Emerson wrote that a hero is no braver than any other man, but he is braver five minutes longer. Robert Barsanti suspects it is the same with successful marriages.
On her first trip to Europe, and on her first night, my mother bought a genuine French La Creuset fondue pot. It was a handsome, sturdy thing; solid enough to make cheese fondue to keep a team of cardiac surgeons busy for a decade. The pot came with a small cast iron stand and a set of curious Swiss fondue forks. All told, with packing materials and a sturdy box, the apparatus is the size and weight of a small microwave oven. As Mary bought it on her first night, this meant that she was lugging this onto and off of European trains for the next ten days.
In addition to carrying the fondue pot, she was also carrying around me. My mother was several months pregnant at the time and was trailing my father through the French and Italian Alps. He was skiing with friends on his “Ski club” while she was docked at the base lodge. In the afternoon, he would cajole her out onto the slopes for a few gentle runs down the slope, before she went back to the sun deck and her books.
In the years afterwards, she described that vacation as great fun. My mother laughed at the trip, for the afternoons in the dazzling alpine sun, and the fondue pot. To the best of my knowledge, the pot was used for Swiss melted cheese slobber only three times. Instead, it sat atop the dining room cabinet with the paper turkey centerpieces for Thanksgiving, the gigantic serving platters, and the rest of the wedding present flotsam that was too good to use and too useless to be good.
Those platters and pickle dishes held nothing; the fondue pot held a fancy “White Christmas” dream in my mother’s head. When she bought it, she must have believed that all of these graceful, fun, laughing skiers would come over for cocktails on the odd Friday or Saturday night in the winter. This man that she had married would make gigantic shakers of Manhattans or Sidecars while she would cube French bread. The conversation would bubble, the drinks would flow, and the elegant laughing ladies would pick up a long fork (with a green gnome at the end), pierce a cube of bread, dip it into the cheese and bring it to their mouths.
Instead, my mother used the fondue pot to hide Halloween candy from us foraging children. When it didn’t hold candy, the good linen napkins lined the bottom of it. But otherwise, it just warmed and collected dirt and dust. After she died and the house sold, it landed somewhere inside a twenty yard long green dumpster, along with the rest of her prizes and trophies. So it goes.
Everyone who gets married carries a fondue pot. Every young bride and husband comes into that ceremony with a fantasy for the future. Before I was married, I looked at those who had gone before me. From those couples, I selected those traits that I wanted to keep and tossed away those habits that I disliked. I picked elements of character as I would pick out brunch in a buffet line. We would have the house, the kids, and the dog. My wife and I could raise our voices, laugh at nasty jokes, and deliver a friendly fondling in the kitchen. Wouldn’t it be great?
I saw, but didn’t see. I heard, but didn’t listen. The intimacy that I saw in the successful marriages had come from rough surgery, good fortune, and courage. The hard work of marriage begins at seven-thirty in the morning, after the honeymoon ends, and you need to use the toilet while she showers.
Emerson wrote that a hero is no braver than any other man, but he is braver five minutes longer. I suspect it is the same with marriage. The successfully married may not be more in love than anyone else, they are just better at sharing the bathroom. They can stay there five minutes longer.
To live in a long marriage is to inhabit that little room. It frames every where and every time. She doesn’t look at anything but to see it reflected in his eyes. He hears nothing but what is echoed off of her. Their lives exist in a small, claustrophobic cubicle of bad smells, sharp words, and humility. Outside those walls, jobs come, jobs go, lawsuits rise up and fall back down, children age and parents die. Within remains the two, entwined in the intimate plural, with all its stickiness, mess, and love.
Unfortunately, dreams are the blood sacrifice every successful marriage must take. They get left outside that marital room. You can find individual dreams of glory outside that door: golf clubs, downhill skis, unpublished novels and one-woman photography retrospectives. The dreams of marriage are also left outside. You have to abandon them as well; the fondue pot is there, along with the family barbecues, the station wagon, the “Mad About You” boxed set, and the nursery.
As a result, sixty percent of American marriages end in divorce. When couples divorce, each lover backs out of the room and lets go. Each has a reason. You’re not happy. You don’t sustain me anymore. You have changed. I have grown. It isn’t fun. Now free, I can chase that dream. I can finally take those pictures, write those poems, and be the person I always wanted to be.
And perhaps that is true.
But if it is out there, that dream is found in the dark of night, under the unblinking moonless sky and in the cold of January. The dream walks the streets with its head down and its collar up. When I walk with him, I walk alone.
My mother left many dreams outside the door; the fondue pot was perhaps the smallest of them. For his part, my father did not go on another European ski trip after my birth nor did he make much use of his golf clubs. Their marriage was not long on happiness, or on dreams, but it was long. It lasted through hotels and tents, cheesecake and Weight Watchers, couples therapy and “Marriage Encounter,” then ended in her fifth year of cancer.
I never wanted to be my parents. The fights, the silences, the blind spots, the screams; they were all potholes to be avoided. As a boy, I lay in my bed awash in bluster and yelling; if I could have turned into a cockroach, I would have. The morning would come sullen and silent. And another day would march by.
But now, as I lay awake chasing my midnight dreams, I think about that room that my parents lived in. It was not all that different from the successful marriages I had known. Three children. Two careers. A house. Vacations: All in thirty-five years. Thirty-five years of Christmas ornaments, Easter baskets, and dry turkeys. They may not have been happy. They may not have realized their dreams. But they remained in the room.
In the current darkness of my life, my dream paces a block in front of me, my children sleep two hundred miles away, and my only spats are with a mirror.
Such riches, they had. Such riches.
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