The Women’s Sports Pages
Last Sunday I was reading the Woman’s Sports Pages in the New York Times. For the uninitiated, that’s the wedding section; the part where a happy duo smiles blithely and innocently from their cropped photo on the page.
Much had changed since my own face beamed out from my engagement photo, a rite of passage with the formal wedding announcement. For starters, in the olden days, proper etiquette dictated that the photo contain only the bride. Hence the pejorative term, in reference to the accomplishment of having “bagged” a husband. The sport was in catching a man.
Today, those same pages spill over with lesbian and gay couples, hetero duos with bright faces beaming, unaware that they are about to climb on the rollercoaster of life together, certain their love will bring them only good things and eternal happiness. There are older couples too—couples stunned with the brilliance of their good fortune at meeting so late in life or getting a second chance at marital bliss. These couples look less jaunty, perhaps more prepared. They understand that a percentage of this is simply up to the fates.
Perusing those pages I thought back to my own whirlwind wedding weekend, my open, apple-cheeked face as a new bride marrying “Robert Woodruff, of Birmingham, Michigan attorney at Sherman and Sterling” as if all of those NYT pedigreed descriptions could contain him.
Our wedding had been hasty. Although we’d dated for two years, Bob had the chance to go overseas and teach in China. He had asked me to go with him, to marry him first, a feat which we pulled off in three months, with not just a little angst on my mothers part and a lot of friction between us.
The morning after our wedding we woke up as husband and wife in a canopy bed in the Adirondacks and made our way down the Hudson River by train, holding hands as the light flashed through the window between the trees like an old newsreel. We were married. We were determined that our love was big enough and powerful enough and generous enough… was simply enough, to forge a wonderful life together. Tragedy and misfortune were for people who didn’t follow the rules, who were mean and colored outside of the lines, who disrespected others and harbored black places in their heart.
I thought about all of this last weekend as I let my eye trail down the page at the images of all those happy, expectant people. These were folks who had just gotten engaged or married, who wanted to announce it to the world with their photos, to gleefully make us a party to all that happiness and hopefulness.
Thank goodness that the world kept turning out couples like that. I reveled for a moment in the prospect of all that boundless optimism to believe that life would deal you a good hand, that love kept regenerating, even while others battled loss and depression, disappointment and sorrow.
A silly thought flashed through my mind. I pictured us now, today, on those pages, envisioning how we would appear; the set of a jaw, the look in our eyes. Our love was richer, deeper, it hid more in the folds inside of us. It was no longer moonfaced and expectant. We were long past the point where we couldn’t touch each other enough or held hands on every sidewalk. Our love had mellowed into something with real texture; the fibers of the tapestry tough and tenacious from a marriage woven of good and bad, joy and sorrow, loss and abundance.
Thinking about the miscarriages, the loss, the injury, the fear, the things we had endured together I could touch the parts in me where dreams had been compromised. I could articulate what a parallel life would look like, one in which my husband was not injured in Iraq, one in which life had kept moving forward as he flew to all the worlds breaking events, covered the 2008 election, interviewed world leaders.
How do you live in the shadow of what might have been after something big and bad happens? How do you grocery shop and car pool and cut up the salad and not let your mind wander to that parallel life, the one where only good things happen, where good people are rewarded?
And in any marriage you play the hand you are dealt. Wherever that may take you. And yet, as my friend Jim told me once, you never stop trying to get your hands on the deck.
That, I think, is the lesson we all learn, in one form or another as we struggle to make sense of what it means to choose a mate, to hitch a star to pull a collective wagon, to overcome or to simply endure.
And as we move, day in and day out into a familiar orbit, one with duller colors and smoother edges smoothed by the passage of time, we are no longer that expectant couple looking hopefully out of the engagement photo. But the rewards of the journey, are often full of unexpected goodness, beauty and moments of grace.
My two sisters and I were recently in Hawaii to celebrate my 50th year. We shared the resort with conference attendees and honeymooners and we watched with amusement and nostalgia as they draped themselves around one another in the elevators or gazed dreamily at each other during breakfast.
“Enjoy it now!” we joked under our breath.
“This is the fantasy island part,” my sister Nan said in a feigned warning. “The rest is all downhill.” We cracked ourselves up.
But lurking under our pretend cynicism was a moment where each one of us took stock. The children, the years logged, the good health, the close family, the new families we had built. We’d all three weathered the good and the bad. We were here. We were celebrating, each raising a glass, ultimately eager to get home to our house, home to our kids, and home to our men.