Monday, October 10, 2011

the joy between the lines

Story sustains me. I used to comb my parents’ wedding album for some hint of who they were as young people, thinking somewhere hidden in my mother’s crinoline or my father’s slim smile was a clue to what I should expect of a marriage of my own. 
I once asked them to write their story, to recall what life was like when they were my age and busy parents of young children. I suppose I hoped their own love story held truths for me, too, and that my husband and I could sustain our marriage as long, though at times it didn't seem to me that ours was as as happy. 
Married 60 years next year, their sense of romance lingers, clear though those old photographs have faded a bit. They have yet to give me the written clues I need to ensure my own marriage will last. Maybe they are waiting until the 60th to reveal it, when they will gather with kids and grands and great-grands — so they will only have to say it once.
My kids, I vowed years ago, will know their story and our role in it even if they don’t want to. I kept my daughter’s early history in a journal, recording my dreams for her each year on her birthday.  I gave it to her at 18, and that summer decided that a pre-college mother-daughter adventure was a good idea, a way to give those old journal words life. Somehow we made it without too much argument the 500 miles from our home in North Carolina to Georgia, angling down wide strips of painted road with thousands of other summer travelers on their own pilgrimages, to Perry, where her story began.
When I moved to Georgia at 23,  I was single and knew just one person, a girl I'd gone to j-school with at Chapel Hill who worked for the paper there. It was the first real risk I’d ever taken in my life.
A year later and married three weeks, I moved to Perry with my new husband — whom I'd met on my first Georgia day — into a two-bedroom apartment with gold shag carpet and a landing where our collie could sit and look out the window. 
On our visit, the Pea and I drove past that apartment, where on move-in day, Rick and I picnicked with his parents on the carpet while we waited for the moving van; where the first bread I ever tried to make fell flat; where we staged our first Christmas photo as a married couple. There’s the dog’s window, the stoop where he used to sit.
A large willow oak stood at the foot of the sidewalk that day, but I didn't remember even a sapling there. Maybe that was where I tied the dog the day he ran away. It had been 20 years.
“It looks like the slums,” my child said, noticing, as I did, the chipping paint, the uneven blinds in the windows. Her idea of a first apartment even at that time was the New York City brownstone she now lives in with her husband, where her own marriage is just taking root.
Her father and I bought our first chair together with wedding money when we lived in that apartment, and an antique table from a flea market. We found an old chestnut jelly cupboard in a barn and refinished it, a cupboard that now holds all my wedding crystal.
 Living so far away from my family, my young husband was all I had then, he and our collie, Bogey. Without a job to occupy me at first, Bogey and I would wait for him by the window fan in the Indian summer heat.
In those early months I put into practice what I’d thought marriage meant. I set the table with our new everyday dishes on a tiny veneered table we borrowed from my mother-in-law. I used the matching placemats we’d been given, pulled out new pots and improved on my mother’s spaghetti sauce, made New England pot roasts from my new Betty Crocker Cookbook. We bought our first Christmas ornaments, hanging them on a tiny tree in the living room. They remain my favorites, even now.
Shortly before our first anniversary, we bought a house, setting up the tripod in the front yard to take the first picture of our anniversary album as the gnats swarmed around our eyes. My husband's father had been operated on with a brain tumor the day before, and in the picture, Rick holds tight to me as if he will never let me go.
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Rick and I married 30 years ago today. We’d met on the evening of that first Georgia day a year and a day earlier. He'd hosted a party at his house for people at work, and call me crazy, but I knew I would marry him as he stood by the car door for me at the end of the evening and said his goodnights.
The writer attracted me at first, a man who could assemble words with grace and clarity and emotion. His genuine interest in my life and dreams kept me interested. In those early months he told me that he fell in love with me for the same reasons.
We said our vows in my hometown church in front of a small gathering of family and friends, he weeping as he said the words, me wondering if I could ever love this man as deeply as he deserved.
Only weeks after we met he had confessed to being in love with me, the kind of love that leaves you breathless; two months into our courtship he asked me to marry him. Ecstatic, I studied the pages of Bride’s magazines until they were dog-eared. But there was precious little in those magazines about anything but wedding. No advice, really, about how to live beyond that first beautiful fall day. Nothing at all about keeping what turned out to be a living breathing thing alive for years.
On our trip back to Perry, I wanted to tell the Pea something important, to give her the secret of how to build a long marriage. But why then? She didn't even have a boyfriend at the time, and to be honest, her dad and I were not in the best of places at that time, so I wasn't so sure I had any answer to share.
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Our mother/daughter team meandered through the streets of Perry that day in 2002 and she thought we were lost. 
“Why don’t we just forget it?” she said. I’m usually so good with directions but did feel lost, slowly creeping up a hill that looked vaguely familiar.
I will find the house if we have to stay until dark, I thought, but then there it was, the brick ranch with the planter out front where geranium blossoms as large as softballs froze red as a still life the day before the Pea was born. There is the picture window, trim still painted the beige I knew.
“We lived in that?” she asked, knowing nothing then of the blindness of new marriage. Suddenly I saw my husband in the back yard, spray-painting a $5 yard sale bassinette she would sleep in. There I sat in the corner chair of our bedroom, stitching his Christmas stocking: a Mother Goose house, the sleeping heads of children tucked and waiting for Santa to arrive. And there I sit at the living room desk writing a journal to my unborn child, reading Gone with the Wind for the first time, later bathing the baby on a sponge in the tiny bathroom sink. I couldn't imagine how I could have forgotten it all.
In that house, my husband and I began to bring real shape to our marriage, to establish routines we have kept all these long years. With no money for dates, we spent Saturday nights watching Sonia Henie skate across our tiny black and white television screen; played Scrabble until the tiles ran out. We pulled up the carpet to find polished wood floors, stripped the lilac wallpaper that covered the master bedroom walls.
The woman who lived in the house before us had made it her home for 30 years. She left us a note when she moved away, wishing us all the happiness that she and her husband had known in their life there.
Rick brings me coffee in bed on weekends, a ritual he began in that little house. If he came home during the day while I was at work, he would leave notes for me and the dog. I cherished them, though I often forgot to tell him so. And I'd almost forgotten about them until we visited that house. 
It was there we plotted our future together on weekend mornings with the dog at the foot of the bed. Babies, better jobs, books to write. And it was on one of those Sundays together that the Pea herself went from "a twinkle in God's eye" to real.
As I sat on the curb outside the house, it hit me: We had lived the life housed in the stitches of the Mother Goose stocking, right down to the daughter asleep in the attic. Our kids were almost grown, the business thrived. I had written books in the house with windows looking over an azalea-lined back yard, bluebirds flitting in and out. And I'd almost missed the dreams revealed in those stitches, for the fact of living them out.

I longed to linger there, to peek into the windows of our little house, to find a young man who once on a rainy winter Sunday evening combed the shops in town for a frozen chocolate pie to share with his expectant wife. I wanted to watch him mow the zoysia in the back yard, walk the dog, powder the baby, to drink him in again like I did when we were young.
Turns out, what I thought was my daughter's trip to find her story, was actually not hers at all. And I felt ashamed that far too many times I had not done my part to sustain the joy between the lines.
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What is it that happens in marriage, makes its inhabitants needle the warts instead of the wonder? Too often, we choose to overlook the wonder, when the warts are so much easier to see.  
A lasting marriage — 30 years, 50, or 60 like my parents — is two people, a life together dreamed about and lived out, shared and fought over, even when it is not always happy. The word, happy, seemed so easy to define when I stared in the bright faces of my parents captured in sepia on their wedding day. Arm in arm and smiling. Happy. But now with these 30 years of my own marriage behind me, I think I finally understand.
Though the margins of our life together have stretched well beyond our hopes — and too often to uncomfortable limits — the reasons that pulled us together in the first place are still recognizable at our core. 
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Oct. 10, 2011: As the Pea and her Prince stand at year 2.5 of their own happy start, here is what I will say to her now: Hold onto your hope, savor your story, or you might just lose it in the middle of living it out
We didn't, in the end, lose ours. Now I know that reality sometimes changes the shape of your hope, becomes your history and redefines your dreams as you are living them out. Though through the years it might have looked to us like we might unravel, we didn't, in the end, let go of that happy core.