“I hasten to declare that I have been married to my present spouse only since 2002, though I knew I loved him the moment I saw him on 3 October 1999 and, in a moment, I shall get to that story, which he and I tell quite differently. Dean’s version involves an hour-long disquisition on Harry James, Art Depew, Don and John Thomas, Duke Ellington, Ernie Wilkins, Billy Strayhorn, and Count Basie, in which I make an appearance, with no speaking lines, only three minutes from the end.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
By Way of Being
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”—Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”
“However important it is that love shall precede marriage, it is far more important that it shall continue after marriage.”—Samson Raphael Hirsch
Editor’s Note: This little essay is dedicated to Weekly Hubris’s Jean Nolan, who this month celebrates 50 years of marriage to her husband John, as well as to Weekly Hubris’s long and happily married Diana Farr and Harilaos Louis, Ingrid and Skip Eisiminger, and Deborah Grisorio and Ross Konikoff.
PENDLETON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2018—Of late, I find I have been turned to, willy-nilly, as a role model in all things marital which, if you know anything about my actual progress through the House of Love, is somewhat risible.
Be that as it may, younger, single women friends ask me these days such questions as, “How did you know your spouse was the one?” and “What’s the secret of your marriage?” and “How am I ever going to find someone like your husband, only younger and with more hair?” (I’m kidding, Dean; I’m kidding.)
These queries make a change from (in the past) “How in God’s name did you manage to marry two gay men?” and “Why did you stay, even a week, with someone who punched you?” and (this, from a Prime Minister’s ex-wife) “How do you always have a presentable man at your side?”*
The constant here is, I suppose, “What the hell is your secret with men?”
In my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and, now, 60s, the questions have taken on different coloring, but the query posed by younger, single women (and the occasional single man) is really a horse of one color only: I’m being asked why I’m not alone, and they are; why Dean and I are “happy enough,” and they aren’t.
I hasten to declare that I have been married to my present spouse only since 2002, though I knew I loved him the moment I saw him on 3 October 1999 and, in a moment, I shall get to that story, which he and I tell quite differently. (Dean’s version involves an hour-long disquisition on Harry James, Art Depew, Don and John Thomas, Duke Ellington, Ernie Wilkins, Billy Strayhorn, and Count Basie, in which I make an appearance, with no speaking lines, only three minutes from the end.)
Forty-eight and 50 when we met, we had both weathered other marriages and divorces. (I imagined back then that I could write the book on successful divorces—mine were hasty and no-fault—but my spouse was actually divorced from the same wife twice due to legal technicalities, surely a circlet of hell no one, or two, should ever have to endure.)
Both of us when we married had lost mates to death: we knew that life and love comprise no musical comedy.
I believe, also, that despite Americans’ protracted “adolescence”—and so, so many grey-haired people I know in this country have never, I opine, achieved adulthood—Dean and I were as close to being the adults in our rooms as possible.
In my own case, that maturity—and it was and is nowhere near what I would term perfectly accomplished—came only after I had lived some nine years alone, become completely self-supporting, and had settled, contentedly, in my own home.
I had made a secure nest for myself long before I met Dean, and I had accepted that I might live out my days alone there, which was just fine with me . . . until the moment I clapped eyes on him.
When we met, at the University of Southern California, where we had both flown, from South Carolina and New York City respectively, to attend a jazz concert honoring the late Harry James, I arrived on someone else’s arm.
That someone else is a true, Southern scoundrel of the first water, a neurosurgeon I have known since age 20. It is symptomatic of my growth over the 28 years since the scoundrel and I first met that, in 1999, I was quite willing to attend a concert with him, but knew him finally for what he was: a lifelong bachelor whom no end of charming women had failed to socialize, if even civilize; someone whom arrested emotional development would strand, solo, for the duration. (His first girlfriend, an Austrian chemist, gave him the nickname “Berserker,” which is indicative both of his impetuous charm and serious shortcomings.)
We arrived on separate jets, the Berserker and I, met up in Santa Monica, proceeded to USC, and walked into a room where my future husband (and others) were rehearsing the USC Thornton Studio Jazz Band. I sat down, looked across the room, and experienced a true coup de foudre.
I wish I could say that I grew to love Dean, but I knew, right then. Among the other jazz trumpeters, he stood, rumpled and un-selfconscious (as he remains, despite my best efforts), and infinitely kind. Across the room I watched him at work with the student musicians: he listened, he encouraged, he modeled, and he played like a wingless angel. (My eyes well up even now.)
It was a very good thing that, over the course of the week following, my date behaved just as he always had towards me, and if you’ve observed The Donald with Melania, you have a good notion of what that looked like. Sidelined by my longtime beau, I was often at the other end of a crowded table from him, and Dean was able to come to my rescue and get to know me at his leisure.
At one point, for some reason, I asked him if he knew the tune “Perfidia”: he took up his horn, walked me down a nearby flight of stairs, and played it from memory. Ah, these wily trumpet players (and I haven’t even mentioned triple-tonguing)!
And because I met the love of my life in the setting of a group, there was no pressure on either of us to pair off, which is the norm in Europe, but a luxury in America.
Each of us was seeing other people back home, but we met at a time when neither of us was seriously seeking a mate: we met, in fact, when neither of us imagined we would ever again marry, nor find someone we wanted to marry.
Dean would interject here, “You’ve got mail,” as we flew east following the concert, resumed our separate lives, but then wrote one another almost daily. (I admit, I also sent him analog cookies; he reciprocated with the largest bouquets Pendleton’s flower shop had ever put together.) Visits to New Jersey and South Carolina followed; Nine-Eleven “happened,” with one of us on its doorstep and the other wringing her hands down South; then, Dean took the train to Pendleton to propose (he’d made a little paper ring and put it in a velvet box: the man’s a jazz musician, not a neurosurgeon); and I said yes. With a pang of sadness, I rented out my antebellum home and moved north.
A year later, on Halloween, we were married by Teaneck New Jersey’s Jewish woman mayor, who wrote the service (and not a word of it did we change). Dean promptly came down with the flu, so we had to forego Manhattan’s Halloween parade and, instead, stayed up all night at the Gramercy Park Hotel, eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s and bringing his fever down.
And, then, following the ceremony, came the marriage.
After our somewhat protracted, romantic, and thoughtful Prelude, there came our play’s inevitable next acts: Bliss; Adjustment; Crisis (marital and mid-life); Resolution; Acceptance; and, then, something you might call Happiness-Enough.
Looking back now, today, on almost two decades with this man, I think I finally know how best to marry “well enough,” if not perfectly. Were I perfected, myself, perhaps I could speak to “perfect unions and what makes for them.” I cannot. But I do know these specific things about this specific happy-enough marriage:
- We were, neither of us, looking for love when we found it. And what we call love, both of us, has morphed over time. Life has made us shape-shift over the years and, if love was blind in the beginning, it is now pretty clear-eyed: we have exchanged rapture for something else entirely, though I hesitate to name it. If, in the beginning, we imagined the other could, would, meet all or most of our needs, we soon accepted that she/he could not. That he, and I, are almost always gentle, largely patient, and able to take turns at being grumpy we consider remporter un grand succès.
- We were both adults when we met, of about the same age, both products of the same odd culture and century, and both (already) established artists: our expectations had been tempered though not flattened by what artists may expect in our shared birth-country.
- We both had parents who loved and nurtured us in childhood; and who modeled for us what “happy-enough” marriages might look like.
- We took our time getting to know one another before we married, and we were honest with one another, in the time leading up to our marriage, about what we expected of one another. We committed to one another; and then kept refining that commitment.
- From the very beginning, we gave each other lots of room. Neither of us is jealous; neither wanted to cut the other off from old or new friends; both of us require private “woodsheds“ in which to practice.
- We rolled with punches delivered to one or both: we knew they would come, but oh, we did not know how painful some of them would be, nor where they would land. On nine days out of ten, we present a united front, and have each other’s back.
- We forgive each other, and we cultivate mercy for one another (and they are two different things). We had to learn that by heart on the job, but we learned it.
- We genuinely like one another; admire one another.
- We always give each other the larger slice; the softer pillow; the lion’s share of the umbrella. (This can have comic effects.)
- We know all each other’s tender, un-healing places, and we do not jab them with sharp forefingers.
- We talk. A lot.
- We belly-laugh at each other’s wicked asides.
So, what I know about meeting the spouse of your dreams is that you will have to have met a lot of others beforehand, perhaps getting better (and better) at relationships along the way. And that not every tutoiment is forever, but some may well be dynamite while they last. You may, even, marry two deeply closeted gay men before you learn the seemingly simple lesson that it takes quite some time to take the measure of a man (or to catch him in a tutu: don’t ask).
And, too, I know now that if you are 1) not yet a grown-up, 2) terribly wounded and needy 3) in great emotional or physical turmoil, 4) addicted to this, that, or the other, and/or 5) unable to stand the sight of yourself in a full-length mirror, it’s going to be even more difficult, if not impossible, to see one another, clearly, across a crowded room. (Here, I smack some interlocutors across the face à la Loretta in “Moonstruck” and say, “Snap out of it!” You can either down three boxes of donuts and a six-pack every night in front of the TV or you can have a sex life: very much up to you.)
It’s best, perhaps it is necessary, to come to a relationship full as opposed to empty; able to be alone and largely self-sufficient. It gives you a fighting chance. You have to feel pretty good about yourself to offer yourself up to an other.
I now feel just like Polonius, and can only enjoin any and all younger, unmarried women to ignore every word I’ve written.
Over lunch, just now, I asked Dean why he thinks we’ve stayed together, and he said, “I hadn’t really given it much thought,” upon which I punched him, gently.
Then, he put his arms around me and said, and I quote, “. . . because I cannot imagine a life without you,” which is what you hope your spouse will say after 20 years, or two.
Then, he cracked a joke, made a funny, high-pitched sound (of which he has a vast ridiculous repertoire), and made me spit out a snow pea . . . which is, perhaps, the real reason we are so happily-enough married: the man cracks wise, I laugh, and that’s no mean accomplishment.
*My response—divulged not totally in jest—to the Prime Minister’s ex-wife, back in the late 1980s was: “When men pursue me, I tend to run; they usually interpret that as a challenge as opposed to a rebuff. It is men’s nature, I have found, to want what is difficult to attain.”
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