My Father Was Right
“Marriage is a lottery.” Among the pieces of wisdom that my father tried to impart to me, that quotation ranked number one.
(Number two was “internal rate of return is a useless concept in evaluating a real estate investment” — but that’s a topic for another column.)
My father’s fatalistic assessment chafed my young soul. It rankled. Here was one of the most important decisions that we make in life — and the best we could do was buy our ticket and take our chances? Not me! I would consider the matter carefully and choose judiciously. That was my plan anyway.
That plan fell apart 21 summers ago, when I met the girl who would become my wife. Within a very few minutes, I was completely out of my senses, and I am not sure that I have recovered in the two decades since. This coming week, my wife and I will mark our 20th wedding anniversary. And as I look back on it, I have to admit: My father was right.
We would not allow ourselves to sign a cellphone contract in the state of mind in which most of us get married. On the other hand, if we are feeling cool, unexcited and rational on our wedding day, that’s even worse.
What happens next, how things work out, depends on factors unimaginable at the time. Circumstances intervene. People change — often for the worse, sometimes for the better.
Think of H.L. Mencken, one of the great misogynists of American letters. His essays and books mocked women and marriage: “Love,” he wrote, “is the delusion that one woman differs from another.” He carried on half a dozen love affairs, sometimes simultaneously, before finally marrying at age 50. And then … something changed. Mencken’s wife was already seriously ill at the time of their marriage. Her condition rapidly deteriorated. The onetime funny man tenderly nursed her, and when she died five years later, he was devastated by grief. The humour ebbed from his writing. He turned from political criticism to autobiography: a man turned suddenly old.
It’s common nowadays to talk of marriage as “work.” There’s some truth to that: Certainly it must be quite a job to be married to me.
But even if the language of work is valid up to a point, it probably should be avoided. We live in an era where young people are frightened by marriage. They delay till midlife, even avoid it altogether. We who have experienced marriage’s obligations and joys do poor service by speaking of the institution in ways almost calculated to make it seem onerous and laborious. It would be more accurate and more attractive to speak of marriage as a construction, a project — something that builds us even as we work to build it.
Soon after my first child was born, I confessed to a nursery school teacher that I felt baffled by my new responsibility. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. The teacher urged me not to worry: “They raise us,” she said. And so it is with all our most important relationships.
My wife and I are both writers. It’s a strange and probably not to be recommended arrangement. My wife has been the chief editor of all my books, and not an easy editor either. Her comment on reading the first draft of my Bush book was, “Can we afford to give back the advance?” She clearly was not intended for a career in diplomacy. But over the years, it is she who not only inspired me to do my utmost, but challenged me when I did anything less.
My late mother was once asked by an interviewer: “Do you ever have dreams about being single again?” She answered: “I have nightmares about it.” One would fear not only losing the one you love, but also of losing the better self into which love has made you.
When I asked my wife to marry me all those years ago, I quoted Evelyn Waugh’s letter proposing marriage to his second wife: “True it will be nasty for you — but think how nice it will be for me!” It was — and it is.