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As for Me & My HouseCrafting Your Marriage to Last
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1990 Walter Wangerin, Jr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHEN DOES MARRIAGE BEGIN?
Introducing Marriage, Thanne, and Mortal Fears
By Christmas, 1967,1 not only did, but I also knew that I did, love Thanne. On New Year's Eve, then, 1967, such knowledge and such loving pitched me headlong into a crisis wherein I suffered a blindness, from which I arose—married.
Do you suppose the experience is a common one?
I had been courting Thanne Bohlmann in the old-fashionedest way for a full year, myself in perfect control of the progress of our relationship, congratulating myself for cool control. On May 2, 1967, I had written in my diary: "I have found the woman I intend to marry. Nothing has been said to her, nor shall anything be said until the time is right. She'll know before I speak, however, because I intend consciously to court the woman. No. As yet I don't love her with a marrying love—but I will. I'll be courting both Thanne and my love ..."
Thus wrote a young man of supernal self-confidence, absolutely ignorant of the crisis he was preparing for himself and the anguish to come at New Year's Eve, the end of that same year. So I wrote my perfectly emotionless strategem in perfectly chiseled sentences in my diary—and so I began.
I sent a stream of letters from my university in Oxford, Ohio, to Thanne's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, seeking to dazzle her with sunlight on my liquid language. This was my tool, that I could write. I philosophized, poeticized, postured, theologized, and generally drew a favorable portrait of myself in my own words. I spent the summer at my parents' house in Chicago, writing my master's thesis and junketing northward to Milwaukee in a beaten VW bug, there to visit Thanne, to talk with her, to watch her slantwise when she didn't know that I was watching, to assess our progress and to be, for her, a significant person. Oh, I withheld myself from her those days in a holy decorum—for three reasons. First, Thanne still suffered from an earlier rejection and was acutely suspicious of the motives of men. I could handle that. Second, I was myself waiting to feel a "marrying" (as I said) love for her—and I could handle the wait until I did. And third, I was in control of the situation. I was handling everything. Therefore, by the end of the summer I had done this: I had taken her hand as we walked on the shores of Lake Michigan; and I had drawn her portrait with soft pencils on expensive paper; and I had kissed her—once.
I wrote in my diary, "I will love her. I will." And I wrote,
"God help me in my courting and her in her understanding. Amen."
My VW was a yellow convertible which I called Hadrian for the vast, triumphal traveling that it did. In October Hadrian and I drove to the farm in Illinois where Thanne grew up—again, there to meet her for a weekend.
The farmer's daughter. It was a wonder how easily Thanne fit to a country landscape, how familiar she and the black earth were, one with the other. Her spirit was the autumn air, and her forehead as smooth as the sky.
She had a younger sister named Dorothy who would live forever with their parents, who chose not to talk, and who got away with that because she had Down's syndrome. Whether or not anyone else in the family knew that I was courting Thanne, Dorothy knew—and she was not sure she approved. Dorothy, soft as dough; Dorothy, broad in the buttocks, no taller than she was wide; Dorothy, whose face was as unreadable as an empty plate; Dorothy, whose eyes slanted at the corners, made her doubts known, nonetheless, by her actions.
After supper Saturday night Thanne and I retired to the back porch, to the evening breezes and a chill October snap, to a fine old creaking hanging swing from which to watch the sunset together—a perfect place for courting. Do you know how close two people can feel when the round horizon seems so distant and burns so beautiful? They imagine they are an outpost, and they want to protect each other in the universe. So Thanne and I sat side by side, preparing to gaze across the fields now harvested, stiff and stubbled like animal fur. I had just begun to consider some nonsense we might murmur—
—when the screen door spronged open, hung fire a moment, then banged shut; and there stood little-large, retarded Dorothy directly in front, blocking the view, and staring at us. No, staring at me. Silent as a plate. All the nonsense fled my mind, and something of the romantic possibilities drained from the situation. Tenderness feels foolish in front of an audience which is not smiling.
I smiled. Dorothy did not. I nodded. Dorothy did not. The sun sank a little. The wild blew. Leaves flew out of a tree like birds.
And when I did not remove my body from Thanne's, Dorothy seemed to be seized by an inspiration. She turned to face the fields, presenting us with the continent of her bottom; then she herself sat down, presumably to share the sunset. But since there was no space between us, she wriggled and bumped her big hips left and right—all in a perfectly serene silence—and made the space we hadn't given her, dividing her sister from the man who, if he wished to court, would have to do it over Dorothy's peremptory body.
It was then that I heard Thanne laugh.
Dear God, how sudden, sweet, and free was that laughter! It took me by surprise, like an epiphany, and my control slipped in the instant. I looked at the laughing Thanne, whose eyes were damp and closed. I gaped across the Buddha between us, and lost my breath in awe. Oh, Ruthanne, how you do laugh!
But I took charge of things again, almost immediately. I suggested that Thanne and I go riding sisterless in Hadrian. Thanne agreed, and Dorothy had the swing to herself.
In the dusk we drove along the one-lane roads of Iroquois County, farmhouses shining an orange light from their windows as though all were warm contentment within. Ragged snatches of fog lay low in the fields. I kept the car top down because I love the feel and the smell of the crushed October air, the promissory cold; but Thanne sat with her knees drawn up to her chin, her legs covered by a great sweater, her arms wrapped around her shins. I began to notice, above the thick knit and the collar of the sweater, her mouth. There was something precious about it. When she smiled, she had a mouth like—
Suddenly, "There!" she said, gazing straight ahead.
"There. Do you see it? Switch off the lights," she said. "Do you see it?"
I stopped Hadrian and turned off the lights, and the earth was dark, and the sky deep grey.
Thanne whispered with a holiness in her voice, "There. There is the Lantern, wandering—wandering and looking. Doesn't he make you sad?"
The moment made me something, not so much sad as filled with a sweet sense of mystery, sharpened by the fact that Thanne and I were alone and together and whispering like children or like spies.
"Do you see it?" she whispered.
Floating in the gloom ahead of us was a pale, nearly shapeless light, a luminescence, a cold-burning globe shoulder-high above the road. I saw it.
"Will-o'-the-wisp," I whispered.
But Thanne said softly, "No. No." She was considering the thing that hung in front of us. "No, it's the Lantern. He carried it out when he was lost. He's carrying it still"—her eyes gazing, full of a rural faith and sorrow. "Drive forward."
Slowly I let the car creep forward toward the luminous shadow.
"He was a farmer," Thanne whispered, "caught in the barn when a thunderstorm hit the land. He waited, but the thunder kept crashing and the rain never stopped. Finally he dashed for the house, so they say. It was pitch-black night. He found that all his children were missing. All of them. So he took a lantern—"
As we rolled forward, the light seemed to recede and bashfully to grow uncertain.
"He went out into that wild night," Thanne whispered, "crying for his children. He never came home again. Everything was just as it was, except that the Lantern was gone."
Gone, indeed! Just before we reached it, the floating light vanished, and the night seemed very empty.
"Wait, wait!" said Thanne. "Keep driving." And she sang softly on one note, "Here-comes-a-candle-to-light-you-to-bed." In a moment she turned fully round in the car seat and whispered, "See?"
I turned too, and there behind us hung the glimmering Lantern—perpetually sad, forever lonely, never to be found nor ever to find his children again. I was moved. Yes, yes—sad.
But then Thanne sang in a sing-song voice, this time looking straight at me, "Here-comes-a-chopper-to-chop-off-your-head."
Thanne? She was smiling. It was an imp's smile. And laughter bubbled just behind it. Thanne? For the second time in a single night I felt a rush of surprise for this woman who was revealing tricks and mysteries in her being that I had not even suspected. Such a tiny, innocent mouth; but when she smiled one tooth peeped through, and it looked like a chipmunk's mouth, the mouth of some canny, natural creature, quick and burrowing. Thanne? In a kind of helplessness I reached and touched her cheek, as cool as October—but my touch was no surprise to her at all. She hardly blinked. She put her hand on mine.
I did not, that autumn evening, record it in my diary, because I didn't recognize it then, though it was true from that night on: I loved Thanne. In spite of all my plans and strategems, the woman had called love out of me, and I loved her.
Yet, when I took account of the progress of things, when I sat in my Oxford apartment in meditations, surrounded by my books, I smiled a smile of self-satisfaction. Ask me: who was in control? Who was directing this relationship with a wise and watchful understanding? Smug, young Walter! In those days I would have answered, modestly, "Me."
Here was a boy, on the one hand ignorant, on the other hand all unprepared for the crisis still to come. This boy went forth prepared to be a hero.
Once more Thanne and I met that fall. We shared a picnic in a park, and then went walking. She wore an autumn jacket and the quizzical smile that had begun to fascinate me, two lines descending from her nose to the small corners of her mouth. Beside me, the woman was short. I liked that. Her shoes were tiny, swishing leaves—and her hair lifted so meekly to the wind that I felt myself swell with importance, her "protector." I felt that it was my fine office to protect her against the cruel or evil agents of this world. I strolled gladly beside her, then strongly in front of her. So able was I, in those days!
Deep in the park there appeared a hollow stump ahead of us. Now, with Thanne nearby my senses were so keen that I observed everything, every little detail of our universe. Therefore, I glanced inside the rot-cavity of that stump.
Immediately, I felt a flood of anger for some nameless vagrant. I took very personally what he had done in that tree stump—precisely because Thanne was here and might see it.
"Thanne," I commanded. "Don't look in there."
I was protecting her.
How could anyone be so indecent as to offend both society and Thanne's delicacy by leaving his singularly long feces in a public stump? I imagined the nighttime squatting of that bum, and I hated him whom I imagined, for Thanne's sake. But then I comforted myself with the thought that I had seen his vile excretion first and had saved her eyes the assault. I walked on. No, I strutted on triumphantly—
—until I heard behind me a perfectly helpless burst of laughter.
I whirled around. "Thanne?"
She was standing by the stump, holding her stomach and laughing till the tears ran down her cheeks. "Ohhh! Ohhh!" she gasped. "Saving me, were you? From what?" All at once she bent down and horrified me by running her hand inside the stump.
What she drew forth was a long, brown, curving pine cone. And she laughed.
If you had asked me, in those days, who was in control, who was managing the progress of our relationship, I think I still would have found evidence to support the lingering conviction that it was I. I think I would have referred to the letter Thanne wrote me several weeks after that last meeting. But now I think that this was a failing conviction within me, for that letter produced a confusion of feelings, some good, some frightened, and some so deep I could not name them. Loving, it began to appear, isn't simple after all, but dreadfully complicated.
"I am angry," Thanne wrote. "And I'm scared." These are her own words. "You told me once you'd be careful with me, Wally. I hope to God you have been, because it's too late for me to say 'I won't.' It's too late."
She went on to describe the date she had had with another man. She said he had been kind, interesting, and intelligent. She should have enjoyed the evening, but she could think of no one but me. She declared this to be unfair to her friend—and I felt accused. How curiously Thanne presented the thing, the marvelous thing, I'd planned for since last May.
"I don't know if I want to love you," she wrote. "I know I don't ever want to hurt again the way I did before. I hate the weakness. I do not like to be vulnerable. But I love you, and there it is. What are you going to do about it?"
There it was.
All my feelings—all of them, however contradictory they were—shot to heat intensity. Satisfaction; I had done it! A purely childlike joy in this, that I was loved, that Thanne loved me. But fear, because I didn't understand the strength or the nature of her passion; and again fear, because I hadn't done it at all. No, not at all, but some force greater than mine had been loosed between us, and where would that take us in the end? Woven through all these feelings, on account of them all, was bewilderment; and I was a boy again indeed.
Thanne surely had a capacity to surprise.
What, she asked, was I going to do about it? I didn't know. Not truly. Yet I did know that there was now an urgency about my loving her. No, you smug, young Walter, it never was, not even from the beginning, a light, inconsequential game that you were playing. It has always been a drama of the gravest consequence—emotional, physical, spiritual consequence. Walk carefully, carefully.
After her letter I confided a prayer to my diary. "But I have courted her," I wrote. "Not so fervently as I might have, nor yet so blandly as to ask nothing (though closer to the latter). Only, she was more responsive than my own heart." And I prayed, "Dear Lord, in my coolness I said she would be right to marry. Now let me say so in my ardor."
Loving wasn't simple at all. And even when one had predicted it accurately, one hadn't predicted it truly.
But what was I going to do about it? Well, this much I knew— that we would spend Christmas together at my parents' house in Chicago. And then—
But then in Chicago, this is what happened: while we shared those holidays together, the thought that had, till then, existed in my diary now took up a persistent dwelling in my mind. Like a physical sensation it needled my heart: I could marry Thanne. How strange! It felt, each time it seized me, like a perfectly new proposition, never truly considered before. Whenever I smelled her flesh, or felt the minimal degree of warmth that enveloped her, or glanced at her: I could marry this one. Compulsive thought.
Thanne has a chipmunk's grin. She dips her head (bright eyes! bright eyes!) and allows just the flashing edge of that front tooth its epiphany between her lips. The mouth is small, the chin so small she seems always to be tucking it into her neck, making her spine erect and her posture royal. She giggles high inside her throat. It is as if the punch line of some celestial joke were ever kept a private thing inside of her, for her sole pleasure alone. And then she laughs, and that is a wonder.
It snowed that Christmas. We walked through the snowfall. She giggled. She grinned like a chipmunk. I glanced at her and thought, I should marry Thanne.
But how well did I know this woman?
Thanne cries—except under the heaviest grief—silently. She cried that Christmas, once. In the naked wood along the Des Plaines River, standing lost in a gauze of falling snow, watching black water, she began to cry. There are golden carp in that river, three times the size of goldfish. They shadow just beneath the surface in slow schools. Do golden carp make women cry? I don't know. I shall never know why, silently, the tears began to roll down Thanne's cheeks; for all my asking I earned not a word from her. She stood on a snow bank, on a river bank, not looking at me, touching cold tears from her cheeks, hidden in some secret sorrow. But I thought, as I watched her, I should marry this one.
Thanne had knit a bulky green sweater herself, then given it to me for Christmas. I wore her sweater three days straight, delighting in the very intimacy of the gift. I had the exquisite sense that the fingers which had looped and stitched each knot of the sweater were brushing my skin, stroking me from my neck to the small of my back. Ah, Thanne! And look: totally unaware of her gift, I had bought Thanne a sweater, too, pure white and warm! Oh, it seemed to me an auspicious conjunction of our minds. I truly ought, I thought, to marry Thanne. Two sweaters on the selfsame Christmas! It was an absolutely convincing argument for marriage.
Excerpted from As for Me & My House by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Copyright © 1990 by Walter Wangerin, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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