The San Francisco Chronicle’s Best of the Year List
Indie Next Pick "For Reading Groups"
From New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard, a memoir about discovering strength in the midst of great loss"heart wrenching, inspiring, full of joy and tears and life." (Anne Lamott)
In 2011, when she was in her late fifties, beloved author and journalist Joyce Maynard met the first true partner she had ever known. Jim wore a rakish hat over a good head of hair; he asked real questions and gave real answers; he loved to see Joyce shine, both in and out of the spotlight; and he didn’t mind the mess she made in the kitchen. He was not the husband Joyce imagined, but he quickly became the partner she had always dreamed of.
Before they met, both had believed they were done with marriage, and even after they married, Joyce resolved that no one could alter her course of determined independence. Then, just after their one-year wedding anniversary, her new husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During the nineteen months that followed, as they battled his illness together, she discovered for the first time what it really meant to be a coupleto be a true partner and to have one.
This is their story. Charting the course through their whirlwind romance, a marriage cut short by tragedy, and Joyce’s return to singleness on new terms, The Best of Us is a heart-wrenching, ultimately life-affirming reflection on coming to understand true love through the experience of great loss.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Joyce Maynard is the author of sixteen books including the novels To Die For and Labor Day (both adapted for film) and the bestselling memoir At Home in the World. Her essays and columns have appeared in dozens of publications and numerous collections. She is a frequent performer with The Moth, a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and founder of the Lake Atitlan Writers' Workshop. She is the mother of three grown children, and makes her home in Lafayette, California.
Read an Excerpt
Ever since the end of my marriage to my children's father I had wanted to fall in love. But if you had asked me — or if I ever asked myself — what it meant to fall in love, I doubt I could have told you. "Falling in love" was an idea I had picked up from a lot of rock-and-roll songs and movies and the fairy tales that came before them.
My own experience of love had not contained the happy ending, though passion was part of it, as was romance, and certainly drama. (Drama: an addiction of mine, maybe. To look at my history, at least, you would have had to consider that possibility.)
Age had changed me in many ways, but not in this one. Into my fifties, and closing in on the next decade — my children grown and gone, along with so much else I had held onto once and now let go — I still looked for that feeling of my pulse quickening, of holding my breath when a person walked in the door — my person. But when I tried to imagine what this falling-in-love thing would look like with the passage of time, my imagination — though it seldom failed me — provided no picture. Mostly what I had known of falling in love was that heartbreak followed soon after.
I had been, at the point our story began, a writer of fiction, and in the writing of fiction, it is well understood that for a story to hold the reader's interest, conflict must exist. I might have told myself otherwise, but for years I think I carried that belief into my life off the page. Where was the drama in happiness? If there was no trouble present, what kept the story alive?
What did I know of love? What had I witnessed? My parents had started out with a big love affair, filled with extravagant emotion and conflict. The fact that when my mother met him, my father had been twenty years older than she was — and divorced — had not even been their biggest obstacle. He just wasn't Jewish.
He had courted her for ten years — writing her poems, sending her drawings, swearing his devotion, taking a job under a made-up name as a radio host on the prairies of Canada so he could recite romantic poetry to her over the airwaves without her parents knowing it. He was handsome and funny, brilliant and difficult. But romantic — and in the end, irresistible.
Within days of the wedding, our mother told my sister and me later, their love affair was finished, though my parents remained together for twenty-five years — slinging barbs across the dinner table at each other and sleeping in separate bedrooms. This was what I saw of marriage, growing up. Balanced only by a decade of situation comedies on television, in which romance between the parents never went beyond that moment when Donna Reed's husband comes back after heading out the door to work, to plant a kiss on her cheek.
At twenty-three I married a man who was as unwise a match for me as I was for him. But he was handsome and talented and interesting, and his silences seemed to suggest mysteries I was ready to spend my life exploring. When I'd tell him a story from my day, he would say, "Cut to the chase."
I was thirty-five when we divorced, and single for the two decades that followed — the phrase I employed to describe myself: "a solo operator." There had been a time when what I wanted most in life was to make a home with a partner and to raise our children together there, but after losing the home of my marriage, and the dream of what is referred to as "an intact family," I had made good homes on my own, and watched my children move back and forth — brown paper bags in hand, containing their possessions — between the worlds of two parents deeply at odds with each other. I grew accustomed to doing things alone and doing them my way, and I discovered, as I did this, the pleasure of my autonomy.
As the years passed, less and less did the idea of marriage play a role in my picture of my future. Divorce, and all the sorrow surrounding it, had left me reluctant to go down that particular road again, and anyway, what I yearned for — big love, big romance — seemed to contradict what I'd known of marriage.
By the time I reached my fifties, I had lived alone — or alone with my children — for longer than I'd lived with a man. It was living with someone that got me into trouble, so why try that again?
Still I kept searching, without knowing what I was looking for. No surprise I did not find it. And then — though it took a while to recognize this — I di-d.
I met Jim on Match.com. I liked his photograph — a rakish hat over a head of good hair, a smile that seemed to contain genuine delight in whatever it was that had been going on as the camera captured the moment. I liked the things he said about himself in that short profile, but I had learned long before that how a person described himself in a dating profile often bore little resemblance to the real person who had posted it.
I had studied Jim's profile only briefly, anticipating (after years of this stuff) the inevitable red flag. I closed my laptop.
But the man in the photograph had taken note of the fact that I'd looked at his profile, and looked up mine. He wrote to me. "Maybe another time," I wrote back. I looked at his photograph again, and the others he'd posted — one in which he was wearing a tuxedo.
"Probably a Republican," I concluded.
There was another reason why I had been reluctant to find out more about the man whose online moniker (this alone would later indicate how little relationship exists between the man and his profile) was "Jimbunctious." At the time he sent me that first message (sent to me at "Likesred shoes") expressing an interest in meeting me, I had recently started spending time with a different man I'd met online just a few weeks before. And I was having a good time with him.
Jim wrote to me again, suggesting a conversation by phone. Without particular expectation or enthusiasm, I sent him my number. In the twenty-five years since the end of my marriage to my children's father, though no shortage of men entered, and left, my life, I had never engaged in the practice of exploring a relationship with more than one man at a time. But a special circumstance existed here. Martin, the man I had been spending time with — spending the night with, on occasion — was both a very good man and also a man with whom I knew I had no extended future.
Only recently separated from his one and only wife of twenty-six years, Martin had been called to the Bay Area in his career as a structural engineer to oversee crucial aspects involved in the rebuilding of the San Francisco Bay Bridge following its collapse in the Loma Prieta earthquake. This would be the earthquake of 1989: an event whose date contained an odd significance for me, though I had been living in my home state of New Hampshire, not in San Francisco, when it occurred. The Loma Prieta earthquake took place eleven days after the death of my mother at age sixty-seven to a brain tumor, and exactly one week after I had moved out of the home I'd shared for twelve years with my husband Steve, after he'd told me he'd fallen in love with someone else. Two not wholly unrelated events, as it turned out, that served to create the effect of an earthquake within my life as well.
Though he had been put in charge of one of the key aspects of the bridge project, Martin was a modest man, and one who lived pretty simply. He lived on a sailboat he'd bought after his marriage ended, that he kept docked in Point Richmond. That's where I was spending two or three nights a week. Sometimes, too, Martin and I would go out in the boat and dock it overnight in a bay by Angel Island. Though never a sailor, I liked sleeping on Martin's boat. I loved the feeling I had when I was there that I could leave my life back on shore for a while. At the time, I had a lot of reasons for wanting to do that.
But as much as I enjoyed sleeping in the tiny below-deck bunk room with Martin and waking up to have my coffee with him on the bay, and as good a man as this one might be, I also recognized that the two of us were not suited to be together in any long-term way.
As a person who'd been single at this point for over twenty years — a woman who had supposed, early on after the divorce, that she was ready to make a new relationship, but learned that it would take a couple of decades to get over all the bitterness and anger that had gotten in the way of that — I also believed that Martin needed to spend a lot more time on his own, and with other women, before he'd begin to know what he really wanted and needed. As enjoyable as it was spending nights on the boat with this good man, the situation could not last.
I'd encouraged Martin to continue going on dates, and he, reluctantly, agreed. The night I got that first e-mail message from Jimbunctious, Martin was in fact out on a Match.com date — at my insistence — and though later, when he got home, he would call me up and tell me again that really, he just wanted to be with me, I knew that our days of sailing in the bay were numbered.
So when Jim wrote to me I'd written back. Some people go right to the coffee-shop phase here — that event, well-known to online daters, where you pull into some Starbucks or other, scan the room for the person who resembles, however remotely, the one on the profile to which you responded, and unless he is so far from the mark as to suggest that there's not one honest thing coming from this man, you approach the table.
"You must be Bob," you say. (Sam. Joe. Bill. Ray.) At which point he looks you up and down with a gaze that conveys interest, disappointment, or nothing, and you order coffee.
I tried to avoid the coffee-shop phase. In the many years I'd spent engaging in some level or other of online dating, I had come to set far less store by the words a man posted on his profile than I did in the sound of his voice. Often I found that someone whose online profile had seemed promising would reveal himself to me within the first sixty seconds at Starbucks or Peet's to be a person as unlikely to inspire my affection as a game show host or a tax auditor. This saved me from a lot of wasted cappuccinos. And probably saved a lot of men the same.
Within minutes of receiving my phone number Jim called me, and right away, I liked his voice — the timbre of it, and a way of speaking I recognized as having its origins in the Midwest, which it turned out he did, despite having spent all but the first four years of his life in California. Though I would later discover that he was not a talkative man — more inclined to listen than to speak — it was a conversation that lasted four and a half hours.
By this point, I was all too familiar with how this type of conversation generally went. You got the basics out of the way first. How long since the divorce generally came first. It was usually a divorce, though when I met a person who had actually known the experience of a good marriage and lost his wife, I registered a humble awe. He knew something that I didn't, and even though he had also known something else I didn't — the loss of someone he loved more than anything — I still tended to view the widowers as the lucky ones. They had made a good relationship once. Maybe they'd even know how to make one again.
From there, the conversation would go to children — how many, how old — and the new question (here came a measure of just how long I'd been at this stuff): how many grandchildren. Sometimes, though, the person on the other end of the phone could not get past the ex-wife part. He'd be talking about what her lawyer did, how she got the house. Looking back on my own early years after my divorce, I know I was one of those people myself once. Endlessly reexamining old injuries, picking at the scabs, and because this was so, unable to heal them.
Then came the subject of career and living circumstances. We might tackle politics, favored recreational activities. ("I'm a naturist," a man told me once, before proposing that we meet up at a nudist colony.) Every one always said he worked out three times a week, and rode a mountain bike, and loved to dance. They generally expressed the view that they were equally comfortable in a tuxedo or jeans, and (when in jeans, no doubt) liked walks on the beach.
Jim had not read the rulebook concerning Internet-dating conversation. He read books that weren't on the best-seller list. He talked about real things. He told me about things that had been difficult. Starting with his family.
He was born in Cincinnati, he told me — an only child, though he had a beloved grandmother and cousin, and an uncle he adored — all of whom were largely lost to him when his father took a job for Hughes Aircraft when Jim was four and the family left Ohio for Southern California.
That very first night we spoke, he told me about the train ride west, which he still remembered with stunning clarity. It was just Jim and his mother together on the train, his father having gone ahead first, and if there had been nothing else good about that train ride, the fact that his father had not been a part of that trip would have been reason enough to make those four days among the happiest of his life.
But there was more. He remembered the sleeping car, and the porters on the train — all black, in those days — who were so kind to him and turned down the sheets of his small bed each night, and the meals in the dining car, the little soaps in the bathroom, the other passengers, the feeling of going to sleep every night with the rumbling of the wheels on the track beneath him. Most of all he was happy just having his mother there, without the scary part of his father's ever-present and unpredictable rages, generally directed toward him.
His mother had sewed him a train conductor's uniform in mattress ticking fabric, with patches stitched on by hand naming all the different train lines and a cap to match. As an only child he knew how to entertain himself, and he was happy spending the days looking out the window as the landscape of America unfurled before the two of them. If that train ride had lasted a year he wouldn't have minded. He wished it could have gone on forever.
When he and his mother reached L.A., there was his big, scary father, bringing him home to their little ranch house near Venice, where their new life began . A new life filled with the same old bullying and rages, but more so over time.
He missed his family back in Ohio — most particularly his uncle Al. A small, compact man built much like the one his nephew would become, and as comfortable on horseback as he was on a Cincinnati sidewalk, Al could do a headstand and backward flip while galloping, and even into his sixties could perform a hundred one-arm pushups. He was a sharpshooter who, though too old to serve in World War II himself, had trained the troops that landed at Normandy on D-Day.
That night on the phone, Jim spoke of his uncle more than his father. Al took him fishing at his cabin in Minnesota and drove around with him in his convertible talking about cars, a passion Al had instilled in his nephew. He listened. He did not yell.
Later I would come to see how those early experiences had shaped the man Jim became and the way he functioned in the world. Separated by the Southern California move from the rest of his Ohio family, Jim set out to make friends in his new neighborhood in smoggy Los Angeles. When a black family moved in down the block — the first black family in the whole neighborhood — his father called them a bad word and told him to stay away; but Jim, though he was still just four at this point, had decided he wanted to say hello, so he ventured down the street by himself and knocked at their door. There was a Jewish woman living on the street, too — also a source of his father's displeasure. It turned out she was some of kind of editor who had once worked at the New Yorker and liked to talk about ideas and art and politics. Well into his teens, Jim continued to pay her visits, where the two of them would sit for hours talking about these things.
He read a lot. This included the encyclopedia. He had a chemistry set, and he loved doing experiments, though sometimes these had to be conducted in secret. Who knew why this got on his father's nerves? Everything did.
Excerpted from "The Best of Us"
Copyright © 2017 Joyce Maynard.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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