It Was Just Like That

Though I met my husband, Jonathan, 50 years ago, we didn’t marry until 20 years later. It was all very messy. Not only did I have a first husband, but later Jonathan had a first wife, They were marriages about which we were both serious, and in which we were both unhappy, and all the time we were the closest friends, sometimes more.  We met in rural New Mexico, having a phase of  playing hippie, building our homes, tending our gardens, milking goats, raising children. He did a better job of hippie than I did since I had a Ph.D. in a scientific field and an aversion to woowoo, while he had abandoned an ill-conceived major in linguistics at UCLA for hand digging his well, making his own adobes, and not apparently over-thinking it. But, ah, the shoulders on a man who makes his own adobes… Though I was always physically attracted to him and he was infinitely kind, I was also a snob and couldn’t imagine ever having a life with a college drop out.

One day I found myself alone in his home when he was called away by another visitor. I noticed a letter on the table beside my chair—signed “Mom.” With an easily overcome sense of transgression, I read it. The letter was so extremely clever and intelligent, so beautifully written, so deeply engaging, that I was struck, perhaps I should say gobsmacked, by the realization that Jonathan was a person who received and responded to letters like this.  There was more treasure than I had realized to be found in the deep running beneath his still waters. Mother and son double-teamed my seduction.

I first met his mother when she visited over Thanksgiving and Jonathan begged an invitation to my table. She was as interesting as her letter and I never missed seeing her whenever she came after that. Years later she confided that she had always hoped I would be her daughter-in-law, and brought me to tears. But by the time years had passed and everybody was divorced and I had married into daughter-in law-status, she was a wreck. Her beauty and brains had been smashed by alcoholism and a benign, but enormous brain tumor, the removal of which had actually left her temple cratered. Demented and blank-eyed, she didn’t know me or know she had gotten her wish for her son.

Her name was Romance, shortened to Rome.  She was a professional writer of books and screen plays. In a pile of manuscripts that Jonathan had guarded for her, there was a comic novel only two thirds finished (at immeasurable loss to the world in my opinion), short stories, and family vignettes. Her Christmas gift tradition for a decade and a half, for sons and sisters and nieces and nephews, had been to send a story about growing up with her two sisters in a home that provided her with plenty of material. (“Everything is copy,” Rome and Nora Ephron would have agreed, smiling fondly at one another.) Rome’s father was from Quaker stock, come over with William Penn in 1682. He seems to have kept Quaker-meeting silence in life until only the most extreme crises drew out some gentle, ineffectual, comment. But her mother, her mother! Always called Bonbon, she was the focal point of the house, all prerogative and no responsibility, daughter to one of the Ringling Brothers—the advance-man Ringling Brother who didn’t share the fame or wealth of the five principals, over which Bonbon gnashed teeth until the day she died. Rome’s Christmas stories were about her and her bountiful complexities and about Baraboo, Wisconsin where Ringling sisters-in-law lived in mutual distrust while the Brothers took the circus on the road; even the behind-the-scene circus stories, like the time smallpox broke out in the company, couldn’t compete with Bonbon for color.

 When we had to put Rome in a nursing home, Jonathan and I visited her and explained who we were again and again. We always brought her chocolate milkshakes and searched for things to say appropriate for her tiny bit of consciousness. Then I hit upon the idea of reading the Christmas stories to her. What a success. She was transformed, making little exclaiming sounds at important moments. Even her eyes seemed more alert.

Here’s the prologue (so called) of one of the stories, Eileen’s Wedding. (Eileen was Rome’s older half-sister.)

“You have to see it as a stage play, and it might work best as a Greek tragi-comedy. Aristophanes could have done it, or perhaps Euripedes, though he started making less of the Chorus. And this needs a Chorus, partly to give the multi-storied background dramatic emphasis, and partly to speak for the gods, whom the Queen had defied, the Queen’s daughter was propitiating, and the Queen’s priestess sister revered deeply and genuinely. But though the Temple and its trappings and obligations play their required parts in the story, the influence of the gods is mostly in the minds and memories of the characters, seldom verbalized because the issues are so thunderous and complex. A Chorus could articulate them giving them their due portent and illuminating the human comedy.”

Though I suspect at this point you’d prefer Rome’s rather than my telling, there is only so much space, so you’ll have to accept a summary: Eileen announces that she wants to marry in the Catholic church, even though her mother, Bonbon, had been shown the door when she divorced and remarried. Bonbon only acquiesces to a Catholic wedding after an orgy of hysterical drama, but, after getting on board, she demands the mother’s right to hem the wedding dress, a symbolic, and real, last gift to the departing daughter. Once the Queen has spoken, her daughter is utterly constrained. The dress hangs in the closet, with wide-spaced pinning giving a scallopy effect, day after day. No one forgets the dress is unhemmed, but after one or two tries no one dares to bring up the subject. A permanent break is threatened when Bonbon’s sister, Alice, expresses her distress over the dress not being yet hemmed. In a pattern that suggests not a little tipple going on, Bonbon is unaccustomed to starting the day before eleven or dressing before one, but she finds ways to procrastinate on the task that put pale to such daily self-indulgence, resulting in the dress still being unhemmed as the eve of the wedding day dawns. Bonbon rises even later than usual and over a rare second cup of coffee declares she can’t start the hemming until Eileen comes back from the hairdressers, and when Eileen returns, she can’t start until something about the flowers and newly arrived packages is sorted, and when finally she can’t start because it is time for dinner, Eileen melts down.

“I can’t get married in an unhemmed dress, “ she wails.

“Why not? Cut it neatly and no one will notice!”

 “Mother, You don’t care how I feel!”

 “Do you care how I feel? Do you even know how I feel?”

 As it gets worse from there, Bonbon is finally led gently by her husband to have a lie down, and her sister, Alice, is called in from across town to save the day with new pinning and ironing and the minute even stitches women could make those generations ago, as well as sweet words and happy laughter with Eileen. On the next afternoon, Bonbon grabs the center of attention as the Mother of the Bride and the episode falls into a lock-box of issues never-to-be-resolved.

Picture Rome, a shrunken lump in the bed she never leaves. She is in “the best,” but still appalling, nursing home where we all live now in Austin. I finish the story; she shakes her head in dazzled wonderment, as happy as a happy child. She seems to have experienced a miracle, no less.

She says, eyes shining, “Oh, how did they know? It was just like that!”

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Carolyn Kingson
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