The summer of 1978

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On this morning’s walk, I suddenly realized around mile three that my ex-husband and I got engaged 40 years ago this month.

I was 21 years old; he was 20. It was the summer before our senior year in college. He mowed lawns and painted houses to collect enough cash for a diamond ring that he put on my finger on a hot July afternoon in a city park.

Instead of sharing our news right away, he wanted to ask my father’s permission to marry me, so he came home with me soon afterward. I waited all weekend for him to speak to my dad, but he finally confessed that he couldn’t do it.

So, when everyone was gathered around the kitchen table before our three-hour drive back to college, I blurted out to my assembled family and relatives that we were engaged. Instead of the happy congratulations I’d expected, there was silence, and I ran from the room, crying. My older sister followed me and assured me that everyone was just taken by surprise. Before we left for the drive back, my mother tried to tell me the same – my dad was strangely silent.

Like so many, we were way too young and too naïve to foresee the challenges ahead.

Color-blind to red flags.

Smitten with the idea of being a couple.

Deaf to the warnings of family and friends.

Unaware of what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

In the months to come, we began making wedding plans for the following June. That’s when he told me he didn’t want to be married in my church or go to the pre-marriage class that was required. He wanted to marry in a church we would choose together. After many tearful nights, he agreed to marry in my church, but ditched the class halfway through while I stayed to get the certificate. Our marriage was blessed by a priest who’d counseled me months before to end the engagement.

Forty years later, his wish to be married somewhere else (especially since neither of my daughters were married in a church) doesn’t sound out of place. But I was from a small Iowa town — my church was my extended family. I couldn’t conceive of getting married anywhere else but my church.

Obviously, there was so much we didn’t understand about each other. And even though my gut might have urged me to slow down, my heart sped forward. But that’s all behind us now: He’s engaged to be married next year to a long-time workplace “friend” — 40 years after his first marriage.

Some 50 percent of the couples who were married in 1979 have made it, and some 50 percent of us haven’t. In the past two years, I’ve learned that some marriages go on despite being toxic, and others end at the slightest hiccup. Some enrich; others strangle. Some grow through challenges; others wither with weakness. Some give unconditionally; some take. Some bend; some break. Some are monogamous; some aren’t. Some are a business arrangement; some are true love. And some just are. In the end, maybe divorce simply occurs when one or the other says: “Enough.”

However, no one enters marriage thinking they will be on the losing end. Every marriage begins with hope and trust. I still believe that. And I respect those who work at it every day.

If you are lucky enough to find someone special and are considering marriage, take a few minutes to quiet your racing heart and ask yourself some (or all) of the questions below. Being honest with yourself from the beginning could help your relationship down the road.

You might even check out these questions if you’ve been married a while. Not all the questions will pertain to your situation but pay attention to the ones that make your gut say: “Uh-oh.”

  • Does he/she get along with your friends? Do your friends like him/her?
  • Does he/she have friends? Have you met them and do you like them?
  • Does he/she get along with your family?
  • Do you like his family – and do they like you?
  • Why does he/she want to marry you?
  • Why do you want to marry him/her?
  • Are you marrying this person for any reason other than love?
  • Where will you live after you marry?
  • How will a move affect his/her or your relationships with friends and family?
  • What do you like most about his/her personality?
  • What do you like least about his/her personality?
  • Are you similar or very different from each other – and how does this affect your relationship?
  • Do you do anything to change your personality to make him/her happy?
  • Is she/he employed? Are you proud of the work he/she does? Do you have any concerns?
  • Are you employed? Is he/she proud of the work you do? Does he/she express concerns?
  • Do you have any concerns with how he/she spends (or doesn’t spend) money?
  • How important is the topic of money in your relationship?
  • How did your family handle the finances when you were growing up? How did his/hers? How will you handle the finances in your own marriage?
  • Do you plan to have children? Does he/she? What are your concerns?
  • What do you know about his/her childhood? What does he/she know about yours? Do you have any concerns?
  • How were you disciplined as a child? How was he/she?
  • When you disagree, what areas of your lives cause the most friction? Why?
  • What’s your passion? What’s his/hers?
  • What pushes your buttons? What pushes his/hers?
  • How do your religious, political, cultural, educational views align or vary?
  • Is there anything in your past that you think he/she should know before you marry? Have you asked him/her the same question?
  • Does he/she enjoy doing activities with you? What do you like doing together? What do you like doing by yourself?
  • Does he/she make you laugh? Does he/she laugh with you?
  • Are you happiest when you are with him/her?

I know I haven’t asked any questions about sex, but that’s an area that changes again and again after you’re married for many reasons. Simply put, here’s the question: Does it make you happy? And, if not, why?

There are a thousand other questions to ask. This is a good place to start. I keep adding to the list.

Do you have any suggestions?

Be kind. Do no harm.

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Anticipating the end of the world

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In 1964, I had just turned seven,
hardly old enough to watch
The Huntley-Brinkley Report.

But somehow, somewhere,
I got it in my head that the world
was going to end.
And this doomsday deadline held
my crystal ball gaze for days.

I remember kneeling in the middle
of the double bed I shared with my sister,
pleading with God to delay
the end of the world.

I hadn’t learned to ride a two-wheeler.
Hadn’t made my First Communion.
Hadn’t read all the chapter books in the library.

Every day for a week,
my prayers became more insistent
as I anticipated my final days on Earth.
I told no one out of fear and hope.

Then I remember sitting in class
and it began to snow.  I thought, this is it.
This is the day. Only it wasn’t,
and I went home on the bus.

Tonight, I googled doomsday predictions,
and learned that psychic Jean Dixon
often predicted the end of the world
in the early 1960s.

And so, this is how the world goes on,
somehow, some way.
The children pray for us all.

I used to lift high in the sky

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And every night was an adventure.
I didn’t fly, I simply lifted at will,
looking down without fear
at the world below.

No one looked up
while I was suspended overhead,
and I had no concerns
about the people below.
I didn’t see a string,
but something guided me,
softly lifting and lightly touching down.

Tonight, I will more likely
be naked while no one notices
or running late to take a test
that I haven’t studied for.

No wonder I lie awake for hours.

Namesake

Aunt Julia
Namesake

In the photo, the crone perches on a bench,
squinting behind wire rims.
Properly dressed in pumps, hose and beads,
her hands hide under the tea towel she embroiders.
My father said his Aunt Julia returned once a year
in summer to help butcher hogs.
He said she homesteaded in the Dakotas.

That is all I know about my namesake.
But I can imagine.

How she listened to the night wind sweep past her house,
and how she dreamed of anywhere else but here.
How she turned down the shy farmer one town over,
and married the cheeky peddler who sharpened knives.
How she agreed to move with her young husband
far from family and friends
to 160 acres in the middle of nowhere.

How she fought for what must fit in the shallow wagon box.
How she left behind her cedar chest, her books.
How people didn’t wave when they drove through town after town.
How, when they arrived, their claim didn’t look
anything like the posters.
How she lived in a dugout for five years
before first a barn and then a proper house were built.

How she lost two babies to scarlet fever.
How her husband walked off into a blizzard and never returned.
How she married a widower with five children who spoke only Russian.
How the meadowlarks sang on spring mornings.
How the pigs squealed when she sharpened
her dead husband’s knives.

How the wind never, ever stopped.

In the photo, my namesake looks directly at the camera,
her mouth set in a straight line like a Dakota horizon.
Between her brows, two deep furrows
like a plowed field,
like mine.

Finding my way … again

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(Warning: This is a very personal post, so I apologize. But I felt the need to share my experience because it happens everywhere, every day to so many women.  And I am just one of the millions. I applaud all of you who have found your way to the other side — and pray I do too.)

 

This life. It’s never what we expect, is it?

You go through your days with a certain belief about who you are and who the people are surrounding you. I knew my 36-year marriage had rotted away like the moth-eaten sweaters in our basement. Our differences continued to grow as our patience with each other grew shorter. Despite it all, the one positive thing I believed about my husband was that he was honest — a person who gave it to you straight no matter the consequences (because I’d experienced his brutal honesty too many times). At the same time, he seemed to find no joy in life — snoring in his recliner in front of the TV every night. I felt shackled to an angry, mid-life-challenged pessimist. (And it rips me that I was worried about him and thought he needed counseling for depression.)

And then, just this past week, I found out he was not who I thought he was — and he certainly was not depressed. I now know that a friendship with a woman at work had continued to grow as our marriage fell apart. When our divorce was final more than a year ago, I shouldered the greater blame for our problems because I was the one who walked out. I had given up. (Catholic school girl guilt: You lie in the bed you made.) But now I know our marriage was doomed to fail because he was living a lie for so long. Again, my gut told me there were problems, but he told me I was crazy.

The jilted wife — married to a cheater, a liar and, worst of all, a coward. Our marriage was now a stereotype, another trashy afternoon soap opera. And it had quite a long run. No, I never thought this would be my story.

It has been a difficult week as I rehash the fact that my husband thought so little of me or our marriage that he never, ever told me the truth. My respect for him has been shattered, along with my memories of the past and my belief in anything he ever told me. And the endless questions — when, where, why, why, why?

But he is now engaged to this woman, and my daughters need to create a new space for her as their stepmom, and as the step-granny to their children. They, too, never expected this to be their lives, and I am the saddest about that.

I thought I had found my way over the past year — moving to a different state, meeting new people, retiring and working as a freelancer, laughing and playing with my grandsons, joining new groups, trying new hobbies, exploring, traveling.

But I was kicked in the gut this week by this ugly news — and I have lashed out in ways I am not proud of (although it did feel good to rip out every photo of him from 30 photo albums). And, if I’m really honest, this blog post provides me with some satisfaction too.

I know I am not blameless in all this. But I do question his control of the situation: If I had known with certainty about their relationship, would I have been so willing to accept certain conditions he sought during mediation? Had he controlled me even then by holding all the cards? Last question: How did he sink so low?

So, this is what 61 looks like. Not what I expected.

I begin finding my way again.

 

Final note: I have turned off the social media sharing feature so that this post will only go to those who follow my blog — that will be enough. I don’t want your pity, or your thoughts and prayers. A simple vote of confidence would be more than enough if you’ve read this post to the end. Peace to all.

Be kind. Do no harm.

 

 

Forgive me

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To celebrate tenuous sunshine
I walk the bluff along the Sound
and find myself in a stand of young trees
surrounded by ancient rock fences.

Here, silence, until a flick of sapphire
careens sharply in front of me,
and then another and another.
The air fills with ruffled wings.

I look up to see a dozen blue jays
give me hell for invading their space.
I apologize for trespassing
and return to my car by a different path.

Today

Hope

I can’t solve

poverty

but I can

feed a child.

I can’t end

racism

but I can

be kinder.

I can’t tear

down a wall

but I can

open doors.

I can’t stop

climate change

but I can

pick up trash.

I can’t speak

in Congress

but I can

vote out hate.

We can’t quit

believing

that we can

do better.