*Featured Artwork: “Turning of Reflection” by Hildy Maze
Take your life in your own hands and what happens?
A terrible thing: no one to blame.
It’s obvious, to me at least, that second marriages will be different from first marriages, aside from the fact that one was unhappy in that first marriage. In a second union, things you took for granted during those years with your first spouse float in your unconscious like twigs along a clear or muddied stream, or like logs, creating a logjam of unmet expectations.
The grass had grown an inch, then two inches, three. It was higher every time I looked out of the front window. Soon it would sprout seeds. Neighbors, looked askance whenever they walked past our yard. I looked askance at Sam, who was trying to finish his Times crossword puzzle.
“Sam, the grass is getting high,” I said.
“I’ll get around to it.”
“Sam, the grass really needs cutting.”
“Sam! When are you going to mow the lawn?”
“What do you want, a house boy? He asked mildly, continuing to work on his puzzle.
“A house boy?” I yelled, “And what does that make me? Your chief cook and bottle-washer? Your maid? Your laundress?”
I stomped upstairs, rummaged through the hamper, pulled out Sam’s dirty shorts, shirts, socks, marched back downstairs, threw them at his feet, and screamed, “Do your own damn laundry!”
Sam got up and walked out. It was what he always did if I was really angry, he went for a walk. When we were both working in White Plains, we used to walk all over the city on our lunch hours. Now I worked at the medical center in Valhalla, but when we were home, we still walked all over—in opposite directions.
It was 1986, full summer: lots of rain, lots of sun, lots and lots of grass.
Sam and I had married on a warm March afternoon, leaving for a honeymoon in Williamsburg Virginia several hours after the wedding reception. At Newark Airport our flight was delayed. Exhausted, and finding no place to sit while we waited, I perched precariously on a suitcase while Sam paced nearby. By the time we reached Williamsburg, dead on our feet, we crawled into bed as quickly as we could, and instantly fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke, stretched luxuriously, realized Sam’s side of the bed was empty, and smiled, waiting for him to walk through the door with a hot cup of coffee for me. It’s what my first husband, John, had done whenever we were away from home and staying in a hotel or motel.
About fifteen minutes later Sam walked in. “What a breakfast!” he said, and proceeded to tell me what it was like to eat his morning meal at the famous Williamsburg Inn: the exquisitely set table, fresh flowers, fresh blueberries, the best pancakes he’d ever eaten in his life, the best orange juice, and eggs, and bacon, and, and, and…. He was exuberant.
“You went without me? How could you!” I exclaimed.
I sat there stunned, disbelieving, confounded. He had abandoned me on the first morning that I was finally his wife, I didn’t know whether to cry or run—where was the Sam who had wanted to start every work-day over a cup of coffee at Richard’s luncheonette with me sitting across from him? the Sam who wanted to go everywhere with me, even grocery shopping, even to the dentist or the eye doctor? “I want to share the nitty-gritty, too,” he’d once said.
Crestfallen, he tried to explain: “But Marian, you were so tired; I wanted to let you get some sleep.”
In a way, that was typical of Sam. It was like the time he wrapped a box of vitamins in fancy paper and ribbon, wanting to give me the gift of good health, an endearing characteristic. But this was not quite the same, and he didn’t seem to understand why, and that worried me. Is this what our life is going to be like, each of us going our own way with no thought to the other? Was it me? Was I just used to my first husband John’s sometimes hovering attention?
No. No, this was different, this was the first morning of our life together, and Sam had gone to a fancy restaurant, and eaten a fancy meal, without me.
It was a bad beginning, and I would refer to it either directly or obliquely every time we argued in the first months, the first year of our marriage. Or rather, every time I argued. Sam never would. He was “perfectly happy,” he said.
“How can you be perfectly happy when someone you say you love is unhappy?” I asked, exasperated, “You were clueless on our honeymoon, and you’re clueless now!”
“Clueless!” I said, when he cluttered the house, “Clueless!” when the grass grew too long, “Clueless!” when he walked away from a discussion. Sometimes, if I were only mildly upset, I would look at him, shake my head sadly and utter “Clueless” with a sigh like surrender.
That first year most of my complaints were over minor things that bothered me out of all proportion. Used to John’s neatness, I was appalled when Sam dropped his socks on the floor at bedtime, strewed sections of the Times from one end of the living room to the other, and flatly refused to mow the lawn. The more I complained, the more Sam dug his heels in, acting deaf to my nagging pleas. Not one thing that bothered me was up for discussion, ever. If Sam was angry, which he sometimes obviously was, he walked out—just left without a word—which upset me more than anything else.
Compared to what I had sometimes experienced with John (who nevertheless liked a ship-shape home, and did his share to keep it that way), this was ordinary misery. But ordinary misery is still misery.
Oh God what have we done, I said to myself, remembering the lovely times Sam and I had had during our five-year affair. Sometimes I was sorry we’d ever married.
“Sam, what’s happened to us? What’s happened to our romance?” I asked one day.
“Romance?” he said, “That was leading you down the garden path, that was courtship.” (He said this in a quiet, reasonable tone of voice, as if it were a fact that any idiot would have understood.)
“And now what?” I retorted, “Now I’m supposed to hand you your pipe and slippers?” (He was reclining in the recliner with his ever-present Times crossword puzzle. I hated those puzzles the first year that we were married.) The argument continued:
“You’re lazy!” I accused.
“No, I’m not, I’m relaxed,” Sam calmly said, “It’s just that you’re compulsive.”
“No, I’m not, I’m meticulous!” I answered hotly, “and for all your knowledge of crossword puzzles, you wouldn’t know what that word means.”
“Tell me, do you still love me?” I asked.
“Well I’m here, aren’t I?” he answered.
Near the end of that first year I thought there wouldn’t be a second.
But there were children, you see, there were six daughters to consider. My four had been living in an already broken home when Sam and I began seeing each other, but as far as I know Sam’s two hadn’t, and yet all six stood with us at our wedding, blessing us with their love and acceptance; and now we would throw up our hands and walk away over almost nothing? ‘Sorry Charlie, big mistake’?
No. Impossible. Besides, Sam and I were both too stubborn to admit defeat.
So, since I could not talk to him (that being impossible), I wrote a note that turned into a long, sorrowful, raging letter listing grievance after grievance, the most serious being that he walked away from every weighty discussion. “I spent enough of one lifetime banging on doors that wouldn’t give,” I wrote, “Either I misread you, or you misled me!” “What is bigger than an elephant? Whatever it is, it’s sitting in the middle of our living room!”
Sam said not one word in response to my missive, but he began dropping his socks in the hamper, putting dishes into the dishwasher, piling sections of the Times together on the coffee table or next to his chair.
And his chair was often empty as he looked for things to do. He built a spice cabinet out of a kitchen cubby that once held a small drop-down ironing board; put a shelf up beside the cellar stairs so we’d have more storage space; bought and hung new Venetian blinds throughout the house. He removed all the brass escutcheons from our home’s ancient doors, soaked them in turpentine for days to loosen decades of paint, scraped the paint off, and polished them to a soft brilliance.
It was clear that Sam still loved me, and I had never stopped loving him, I’d just wondered how we could ever manage to live together for the rest of our lives. Now, with Sam’s obvious efforts to please me, I relaxed. And as I relaxed it dawned on me that the house didn’t need to be ‘just so’ every minute of every day, as it had to be when John was my husband.
Still, I did like a neat-looking lawn, and mowing ours was not among Sam’s new activities. The healthy green growth in our front and back yards was mowed by my daughter Catherine who, amused at this particular obstinacy on the part of the stepfather she had come to love, assumed the chore for his sake (and mine), coming home every other weekend for “the exercise.”
I did try to hire Tony, who took care of our neighbor’s yard, but the day that he began cutting our front lawn Sam rushed outside saying, “No, no, I’ll do that.” And he did. For the first and only time that I can recall, in almost twenty-five years.
It wasn’t a matter of money, we could afford to hire Tony, it had something to do with Sam’s strange fixation on mowing (or rather not mowing) the lawn. A fixation that never left him, that he never explained, and that I gave up trying to understand.
In the years following that first difficult one, unlike John, Sam seldom spoke of his love for me but showed it in a thousand different ways.
Mowing the lawn was never one of them.
As for me, I would weed, rake leaves, shovel snow, wallpaper, paint, scrub, I would do almost anything, but I’d never had to mow a lawn and wasn’t about to start. So, if Catherine didn’t come to “exercise” on weekends, our newly painted house, with the new front door and new shutters, was surrounded by shaggy, unkempt grass.
But every one of the nine years that we lived in that house, in springtime our front and back yards glowed with the sunny radiance of dozens of daffodils reaching for the sky. In the autumn of that first challenging year of our life together, when I thought I’d married the laziest man on earth, Sam had quietly planted a hundred bulbs.