years later, that would be morbidly funny. People I told were visibly unsure whether to laugh or not, and the joke was for me alone.
I lay the blame for my low expectations for the masculine sex on the male members of my own family. Don’t get me wrong, my family does, and did, possess some real masculine gems, all the more valuable for their extreme rarity. My dad’s mother, my grandmother, divorced my handsome tomcat grandfather in a time when divorced women were self-proclaimed whores. She found that socially unacceptable label easier to bear than my grandfather’s socially acceptable, boys-will-be-boys, numerous and frequent extra-marital liaisons. Years later, when shopping in that part of the country, I would see a complete and total stranger in the grocery and think to myself, “you and I are related, and you don’t even know it,” because of the family stamp I could clearly see imprinted on their face.
She quickly remarried (on the rebound) and this relationship did not last more than a few months. The handsome man, surnamed Lucky, was not. Her third husband was a tall (6 foot 2 inches, 240 pounds) and handsome ex-cook from the Army, and made the best fried chicken and boiled peanuts ever. It was years before I discovered that my grandmother’s delicious fried chicken was actually my step-granddad’s. To balance out this commendable and considerable Southern cuisine culinary skill, however, he drank – to excess. One evening, after he’d been out imbibing, he came home with loving on his mind. My petite (5 foot 2 inches, 105 pounds) grandmother showed him why she was blessed with fiery red hair, and she clobbered him. When he fell, he hit the piano bench, and broke some ribs. She left him there to consider the error of his ways. She finally relented (after QUITE some time), and took him to the hospital. He did not try that trick again. When I knew her growing up, she was afflicted with blinding migraine headaches that would require a trip to the hospital and a knock-out injection of major strength drugs to get them stopped. When my step-granddad died years later of throat cancer from the many cigarettes he chain-smoked, the migraines stopped. When her friends would ask her why she did not have any trouble with migraine headaches anymore, when they used to be so virulent, she would reply succinctly, “Bob died.”
I wondered for years, as did my dad, her eldest son, why she did not leave this sterling specimen of manhood, too, as she had promptly done to the other two. When I was an adult, married woman of sufficient years to be judged no longer a child, she told me. She had overheard her father, my great-granddad (another of our family’s gems), speaking to someone about his unlucky-in-love daughter. What he said apparently wounded her to the core, though I am sure he would never have said it had he thought she would overhear. What he said was words to this effect: Mae Lita sure does pick the worst sort of men. So, she stayed with the last one. I guess she figured she had done the “out of the frying pan, into the fire” routine with the men in her life enough already, and this sorry pig was no better or worse than the other ones out there. I think she gave up on her personal happiness when she married number three. Explains the headaches.
Her dad, my great-granddad, was not a tall man, nor a spectacularly handsome one, either, but he was made of solid gold. He worked as a machinist for the railroad – a handsome job, and when he retired, he took over his eldest son’s failing farm, and made a success out of it. He and my great-grandmom also quietly and without fuss took in the daughters of two other families in town who could not adequately care for them, and raised them along with their own two. They were my honorary aunts. My great-grandparents tried to set a good example for them both (with somewhat limited success), and their hometown charity was never referred to as such. How my great-grandmother chose him for a husband was a story I was not privileged to hear. I was later to wish that she had shared her wisdom with her daughter, her granddaughters-in-law, and her great-grand-daughters (me). Still, you cannot change someone’s mind who is determined to conduct a train wreck, and I think she knew that, too.
Her sneezes were famous. I could be piddling around at the pond in the back pasture, a half-mile from the house, and I would still jump when she came out on the back porch to sneeze. I never heard her sneeze in church – perhaps she had mastered the knack of stifling it when she needed to. Attempts to stifle MY sneezes resulted in a series of sneezes, of lesser volume, but an impressive string of eight to twelve of them, all in a row. I think one big one would have been better. Her favorite food was eel; caught on the trot lines the menfolk would set in the river to catch fish. The eels were considered to be little more than vermin, but she loved them, and the men learned to save them for her, along with the fish they originally went for. My favorite memory of her was that she kept a little tin pie pan, little more than a tart pie size, and every time she made a big pie for dinner, she would make a little pie in that pan – just for me. I will never forget how very special that little pie, made with love just for me, made me feel.
My great-granddad liked horses. He plowed the middles of the corn fields using a mule long after tractors were in vogue – indeed, long after he actually HAD a tractor himself. I can just recall walking ahead of the patient mule down the shady forest of thickly green corn stalks, bare feet in the warm sandy soil, as my great-granddad walked behind, guiding the single-furrow plow. I must have been about seven years old. He also kept a coal-black Welsh pony stallion, and bought a palomino Shetland pony mare for the grandkids to ride, as the little stallion was a trifle feisty. I learned horsemanship caring for and breaking their resultant offspring to ride.
I remember my dad and other family members telling that once, some stored furniture was stolen out of an unoccupied storage house in the pasture. It was not locked, so the thieves came in the middle of the night and helped themselves. My great-granddad refused to report it to the police. He said if they needed furniture badly enough to steal it, they could have it. He then commented that he would have given them more than they took, if they had only asked.
Another tale that indicates what sort of mindset he had was the story about the junk man. Some people at that time in the Deep South could not find jobs, so they scrounged for any sort of money-making enterprise they could contrive. This one man had a mule and wagon, and he’d come by farms, asking if the farmers had any scrap metal he could purchase from them. He would then take the scrap to the metal recyclers in town, and sell it for scrap himself, earning a few pennies on the difference between what he bought it for and what he was able to sell it for. When he passed my great-granddad’s farm, he was intrigued by the rusting hulks of several pieces of farm equipment, and a couple of derelict cars sitting in the pasture. The goats my granddad raised were having a high old time clambering all over these man-made “mountains,” and the junk man asked my great-granddad if he would be willing to sell any of those piles of rust for scrap. Long and short of it was that Dada ended up purchasing some more scrap off the junk man to add to his piles for the goats. I remember those goats well, because we “adopted” the little ones and took them home to raise and play with – sort’ve like a new toy. When they matured, we’d bring them back to the farm to live out their useful and productive lives. One doe named Snowflake lived to the ripe old age of seventeen, producing twins nearly every year. We’d visit her on every family vacation. Back then, my dad did not have the extra funds to take us on a “real” vacation to some exotic location, so when he had time off from work, we would go and visit family. That’s how things were done, and I did not know any differently. Besides, the farm was a treasure trove, Disneyland and a petting zoo, all rolled into one. Many times I fed the massive, one-ton plus Angus bull corn from my hand. I credit my love of animals, and what understanding I have of them, to these childhood experiences.
My other grandfather, on my mother’s side, was genetically unlucky; his handsomeness was hampered by a rare genetic disorder that usually kills its victims in childhood. He lived to sire three children and die a tragic, handsome young man – in the middle of a love affair with another woman. He left behind striking, sorrowful love poems that one of his grandsons greatly admired; never knowing that the woman he was pledging undying loyalty and steadfast love to was not the woman to whom he was married at the time. My grandmother never mentioned him. She married again – a man of dubious looks this time, but of absolutely sterling character. He was one of our few male gems.
My dad lived a quixotic, dual-and-competing-ideology-and-personality life: he was a minister of the gospel and a tomcat himself. Why that illogical and incompatible duality never unhinged his mind, I am unsure; perhaps it did, and I just was so used to it, I didn’t notice. My mother was an amazing woman, multi-talented in a myriad of ways. She was the settled one in the family, and it was due to her that the bills got paid, and to her sewing machine that the family stayed appropriately clothed. To pay for her graduate degrees in Education, she raised and sold registered Siamese kittens. We had three registered queens (the females) and one registered male. When all three mamas had kittens at the same time, there could be as many as thirty to forty cats in the house at once. My dad did not complain overly much about this, since each duly registered kitten sold for hundreds of dollars – in the 1970’s. He was not stupid, just foolish about women.
I suppose you can see my masculine and marital dilemma from these ruminations. It was anathema to just live with the man you picked, you had to be socially respectable and actually marry him. No exceptions. Then, there were just enough good ones in the family to give us romantic daughters hope that we would also luck up and find one of those, not one of the “other” sort. Well, I tried. The problem is that when you think you are “in love,” you overlook a multitude of sins. Reminds me of buying second-hand clothes at Goodwill – in the dark. You know there is SOME reason why he is not already taken, and is still available, like Goodwill’s second-hand goods. Let’s face it; none of THEM are virgin, even if YOU still are. If he was undamaged goods, some other girl would already have taken him, so you know there is SOMEthing wrong with him. The difficulty is in discovering exactly what and where the flaws are.
If the flaw is hidden, it is better than one right out front where everybody can see it, like a wine stain down the front bodice. Same with men. If his flaws are hidden and relatively small ones, they can, perhaps, be mended, like a tear that is on a seam, which is easily and invisibly mended. Tears in visible places, however, no matter how expertly mended, always show. Women looking for a relationship know this instinctively. We are simply handicapped in discovering the flaws before we have taken the irrevocable (well, mostly irrevocable) step of saying, “I do.”
Our handicaps are two-fold. First, there is the fact that men don’t like revealing their flaws – unless they are flaws that they don’t know are flaws. Then, they are actually PROUD of them, and flaunt them. That does not make them NOT flaws; it’s just that those are the ones that are easy to spot. Things like a predilection to spend hours and hours golfing, hunting and fishing, or watching sports on TV (or in person) fall into this category. The second part of the handicap to uncovering the flaws is our own selves. The romantic, rose-colored glasses selves who are in love with the idea of being in love. We don’t WANT to look this horse in the mouth too carefully – we want him to be the mostly perfect man we thought he was when we met his charming self. Even when our friends, relatives, mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers caution us about this particular man – we are deaf, dumb (REALLY dumb), and blind to his faults. *Sigh.*
The first time I felt REALLY married was when we made a trip down south to visit my father’s side of the family shortly after we were married. My grandmother put me and this man she had never met before into the same bedroom – GASP. Yep, I was REALLY married. My grandmother (Mae Lita) commented to my dad at the reception they threw at the local church for my new husband and me, when she observed me change my mind to accommodate the handsome new husband, ”She won’t put up with that long.” I wish I had overheard HER, not that I probably would have had the sense to listen. I lasted seventeen years, and would be married to him still, had he not done me the genuine courtesy of dropping dead.
That is another morbidly funny joke just for me, but it was sincerely said. I knew other couples who divorced, and I saw that their children really, really suffered through the custody battles, other-parent weekend visitations and the bouts of anger and jealousy that traditionally accompany a divorce. At least my children were spared the knowledge that dad (or mom) made a choice to leave them, and start a new life somewhere else, with someone else. They know full well that their dad did not intend to die and leave them, so they had some reassurance and closure that many, many other children just don’t have. That was decent of him. Of course, cancelling out his half-million dollar life insurance policy mere months before he died wasn’t. If the doctors needed any more proof (other than his autopsy) that I did not kill him, that would have cinched it.
If my mother had not insured his life on my behalf, I would have had to sell our home when he died. Other than the handsome 260 bucks Social Security pays to widows of taxpayers (what on Earth FOR, I do not understand- you can’t buy toilet paper for the funeral service for that), I received no further benefit from his death other than my freedom. That was enough. I tithed the insurance settlement for his death, since it was by the grace of God (and mama) that the money was there.
His family, true to their beginnings, left me with little doubt regarding how they considered me after his death. I was tolerated before, and that ceased. On four separate occasions since his death, some elderly family member passed away and left handsome bequests to my husband’s children, while conspicuously leaving me out in the cold. I could hardly expect anything else after their warm, generous and understanding welcome when we were dating and newly married, now, could I?
I spent the two years after his death getting my life in order and trying to hold onto the things that we had so that my children had less additional disruption in their already-disrupted lives. I was not remotely interested in a man – I had batteries, thank you very much. No way was I jumping off any more cliffs.
And then, I met a man.
Actually that’s not true. I ran into a man, who happened to be teaching my son’s Sunday School class. Since I had met my previous husband in a bar, I figured this beginning might actually be a trifle more auspicious. I picked up my son at the door of the Sunday School room, and realized I had just been scoped by his teacher. The whole elevator look, from head to toe; slow, evaluating and approving. That was not particularly unsettling, since it had happened a time or two since husband number one had died, under various sets of circumstances at various times. What shocked me to the soles of my shoes was when I realized I had scoped him back. It scared me so badly, I didn’t return to church for weeks. When I finally scraped up the nerve to go after him, he showed up at church that day with another woman. It was ON. Nothing like a little competition to put short shrift to any hesitation. I married him three months to the day I first asked him out. No reason to shilly-shally. I knew quite well what I did not want: everything my first husband was. He, on the other hand, knew exactly what he didn’t want: everything his ex was. We were a match made in mutual misery, and we both had determined that the separate, but mutual, train wrecks we had lived through before would not happen again. So far, so good.
I learned a lot about him from his children. His youngest, Tim, had an interesting way of looking at the world. He obviously applied logic, but it was a quirky sort of logic – endearing, but side-splitting hilarious. One of his most famous examples of this sort of thinking related to the man his mother left his father for. Children of divorce whose parents re-marry become accustomed to speaking of various parents with additional, descriptive labels to clarify confusing relationships. Tim had heard his older siblings refer to his father as my “real dad,” so, logically, this other adult male must obviously be, of course, “fake dad.” I would have given considerable sums to have been a fly on the wall when that one popped out.