Love, memory

[Originally published at Connotation Press]

The way I remember it, I tried like hell not to marry him.  Then I almost didn’t get him to say yes.  Don remembers moments, like his cartoon of my crossed legssketched during our high school history class.  Together, we recall our shared first experiences: real theater in Dallas, horse races in Hot Springs, that first erotic touch.  When we look back, our life seems inevitable.  But none of it was planned, of course.  So here’s my best shot at explaining how two teenagers stayed together for almost half a century.

We grew up in a central Texas town that wished it could be Waco.  In spite of its watering hole proportions, our mothers only met twice.  The railroad tracks lay like a border fence between our two worlds.  My grandfather was a surgeon and one of the co-founders of a nationally respected hospital/clinic.  My father, uncles, and three brothers followed his directive, also becoming doctors at that institution.  We lived on the North side in a red colonial with a side yard my rambunctious brothers and friends used as a baseball field, complete with a professional league backstop built to protect our nervous neighbors’ windows.

Don and his family lived on the South side, not far from his father’s small grocery store, where you could find Eagle Claw fishing hooks, limburger cheese that smelledlike a dead man’s rotten feet, and Don working behind the meat counter after school and on weekends.  Both his parents were born in Texas just after their respective parents emigrated from Moravia.  Their first language was Czech, and their social group consisted of extended family and friends with ties to the old country.  Don grew up listening to “The Czech Melody Hour” on the radio and recordings of Caruso’s bel canto tenor arias; he and his two brothers painted wildlife landscapes and played violins their father carved from sheets of spruce.  In a state where football is a manifestation of Calvinistic interpretations of good and evil, Don declined invitations to join the high school team and instead spent his free time hooking catfish on the Brazos River.

I, on the other hand, sang along with my vinyl 45 recordings of tunes ranging from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy.”  I was pep squad captain and secretary of the student council.  

Don’s world was dominoes, prune kolatches, fly fishing, and family sing-a-longs where everyone played an instrument.  

My world was bridge, beef bourguignon, football, and teasing just this side of insults.  For me, stepping into his family’s house was like entering Prague’s 16th century homes on Golden Lane.  At the Formica dinette in their kitchen, I wondered how long he’d had to drag a bow across violin strings to get the tone right.  

He, nervous, awestruck, sat through formal Sunday lunches at my grandparents’ linen-clad, silver-studdedtable, imagining me a pampered princess, his romanticism embarrassingly close to the truth.  Later, when our two young children were shuffled between holiday visits with their grandparents, we worried that they might suffer from culture shock.

Four years ago, our children and I drove Don into the Texas hill country to a rehab center.  Our range of emotions stretched the gambit: fear, hope, sadness, love.  We didn’t know what to expect: from the place, from the people, from our future.  Ironically, Don has never liked doctors, maybe because his mother distrusted them.  So I couldn’t imagine how my very private husband would fare in such a clinical, exposed environment.  Inside the facility’s main office, a woman gave us forms to fill out.  Seated next to her desk, a clipboard balanced on his lap, Don kept making puns that no one acknowledged.  Our children glanced at their father and each other.  They fidgeted, unblinking.  When he walked us to the door, we took turns hugging him and wandered silently to the car.  He was about to have an experience that would change his life, but I couldn’t be there with him.  While I drove past the building, he looked out the front window, his framed expression a plea as we watched each other gradually disappear.

Jolts like this are difficult.  We lose our bearings, longing for anything familiar.  History acts as touchstone, gauging missteps, illuminating boundaries.  Don educated himself about brain function and body chemistry.  His commitment to sobriety, however, produced an ironic over-confidence, and three years later he relapsed.  This time, he spent four days in the hospital.  His wing, as I remember, was locked and guarded with buzzers and a phone requiringa password.  Don remembers that he lost his favorite belt.  When he came home, habits changed.  This is increasingly difficult as one gets older, but our forty years together ensured trust.  Patiently, we watched each other, protectively filtering memories, shaping our new chapter.  This steadied us during the sale of our home, which was necessary in order to pay off debt.  Throughout, Don was cautious, focused, healthy.  Whenever he made me laugh, which we do often, I knew we’d be all right.  A recent photograph taken for a directory of attorneys is my proof: a comfortable smile and gentle eyes that confidently gaze at the camera.  Today, we’re as happy as we remember being during our early years together.  I bask in his complements and romantic adolescent nervousness but try not to take his love for granted.

This experience altered and expanded Don’sperspective, in turn affecting our shared interpretation of history.  I, too, have endured personal jolts that forced adjustments in my thinking.  In other words, our process is organic, protean.   Psychologist Daniel Wegner called it “transactive memory,” a couple’s intuitive method ofrelying on each person’s specialties.  In our case, Don remembers morning meditations on a hill at the rehab center, while I’ll never forget his expression as I pulled away.  Our implicit categories constantly shift, corresponding to our varying ranges of exposure.  Intuitively, we adapt.  Every so often, our memories contradict—did he or I suggest the sale price for our house—resulting in the paradoxical inclusion of both versions, confirming our individuality and the imperfection of truth.  We’ve learned to embrace complexity.  But like societies based around clan or tribal relationships, we rely on shared history’s proven ability to be our guide.

This process is so natural that Don and I tend to overlook the fact that our early common history is a rarity. We can help each other remember the Spanish-style interior of our hometown’s movie theater and the name of our high school vice principal.  We’ve felt the mutualshame of finally recognizing evidence of that community’sinsidious racism.  Our combined memory includes details that occurred before we met.  Even our childhoods have merged into a single story.

When my maternal grandmother retired, she devoted herself to ceramics.  She finally had time to produce the kind of folk art she’d always imagined, her mischievous cats and cloddish angels now proudly displayed in my home.  As a girl, I knew that she sometimes taught other children lessons, but Don and I had been married thirtyyears before he finally mentioned that when he was seven, he’d been one of my grandmother’s students.

“What was she like?” I asked, eager for someone else’s vision of a person who was my role model.  Pragmatic, unpretentious, she related to children just like she did to adults: as her equal.

“Mean,” Don said.

“What?  Never in my whole life did I see her do anything mean.”

“Oh, I made a rabbit once, because it was the easiest.  And when I…” he crushed his remembered creation with his fist, “she said, ‘Don’t do that.’”

“She probably thought your work was too good to ruin, that you shouldn’t be so impatient, so self critical.  She didn’t know that you’re a perfectionist; that must’ve been what happened.  Where were you?  What did the room look like?”  I’d spent a large part of my youth in her home, the same place my mother had spent her adolescence.  It was a modest house with an illogical layout, creaky pine floors, and a screened porch that held a kiln and two makeshift wooden tables that stretched the length of the main walls.  I knew Don must’ve worked there, and I imagined him as a boy, my grandmother bending over his shoulder.

“I sat at a little table that was in front of a window.”  He held his hands up, measuring three feet or so.

I laughed.  “She had a back porch with long green tables.  You had to have sat at one of those.”

“No, she moved me away from everybody else.”

“What do you mean?  There were other children?”

“Yeah, there were about eight of us.”

I laughed again, knowing how restless he must’ve been.  He was difficult to contain even in high school.  What am I saying?  He still is.  “What did she look like?”

He described her then, the same person I remembered, suddenly alive: wearing a handmade shirtwaist and black leather pumps, gesturing with paint-stained, man-sized hands, talking and walking through her catawampus house.  She must’ve put him in her living room; that’s the only place with a window that wasn’t blocked.  He could probably see her imitation wishing well on the front lawn, maybe even a corner of the porch swing, while he overheard the other children talking.  Oh, how he’d hate being cordoned off, a firecracker with no chance of lift-off. If I’d been standing outside, I’d have seen framed in the open window a boy with neatly parted hair wearing a cowboy snap-front shirt, looking past me as his earsplitting whistle transformed a squirrel into a statue.  I wouldn’t say anything.  My watching would be enough.

He’d pick up the clay, roll it between his palms, press and rub with his thumbs.  Then he’d add smaller pieces until the rabbit’s shape emerged, muscular as a pit bull, hunched, ready to pounce.  The ears are large, tilted forward like antennae, while the tail seems plopped ontothe rump, an embarrassing afterthought.  He checks the side view—raw, knobby—then the bottom—fat, a hint of genitals.  The eyes bulge, the cheeks have chipmunk pouches, the mouth forms a clown’s grin complete with gap-toothed overbite.   He’s working on the eyebrows when my grandmother steps forward.

“Let’s see,” she says, mistakenly thinking he wants praise.  She couldn’t know that in his home, artistry is as natural as conversation, that compliments at best seem odd. She only gets a glance before he pounds the creation with his fist.  But she’s seen enough.  How do I know?  Becauseshe copied it (at least, that’s what I believe), and the result grins from a shelf in my office.  So who was the teacher and who was the student?  How much of this actually happened?  While the past was blending into the present, Don’s memories became mine.

We reconstruct such remembered fragments, flimsy metaphors for actual experience, then decode and bury them inside our mutual identity. Psychologist Anjali Ghosh claims such “shared cognition” improves each person’s sense of well being. Don and I would agree with that.  Yet experts can’t test the most important factor.  It’s too abstract.  We know that processing the past has deepened our understanding of each other.  Love endures because of memory.  Our story has become our legacy.