The remembrance of a moment, or even of a lifetime, is at once solid, fluid, and vaporous. Forgotten, then suddenly recalled; a waiting ember suddenly bursting into flame, stoked by a random scent of lemon, a sudden gust, cyan blue on a book’s dust jacket, a sequence of notes, or the sound of a syllable falling from a moist mouth.
My thoughts turn to my ex-wife. E and I have never compared how our history looks through the dingy windows of individual recollection, but I’m quite sure we both have different stories, both right and both wrong. The lens of remembrance has many functions- distortion, diffusion, outright denial, focus, accuracy, acceptance. So much of how we remember a story is wrapped up in what we need the story to give us at the moment of it’s telling.
The story of our failed marriage was important to me, especially in the context of having to explain it to the religious people in my life. While I told no lies to these people- my priest, my mother, church friends, and others- my religion made me feel the pressure to disclose the details which would justify ending the marriage under guidelines defined by the Bible. Yet, had the authorities found no such justification, I would have nonetheless carried on with the dismantling of our life as we knew it.
Christians, at least those of the Evangelical bent, like to be intimate with the details of failure. It is human nature to desire inappropriate intimacy, hence the shady viewing of what our eyes can do without, the leaning into the hot and hushed whisper of gossip, and the lingering aftertaste of delicious poison.
In retrospect, I wish I had hidden the story deep within the well of tears it had created. Some who heard me out eventually agreed that my departure was justified. What pains me now is that their opinions mattered at all, but I understand from whence I’ve come, and I, too, have sat in the judgment seat, and pondered the wisdom and validity of others who took this radical course before I did.
In the light of approval, I suppose my defensive id felt affirmed, but my weary bluesman’s heart felt that the carcass of our marriage was being picked over and examined in some sort of holy roller autopsy with my priest, my mother, my friends and ex-friends all in attendance.
What seemed true to me was that I was an unloved man. Indeed, I was, and that had been the state of things for so long that I came to believe that it had always been so.
Not long ago, I decided to clean out my garage. This is a lofty, unachievable goal which I annually attempt. I have a two-car garage, but it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve been able to fit a car into it. My garage is full of outdated recording gear, drums, guitar amplifiers, and barely used gardening tools, all of which make me feel like I’m parking in a pawn shop.
On this particular day of cleaning, I was sidetracked by a large box. The box held several smaller boxes, and one of them was filled with letters from Dad, Mom, my siblings, my grandmother, and old friends I’d forgotten about or lost track of. I scanned a few of my dad’s letters, and set them aside to read another day. Most of my mother’s letters were carbon copies, sent to my siblings and me, full of news and few personal remarks. I threw these and everything else into the trash.
There was a lone shoe box left in the large box; it was decorated with a serene camping scene, implying that the sporty moccasins within would lead my feet into something more inviting than the wilderness they eventually walked into.
I removed the lid, and saw the unmistakable handwriting of my ex-wife. Her pen hand was steady and consistent, always producing perfectly printed letters, minute and artful. They revealed the care and thoughtfulness with which she wrote her words, ponderous and deliberate, exact and delicate.
Most were dated from the Seventies, when our relationship began. There were others from the Eighties, and less and less, perhaps none from the Nineties.
She was a woman of few words, perhaps acutely aware of their power, perhaps even more aware of the power of silence. She said little without weighing and analyzing, risking or committing. She was endowed with great restraint when it came to words, rarely speaking out of turn, never gossiping, and never revealing her hand, perhaps out of both wisdom and fear.
As a child, she’d been an extrovert until her mother’s suicide replaced passion with self-consciousness, and akimbo carefree strides with the determined, stiff pace of her father. If one’s strength, stamina and will are measured by the ability to keep silence, then E is the strongest person I have ever met.
And so it was that I found myself in a moment of recognition, a moment which was solitary moments removed from the happy and loving words that this careful, non-risking woman had written in moments closer to her childhood than to the present. Affectionate and sweet, positive and loving, her words presented evidence that something indeed had existed between us, a force that had made us believers in love, something that had given us the hope to bring children into the world, believing that being together would be a lifelong possibility.
I knew that I had felt similar emotions for her, before we started living our separate lives under the same roof. Now, my heart was disquieted and made uneasy, akin to nauseous, when I read these sweet words, realizing that at one time she found me to be lovable and lovely. It had been so long since the nectar of affection had dripped from her pen or her tongue, that I had ceased to believe that I had ever tasted it.
I’d walked down this riverbed many times in the last 5 years since our parting; it had hardened many years before, nothing grew, nothing remained, and it was hard to imagine that the flimsy vessel called “Us” had ever scraped its keel along the shallow waterway to nowhere.
Now I had stubbed my toe on a fossil.
At some unremembered moment, that box of letters had been put away, buried and forgotten, and no more letters came, no more syrup flowed up from the cold New England ground, no longer circled round the rings of a sturdy maple, and no longer gushed into a wooden bucket with my name on it. Back then, whenever, I wondered what was wrong with me, accepting that I was unattractive to her, but not fully knowing why.
Now, nearly five years divorced, I wondered these things again. Had we both changed, or had we both revealed our true selves? I couldn’t say. Perhaps a combination of the two. My one certainty was that her garage held an even larger box, with many, many more pledges of my once undying love.
I started skimming then tossing her letters into the large trash bin outside the open garage door. A feeling overcame me. I felt as if I were involved in some unsavory endeavor, betrayal, theft, murder, cover-up or other crime. I read her words, loving and happy, endearing in their innocence and faith in love.
I finally arrested myself, and pulled every last letter out of the trash bin. I thought of calling E and asking if she wanted the letters, but didn’t know if it would seem like an insult to say that I was ridding myself of these words. So, I called my daughters and asked them if they wanted them. Yes was the resounding answer, and so I wrapped them with a rubber band and gave them to the girls the next time they came over.
Finding those letters was odd and sad, disturbing and yet reassuring. On the one hand, it was nice to know that at some time in our romance and marriage, E declared love for me, but on the other, that magnified the fact that at some point she, I, or we had lost something. What was it? What had changed about either or both of us?
I am thinking about love. I am wondering about the man I am in this moment, a man reborn who loves a woman, a man discovering something in my heart that I have never given to anyone until now, because it was either not there to give, or because I had no idea how to give it.
Yes, that giant box that sits in E’s garage is full of pledges and puppy love, but I was a selfish, religious, righteous boy who didn’t have a clue about carrying out the task of love. I just knew how to spell.
I am reaching, reaching, stretching far back, trying to glimpse my father, the most loving person I can remember. I want to watch him keeping the flame of love stoked and burning, and as he comes into focus, I see not the tokens of romance, the words and music of well-orchestrated gestures, lavish gifts, and not even the muscle-straining work of bread-winning.
No, his fire is contained and steady. His arms around my mother calm her and give her confidence. He wields not a gavel nor a scepter, but a mop, and he bids her to rest a while as he washes the kitchen floor, rendering the footprints of their dance visible only to their private remembrance.
And so I imitate him, and summon his spirit to find that place in my soul which is ready to love like a grown up, and in doing so, I ask my Southern Born woman where she keeps her bucket and mop.