One lovely day in June, back when I was thirty-something, my mother came to town to conduct her annual appraisal and denunciation of my life choices.
She determined almost immediately that my job, my lifestyle, my finances (hair, apartment and cat) showed no promise of ever being what they should have been by that time, “that time” being yet another birthday, as she coordinated her yearly visits to Vermont to coincide with the balmy days of early summer and the anniversary of my birth.
I don’t know. Maybe her own mother had indoctrinated her into celebrating a daughter’s birthday with torture and reproach or maybe my mother felt that driving five hundred miles to take me out to dinner would validate her assumption that nobody else could possibly be interested in observing the occasion.
In addition to my job, lifestyle and finances (hair, apartment and cat), she found fault with my furniture, my weight, my clothing, my tennis game, my boyfriend (who wasn’t there that night), my tae kwon teacher (who happened to stop by for a minute) and my dream of achieving success as a published author. This was all within the first three hours of her arrival.
The final humiliation occurred when I discovered that I was out of money for the week, having exhausted my funds on a birthday party with thirty friends the night before, which forced me to beg my mother for pocket change so I could run up to the corner store and fetch a pack of cigarettes, (which naturally set off another scathing tirade).
Having weighed my whole life and found it wanting, my mother tossed a five-dollar bill at me and offered a single solution before retreating behind a newspaper and falling eerily silent for the rest of the evening.
“You better go out and get yourself a husband!”
A few days later, when I told this to a friend of mine, my friend chuckled and said, “Yeah, right, Ma. I’ll just go on down to the husband store.”
The idea of the husband store can still make me laugh. It reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode set in a future when young adults are forcibly persuaded to undergo a medical procedure known as the Transformation. If you lived in the dystopian world of Number Twelve Looks Just Like You, the Transformation would endow you with a beautiful body immune to disease but, owing to the small selection of numbered models to choose from, you would also end up looking exactly like several hundred million other people on the planet.
The husband store presents the opposite problem. It has a wide selection of models to choose from, not only one for every woman, or man, but also one for every new perspective and phase of life.
If I were to have been a child bride, my fate would have been sealed on February 9, 1964 during the Ed Sullivan Show, when the Beatles bewitched several million American girls and changed our bodies overnight. I would have raced right down to the husband store to put in my bid for the Paul McCartney model. After a week I would have traded Paul for John, because I never could decide which of the two I liked best. After a month of bliss with John, I’d have swapped him back for Paul and so forth and so on.
You can do this sort of thing at the husband store because the models are mass-produced and for some inexplicable but wonderful reason the dictates of society (sometimes even the laws of physics) are not strictly observed.
When I was fifteen, I would have traded Paul/John for a gentle hippie. No histrionic rock star or fiery radical, but an artist and a poet, a quiet revolutionary who played guitar and looked exactly like my first serious crush, otherwise known about town as a walking orgasm. The guy was a god and if the designer engineers at the husband store were ever forced to pick one standard for all the males in the universe, it would have to be him, frozen in time, if possible, and equipped with eternal youth.
Even so, by my senior year in high school, I would have been back at the husband store picking out the Frederic Chopin model, the Romantic pianist and composer of some of the most sublime music ever written. I imagined myself as George Sand, the prolific French woman novelist and memoirist who devoted much of her life and her work to protesting social conventions, particularly the ones that bound wives to their husbands against their will and denied women the freedom to live full lives. I loved Chopin as ardently as she did and I immersed myself in the escapades of the mad genius bohemians who swirled around them, the mostly impoverished and marginalized poets, artists, actors and musicians who practiced their Romantic idealism outside the pale of conventional society.
By the time I got to college, I didn’t care so much about the interests, profession and personal habits of my imaginary store-bought husband, just as long as he looked like Al Pacino.
It might have occurred to you by now that ideally, a woman should go to the husband store only once in her life. My status as a repeat customer speaks for the fact that I never daydreamed about a big white wedding as many females do from age ten and up. I dreamed instead about an inexhaustible hoard of lovers, bohemian-style, a la George Sand. If marriage and children happened to come my way, I would be happy enough, but clearly they were not the most important thing.
Until now, of course. Now that I’m sixty. Now that it’s too late.
If I could, I would go down to the husband store first thing tomorrow morning and pick out an ivy-league professor of ancient Mediterranean and near Eastern civilizations (or maybe Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages), a writer and historian with a Pulitzer Prize and a full head of hair. If he could manage to look and speak like Ronald Colman, that would be just fine.
When I think back to that evening in June, back when I was thirty something, when my mother surpassed even herself with her rapid-fire verbal assault, I find myself feeling more compassion than anger. Having excoriated nearly every aspect of my life, she just sat there reading her newspaper, not speaking and not showing much interest in dinner (or in me, now that she’d discharged her duty as a vigilant mother).
I feel compassion because it occurs to me now that it had only been a year since my father died. My mother had just lost her husband of forty-three years and I’m thinking now that maybe her loss had unhinged her, that the only way she could deal with her feelings at that time was to lambaste an obstinate, rebellious daughter who gave every appearance of being able to take it.
I feel compassion for myself, sitting helplessly across the room from her, looking dumb and confused, longing to show her all my birthday presents from the night before just to prove to her that I had friends and that I had a life, whether it met her expectations or not.
But no, I had not married and given her grandchildren.
It was shortly after turning forty that I realized why I remained unmarried. It wasn’t what I’d been telling myself, that I had had the repeated rotten luck of meeting men incapable of intimacy or commitment. It’s true, each one was a variation of the Bad Boy model, an edgy alcoholic to whom marriage would have been a disaster. But it wasn’t a matter of luck. I was making the choices.
Finally one day it occurred to me that I was the commitment-phobe, as much as any one of them. It helped to explain why I’d been choosing the imposter designer husbands, the knockoffs who possessed many of the desirable qualities, but not the real right stuff. They fit the pattern – the artist and/or the martial artist and/or the intellectual with advanced cooking and carpentry skills – but clearly I had been shopping in the discontinued, discount section of the store.
For a reason. My freedom was the most important thing. I couldn’t give up the degree of independence that marriage seemed to demand. I was unwilling to make the number of compromises a successful marriage required.
My mother was (and still is) a well-educated, well-read, politically active, beautiful woman who returned to her job as a psychiatric social worker as soon as her youngest child started kindergarten. Even so, given that my father was a difficult man and given the challenges of raising five children, she must have made a lot of compromises along the way.
I see it now as I look back on that evening in June over twenty years ago, when she disappeared behind her newspaper, just as he had done, a woman whose buried grief rose to the surface in hurtful, inappropriate ways, just as his once had.
I suppose I’m not married because for me, the ideal husband is the one whose most desirable quality would make him obsolete.
He has to be the one who leaves me alone to live my own life.
Who would you bring home from the husband (or wife) store?
[Artwork by Tom Purvis]
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