|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
Chapter Three: Cloudland
At every wedding, I wonder the same thing -- will this love last? No one assumes it will anymore. In fact, some people believe that love can die as quickly as a wildflower picked from the side of the road. It can disappear like a piece of jewelry down the sink drain. You can wrack your brain imagining where it went; you can even use a chainsaw on your plumbing pipes. But a lot of people believe you probably won't find a way to get love back once it's gone.
I've begun to think you can get it back. While writing "Vows," I've interviewed so many couples whose relationships at one time or another seemed as impossible as electrical engineering. I met one bride and bridegroom who were married and divorced in their early twenties. After an argument one night, she ran out of their apartment with an armful of possessions, including her wedding dress and her cat, which she later renamed Divo, short for divorce. For the next fifteen years, they lived in the same neighborhood but avoided each other as assiduously as some people avoid weight gain. Then, one night, feeling lonely, nostalgic, and bold, she called and left a message on his answering machine. Feeling lonely and curious, he called back, and when they got together a few nights later, they spent the evening looking at old photographs of their early married days -- dinner parties they threw, their first beach house, a cross-country trip. Within weeks, they were in love again.
Another couple I met had broken up dozens of times. He even moved to California once to avoid her. They both incinerated each other's love letters on several occasions. But still, they eventually fell back in love forto sit at the kitchen table late at night, talking. He cries easily. My mother never, ever cries.
She grew up in a Tudor mansion outside New York City, one of five children who learned to waltz, ride horses, quote poetry, and speak intelligently about everything from Renaissance painting to Queen Anne furniture. Her home life, unlike his, was formal and not at all boisterous. Her parents ate dinner in one room, their forks clinking lonesomely against china, while the children ate down the hall. After my mother turned sixteen, her parents occasionally invited her to join them for cocktails, and she was expected to drink bourbon without wincing. She had no problem.
My grandfather stopped working early in life, in his fifties, and my mother's family lived on inheritance and good manners after that. When the inherited money dwindled, they paid their bills with Oriental rugs, grandfather clocks, and pieces of Cloudland. Cloudland was an enormous family farm in Vermont. It was such a high piece of property, my mother said, clouds sometimes skidded across the grass or got caught in tree branches like ghostly birds. Eventually, Cloudland was sold off entirely.
Early in their marriage, I'm told, my mother and father were madly in love. He thought she looked like Ingrid Bergman; she was crazy about his Cary Grant-like looks, his dark, curly hair and green eyes, and the fact that he always won at tennis and football. He had been a football star at Harvard, and pictures of him making touchdowns decorated their first home.
I also know they had an incredible amount of fun early in their marriage. They drove a blue convertible; wore crazy sunglasses; built enormous, hilarious snowmen in the wintertime and dressed them in my mother's fur coats; threw toboggan and tailgate parties; and always asked to eat at the bar in restaurants because they loved talking to strangers. They were never the kind of couple who chose a table by themselves in order to stare into each other's eyes and cuddle and coo. Instead, they found romance in storytelling or driving around in their convertible on beautiful evenings, breaking into the country club pool in the middle of the night, or sledding down mountains holding on to each other for dear life.
As a young couple, they liked to spend weekends in Smithville, New Jersey, with my mother's two great-aunts, Hilda and Veronis. Both spinsters, they lived together in a big house where they never opened the windows. When my parents visited them, they would all sit out on the porch, surrounded by weeping willow trees, and talk about literature while the trees shook in the wind, rustling like wedding dresses.
Soon, my parents had three children, and for a long time, my mother said, she was so happy she was afraid she was going to die and miss out on the fun. When I was about eight, we were driving in her huge station wagon when she suddenly pulled over on the side of the road, screaming that she was having a heart attack. She was about thirty-five at the time and in perfect health. But my younger sister, my brother, and I had to get out of the car and wait on the grass for what seemed like our entire childhoods. Finally, my mother popped up and said, "False alarm!"
I have heard people say love is like wine -- some people become dizzy from it, some euphoric, some sweaty and anxious, but inevitably, the first feelings fade.
For my parents, love began to fade when I was abou t twelve, partly for financial reasons. My father lost money as easily as other people lose paper clips. He had a small law office in Philadelphia, and because he liked good stories better than anything else, he represented clients with great tales -- murderers who never intended to murder, a man whose wife disappeared from a golf course one weekend, like a ball shot out of range. But my father's clients rarely had any money to pay him. He once represented a man who owned a Chinese restaurant and for months afterward, we'd come home and our vestibule would be filled with little white cartons of Chinese food, his form of payment. During those years, my mother's mantra became, "The honeymoon is over."
Dad had about as much luck with the stock market as he did with his law practice. It was one financial loss after another, although he turned every one into an hilarious story. He became a part owner of a coal mine that collapsed, literally. He invested in a chain of coffee shops as desolate as diners in Edward Hopper paintings. He invested in sports drinks that no one ever drank.
My parents stopped driving convertibles and started driving the cheapest cars they could find. For years, we traveled in a tiny turquoise Honda that dragged on the street if more than three people rode in it. Most of the old fun left my parents' life. Their toboggan sat in the basement, warping. They fought at night about bills, leaks, tuition, termites. My mother would ask my father to do the dishes, and he'd respond by throwing every pot, pan, plate, and fork into the trash can. They were like two people who had taken the wrong exit off a highway and ended up in a scary neighborhood, arguing hysterically about how to get out of there and back to the right road.
My sister, brother, and I each reacted to their rocky marriage differently. I became a hippie, decorated my room with posters of long-haired motorcyclists, and talked of jumping freight trains across Canada. My brother became a straight-A student and an ice hockey star, while my sister mused day and night about how she was really a princess who had been dropped off accidentally at our house and was awaiting the return of her royal, well-behaved, much more nicely dressed parents.
For years, our parents must have mentioned divorce every day. During most of that time, my mother kept an open suitcase in her room. She'd occasionally throw a few clothes into it, snap it shut, and run out the door, screaming, "Good-bye! I wish I'd left a lot earlier!" to all of us. I remember looking out the windows for her return, the way I now look out airplane windows during a storm to see if there's a break in the clouds or any sign of safe weather ahead.
As it turned out, there was only more turbulence ahead for my parents. They were great at parenting -- my mother threw the best birthday parties in our neighborhood, with six-foot-tall cakes and huge fireworks she bought illegally and set off in our backyard like rockets to the moon. But my parents did not seem in love. If anything, it seemed as if their marriage had driven them crazy. My mother gardened too much, late into the night. I'd leave for school in the morning and find cocktail glasses underneath the rose bushes or the tomato vines, glinting in the sun like bracelets. My father continued to take clients who paid him in their own currencies. At night, he listened to Johnny Cash records over and over again, someti mes slowing the records down so he could hear all the words and sad stories perfectly clearly. During those years, it was as if we were all in a wild ocean, holding on to whatever lifeboats we could find.
After my brother, sister, and I all left for college, we didn't know if Mom and Dad would stay together. Their house seemed to slide into sadness, with our old bedrooms becoming more and more forlorn every year, filled with cast-off tennis trophies, fading diplomas, and shoes no one would ever wear again. For a while, I'd call home and Mom would say Dad was off on "one of his disappearances." He'd go out driving in his car, which he had nicknamed Bermuda, because its heating system billowed out warm, tropical air. In the winter, my mother kept the temperature in the house very cold -- she said heat made her sleepy -- so Dad spent a lot of time out in Bermuda.
A few years after we all left, my parents decided to renovate the house, beginning with the kitchen. They tore out the lime green sink from 1920, where they had fought so many times over who would wash the dishes. They ripped out the pantry, where my mother kept her gardening tools and where she used to rest after their fights. I can still see her sitting in the little folding beach chair she kept in there, pouring herself a bourbon. I visited her in the pantry after their arguments many times. Sitting in her beach chair, she'd talk about how life is like swimming in the Mississippi River, full of whirlpools and tides you can't fight. In fact, if you fight them, it only gets worse. Many times, she'd sit back, exhausted, and tell me to try to stay thin and make money.
The renovation took a year, and Dad joked about how he and Mom would ea t dinner while driving around in Bermuda since the windows of the house were all knocked out, or because the walls weren't insulated yet. When it was over, the kitchen was unrecognizable -- nothing of the old one remained. All of the burners on the stove worked without throwing matches into them. The oven was run by a computer rather than by kicking it. The terra-cotta floor belonged in House & Garden magazine.
Amazingly, their relationship changed almost as dramatically. After years of living in separate bedrooms, of locking each other out and packing and unpacking suitcases, my father moved back into my mother's bedroom. I think they were even embarrassed about it. When I'd call home, they would be right there together, laughing over some joke one of them had just made. Instead of two people tired and bitter from fighting too much, they became like long-distance runners on an endorphin high. They were in love again.
The real proof of that came when my last surviving great-aunt, Mary, died. For a long time, she had been somewhat senile, inviting us for dinner and serving only English muffins. She would serve one round, then say, "How about an English muffin?" Then we'd start over again. We'd keep eating English muffins and strawberry jam until we couldn't stand it anymore.
After her death, my mother received a final inheritance, which she and my father could have lived on for the rest of their lives, if they were careful. But they have never been interested in being careful. My mother took the money and without threats or stipulations -- without a memory, it seemed -- she handed all of it over to my father to invest. She knew he would lose most of it, but I think for my parents, life w ouldn't be interesting if disaster wasn't distinctly possible. For that reason, they always leave the car keys in the ignition, and the front doors of the house unlocked.
As with many love stories, money had a lot to do with my parents' tale -- their love went up and down with their fortunes. It's interesting to see the paths my siblings and I have taken in our own love-and-money lives. My sister married a banker who makes tons of money. My brother, not yet married, is also a banker and makes even more. I, on the other hand, became a writer with paychecks that arrived about as regularly as shooting stars. Then, I married a dreamer who thinks about money about as often as he thinks about the oxygen system on a lunar spacecraft -- never.
From my perspective, my sister and brother seem to glide through life. They fly first-class; their houses are air-conditioned and painfully neat. My husband and I, on the other hand, live more like my parents did. Our refrigerator leaks sizable puddles on the kitchen floor, invariably when dinner guests are over. Nothing about our lives is smooth. The zippers on most of our clothes stick. Even our driveway has potholes in it.
I actually appreciate those things the way my father appreciates sad country songs. From my parents, I learned that love is one part passion and nine parts hanging on for dear life, that hardship can safekeep love and maybe even give it more spark in the end. The feeling of roaring down a mountain on a toboggan and holding on for dear life is what love in my new, small family is about.
My parents now have their own stash of private, inside jokes -- these days, many of them are about death. Nothing has ever scared them, death included. The y talk about it all the time, the way teenagers discuss the prom. They also take drives together again. While my father used to go on his private disappearances, they now disappear together. For days, the phone will ring unanswered in their house, and just when I'm on the verge of calling the police or asking the neighbors to break in, my mother and father resurface, back from a drive to Cape Cod or the Jersey shore to swim in the ocean.
While both Mom and Dad are in incredible physical shape, both thin and athletic, I think of them as whales, nicked and scarred yet the strongest creatures in the ocean. How did they survive, wash up on the shore together, when they must have asked each other for a divorce five hundred times? I think in part because they allowed each other to go crazy when necessary. When times were the roughest with them, he let her garden all night. She let him smoke cigars and listen to Johnny Cash records over and over again. Both of them knew: it was an emergency.
I used to admire couples who seemed to glide through life, so in love it was as if they had casters on their shoes. I now admire the scrappers and the stumblers, the dreamers and the all-night gardeners. Maybe I even admire them more. I think that when your love life has real difficulty in it, it is easier to believe in heaven. Not because you think you'll get there someday, but because you miss it so much.
Every time my parents drove through Vermont during their on-the-verge-of-a-divorce years, they would make a detour and slowly pass by Cloudland, my mother's old family farm. If we were in the backseat, we'd say out loud what they were thinking silently -- that's where we might have lived, high up near the clou ds and surrounded by acres, if only our story had been a little different.
Now, I think even my parents would say they've found their way back to Cloudland.
Copyright © 1999 by Lois Smith Brady