MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

Love Affair, Interrupted: The Ones Left Behind

He looks like Grandmother Wilson,” I said, remembering my paternal grandmother, who died in the early 1980s.

Yes,” said my mother. “He does.” She took a shallow breath and then, “Why did this happen?” Mother stared at Daddy and I patted him on the shoulder, which seemed to make me feel like I was doing something helpful.

“Would you like to go ahead and take his jewelry with you?” asked the nurse.

His wedding ring and class ring (University of Mississippi, Sigma Nu, 1948) came off fairly easily, but the watch was harder. His hands had always been big—something I inherited from him, along with his sensitive skin and his tendency toward impatience—and it seemed his hands and wrists had doubled in size since he’d been in the hospital. Watching the nurse struggle became too painful. “Greedy daughters take jewelry off dead father. Film at eleven.” In reality, we were simply clawing for any piece of Daddy that we might keep, anything that might outlast death.

“I’ll get that off for you later,” said the nurse.

Mother cradled his wedding band in her palm, and I slipped the class ring on the thumb of my right hand. It was too big, even for my pudgy fingers, but I wasn’t about to let go.

“Sometimes I like to pray with the family,” said the nurse. “Is that all right with you?”

Who knows how each of us prayed silently as the nurse spoke, her voice soft and clear and sure as she asked for the emotional healing of my family. Her short hair and wire-rimmed glasses gave off a certain air of efficiency, but it was not just about the job for this woman. It was about us, too, the ones left behind. The ones she could still help.

As for me, I thanked God for giving me such a fabulous father. And then I bawled like a baby.

 

Love Affair, Interrupted: “Just Like That”

Reservation Confirmation for Martha and Earl's Honeymoon in 1948

“The obituary pages tell us of the news that we are dying away while the birth announcements in finer print, off at the side of the page, inform us of our replacements…”—Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

As my father drew his last breath, he did not rise up to confess the name of an unknown love child or reach out to my mother to proclaim his love one more time. He simply died.

“Is this it?” asked Mother. At 78, she looked like a child who had lost sight of her parents in a crowded shopping mall.

“I think so,” I told her, crying, searching the nurse’s face for a signpost of my own. She nodded.

“Yes,” I said to my mother. “I think this is it.” She climbed onto the hospital bed and lay down beside Daddy, cradling his head in her arms and whispering into his right ear. She was wedged between the side rails and her soulmate. My two sisters and I huddled around the other side of the bed, taking turns telling Daddy good-bye. Later we discovered that Ann and Mother were begging him to stay, while Ginny and I were telling him he could go, his work with us was done, he had done it well. We did not know if Daddy could hear us, and in light of the conflicting messages, maybe it’s best if he didn’t. It’s a good thing Daddy always knew his own mind.

It became obvious rather quickly that my father was indeed dying. Numbers dropped on machines, glowing lines lost their arcs and veered toward flat. I know you’re not supposed to be able to hear hearts break, but I swear I heard something, loud and clear. After twenty-four hours of his head swaying back and forth, his face obscured by an oxygen mask, the first love of my live was gone.

The nurse moved to turn off the machines that accompanied my father from this life to the next. Despite her best efforts, she could not get one of them to stop beeping.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” More beeping.

My friend Mary said when her sister died of skin cancer—she was only 35—there was a death rattle, sort of a guttural sound. All I heard, besides the beeping, was absence. Ann, Ginny, and I helped Mother down from the hospital bed. We gathered ourselves one into the other and moved around the room as a single unit, a glob of grief, not knowing where to go or when to stop. Occasionally one of us reached for a tissue or glanced out the window at the skyline of the city that had served as our family’s backdrop for more than half a century. But mostly we drifted around Daddy’s bed, first one side, then the other.

When Mother sank to the floor in a heap, phrases that didn’t begin to do the scene justice came to mind: thought I might die; took my breath away; hit me like a ton of bricks; I was beside myself. I kept looking for the just-right cliché, but I did not find it. As a daughter, I was speechless. As a writer, I was at a loss for words.

When a doctor entered the room, my mother looked at him square in the face and wailed, “Why did this happen?”

“Blood vessels get weak over time,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”

“She thinks she might have done something to save him,” I said, softly. “She thinks it’s her fault.”

I was pleading to a stranger for some remnant of reassurance. Anything. The last family member to arrive at the hospital, I wasn’t introduced to the doctors, wasn’t allowed to view X-rays my sisters saw, pictures that convinced them our father could not be saved.

“We’ve already told her it wasn’t her fault,” said Dr. Meany Pants, curtly, before leaving the room. “Your mother knows better.”

Note to self: After suitable mourning period, confront people who piss me off during the process.

The curtain that separated us from the rest of the world, the world of the living, made a slight shushing sound as it came together behind the doctor.

“Wow, the color sure goes out of you fast,” I said to the nurse, as my father faded to white from his head down.

“Yes, it does,” she replied.

Did I just use the word “wow”? Surely something more meaningful was in order.

“How long can we stay?”

“As long as you like.”

“We might be here a while, then,” I said, but I did not know how long would be long enough. I did not know anything.

I asked the nurse to remove Daddy’s oxygen mask and take out his mouthpiece. The minute she did, I was almost sorry, because then I could really see my precious father’s face. I was reminded this was not some sort of terrible mix-up, like when surgeons remove a kidney instead of a lung or amputate the wrong leg (you read about that all the time). Daddy is dead. Repeat after me.

I made my way toward him—it did not occur to me to say, “the body,” for even without breath, he was still my daddy—and smoothed his bushy eyebrows. In doing so I accidentally raised one of his eyelids and saw into the nothingness of his eyes, eyes that used to light up when he saw any one of his girls come into a room. Always a believer in another world beyond this one, I saw for myself, in that very instant, that something separate from our skin and bones, something apart from our organs and tissue, makes us who we are. Call it spirit, call it soul, call it whatever you wish. Whatever it is, it no longer resided inside my father. Just like that.


“Canine Compatriots” from HerNashville.com

From Her NashvilleJuly 2010

First there was Sloopy. It was the 1960s, after all, and my high school-aged sisters chose the name from one of their favorite songs. He was the almost-white Labrador retriever who played with me every afternoon when I got home from elementary school. For a while Sloopy was my only friend when we moved across town and I hadn’t yet met any of the kids in our new neighborhood. He lived long and well, and when he died, my mother and my sisters and I cried for what seemed like hours. Daddy was in England at the time, staying at the Savoy Hotel. When we called to tell him that Sloopy had died, he said we would eventually get another dog, and maybe we could name him Savoy. We did.

Read more here…

Maybelle and Her Mother Clean Out Closets

When Maybelle goes to visit her mother in the retirement “community” where she lives, they  usually undertake some kind of project. This time around, it was to clean out closets. As Maybelle diligently took each item of clothing to her mother for inspection, she came across two lovely formal gowns.

“I don’t guess I need to keep those,” said Maybelle’s mother, who is 88 and looks stunning in this picture with her first great-grandchild. “It’s not like I’ll ever go anywhere to wear something like that again.”

After the kind of pause than can be manipulated for maximum effect, she added, “You might want to hang on to them, though. You can always bury me in one.”