The man I married grew up in a world very different from mine. I learned a lot by being part of his family, though certainly not the kinds of things I might have thought I wanted to learn. We lived in the same town, after all. I made so many assumptions about what his life was like that had no connection to reality at all because of that one similarity, being part of the same town.
He certainly wasn’t my only boyfriend. I knew him in high school. We shared a homeroom, but that didn’t mean I really knew him. We did go out a few times senior year, but nothing that was too deep or serious. We didn’t have much in-person contact at all for the six years between high school and the time that found us back together in our home town again, though I did think of him as a good friend. He was fun. He was wild and crazy, I thought, and my father liked him. I had gone to college and worked, and he had done a little college, and a whole lot of other wanderings and work in the meantime. We started dating pretty seriously when we were thrown together again, in the beginning because of convenience I think.
From what I could surmise being exposed to my husband’s parents and his aunt and his cousins, his childhood must have sucked. His father was a violent alcoholic. I only know that because of the stories I was told. His father was in bad shape and pretty weak by the time I knew him. He still drank, though, and went to detox at least a couple of times that I remember before and right after my husband and I married. It was the beginning of my understanding of the disease of alcoholism. I heard hints and rumors and stories of his father having lost jobs because of his drinking.
The most significant of these was being let go from his very last job. I heard many times the innuendo and warning that came from hints here and there, but nothing direct. The “family,” meaning the aunt’s business and all the cousins who worked for it, had a policy of not hiring “family,” meaning my husband’s family, because of something that had happened with his father. Apparently his father had been given a job (out of pity for being fired so much and thus virtually unemployable) with the “business” and had yet again disgraced himself and been fired, which resulted in the “never again” policy. I never did find out what that was. The aunt and my mother-in-law were sisters, after all. I became part of the “never again” family.
It took me a while to catch on to the fact that the half of the family that had money and a very successful business looked down their noses at my husband’s family. The two sisters shared much of their lives together, and holidays, and of course all their life history, but there was still that huge unspoken difference. One sister had made a poor choice of husband and provider, and the other sister had hit the gold mine. Unfortunately the good provider had passed away fairly early in the picture, but his business did very well for the family.
It was little things that taught me what “my place” was supposed to be, or perhaps was assumed to be, since I chose to marry this man. He was an only child. He was a “special” child because his mother was so old when he was born it was a miracle he arrived at all. (She was 42). He was learning disabled (severe dyslexia) at a time when that simply meant you were “stupid” because you didn’t do well in school. His father thought beating him was the way to teach him to spell. He was given hand-me-down clothing from his older cousins at Christmas and expected to be grateful. His mother was admired (supposedly) for her ability to find “bargains” at sales in expensive stores. But I saw through the sham. I never did accept my “place.”
One of the first things I just didn’t “get” was about the Christmas trees. After his mother ended up in a nursing home and his father in a social services assisted living facility, we moved into his parents’ little house. It was in a suburb of New York City, very close to the city line. Three of my husband’s four cousins lived in New York City itself. The fourth lived in Pennsylvania near the family business. The fourth cousin would send freshly cut Christmas trees every December to my husband’s parents’ house to be dropped off and await pickup by the cousins. The trees were dropped off by a company tractor-trailer truck as it made a routine delivery to one or another nearby vendor.
The first year I lived in the house, I went out to look at the trees in my yard. There were three, one for each cousin. Excuse me, but where was a tree for us? Use my yard and you can’t put another tree on the truck for us? The cousins came and took their trees. Not one said thank you. No one even came to the door when they picked up their tree to say hello.
This was obviously expected behavior, that the trees would wait there, behind the hedge, to be retrieved. Maybe my mother-in-law hadn’t wanted a live tree. It hadn’t occurred to anyone to ask about dropping the trees off, or if I wanted one. I was just informed that this is what was going to happen. Oh my. I dared to speak up. I asked where the tree was for me. I said if they wanted to drop the trees off, that was fine, but a tree better be there for me.
I could tell that didn’t go over well, but the next year there were four trees. I committed another sin. I picked which tree I wanted first out of the four. I didn’t wait for the tree that was left over after they picked their trees. It was body language and tone of voice and facial expression that told me I wasn’t behaving as expected. Hey, nobody handed me a manual about how to behave. In my family I survived by having enough spirit to defy most attempts to classify me as something I had no intention of being.
See, they couldn’t really refuse to send another tree. They really were asking a favor to drop the trees off, because there was nowhere else to leave them. The aunt had sold her big house and moved into a nice apartment with no yard in the same community. The cousins might look bad; they might look like what they were, chintzy, if they didn’t add a tree.
For all the problems my husband and I may have had with each other, I think I did him a huge favor sticking up for him in this small way again and again with his family. I didn’t think he was “stupid.” I didn’t think he was “less than” because he wasn’t wealthy. I didn’t think he was never going to amount to anything in life because he hadn’t graduated from an Ivy League school. Maybe I should have thought those things. I might have saved myself a lot of grief along the way. I simply expected the best of him. People live up to what you expect of them, I’ve heard said.
My ex-husband and I have parted ways, but for many years he did do exceptionally well against those demeaning measurements. In the end the things that brought our relationship down had nothing to do with those judgments. I will tell you to this day that he is exceptionally creative. The kind of creative that comes from being very, very smart and perceptive. I think having me to believe in him, perhaps to drive him, helped him make choices for success he might not have made otherwise. The fact that it all fell apart in the end is pretty sad. But that doesn’t mean the miracle man isn’t still in there. Now he just has to believe in himself.
This is very beautiful Chris. The truth of a situation is always so much more complex than what seems obvious. I love the exploration to find the bigger picture, I also love your strength and compassion.