Earlier today I had a brief conversation with a coworker about the example of marriage set down by parents. Mine were an example of why not to get married, but my grandparents took it to an epic level.
I’m talking primarily of my mom’s side since by the time I was a kid my dad’s mother was dead and his father had begun a long descent into alcoholism induced brain damage. My mom’s parents were an example of middle class respectability. He was a deeply authoritarian figure, who would now a days be in constant trouble with social services. Quiet and taciturn, he took any disruption of his world to be a grave of fence. As children we feared him, and he had had time to mellow out by then. He was never “grandpa”, he was “John”, even though his name was Gerald.
He was quick to anger and often violent, and more, fiercely possessive. Once, the minister came to the house to see my grandmother, and John punched him in the face.
My grandmother was, and still, not a wilting flower. However her nature to be passive aggressive took their marriage to epic levels of non communication. One of her classic moves was to use starch on his underwear, because he was allergic to it. Once she kicked a case of beer he had left sitting by the basement door down the stairs. She didn’t know it was bottles though and for the next few months the house smelled of beer.
They both excelled at quietly living in grim silence and dark to save money. The kerosene heater blew up one winter because they were sure they could get another winter out of it. The soot remained on the once white walls for years until my dad finally painted over it.
When I was a kid, they didn’t live together, fueling my belief that they must have been divorced. She lived with her aged mother in Massachusetts while he lived in a small house that was completely self sufficient and as remote as he could get away with in Maine. In the few times I would see them together, the silence was intense.
Eventually I learned that they were in fact married still, and that the fact that he wasn’t living in nova scotia, his original home, was indicative of his desire to be with her, that he was willing to compromise…or something.
After my mom died, during a family gathering, my aunt declared that it was their fiftieth anniversary. At first there was the surprising idea that they were in fact married, and so there must have been a wedding. Then I did some math, and an even bigger shock hit me. Either my mom was really early, or they had gotten busy ahead of time.
Now, everyone has that moment when they realize that their parents, and by extension their grandparents, must have had sex. As far as my parents were concerned I had faced this realization early not by walking in on them, but because my mom was angrily demanding to know why they weren’t having sex anymore. In their own way, they were passionate, I mean they fought all the time, and I had seen them kiss. But my grandparents had displayed an utter absence of affection, or even amiability towards each other.
And yet, they had three daughters and were apparently having sex before marriage. There was some spirit of compromise in that they continued to occupy the same country. One might argue that the fact they stayed together for so long is a testament to their mutual affection. I always assumed they each refused to give the other one the satisfaction of a divorce.
But maybe that was the strength of their relationship, built on the good and solid ground of mutual animosity.