Half serious, Aunt Marrian, my mother’s sister, used to describe the cemetery monument she expected to be placed in her honor: A carved figure of heroic proportions–an ageless woman with face toward the sun, loose hair flying and voluminous skirts billowing behind her. Aunt Marrian wasn’t asking much. She just wanted to be remembered and respected.
This while her husband, my father’s brother (yes, brothers married sisters), Uncle Owen, persisted in calling her distant hometown, “Dogpatch”–as if he had rescued his wife from a barefoot, toothless, uneducated existence. Truth be told, both my aunt and uncle seemed plagued by feelings they would never measure up to the expectations of their respective parents–most of whom had already died before the two became an item.
As a teenager, Owen–his older siblings had moved out–was suddenly the man of the house. He experienced up close and personal his mother’s terror at losing the breadwinner of the family while having debts all over town. The Depression had been running for many years. Banks, businesses and utilities couldn’t afford to forgive these negative balances even though the Christensens were their friends. Owen’s mother’s emotional needs were an unhealthy burden for his eighteen-year-old shoulders. He disappointed her by dropping out of college. Two years later, his mother died also. From then on, Owen spent his life working endless hours–except for the three weeks in 1966 he stayed home to recover from a heart attack–insulating himself from obligations to anyone else.
Marrian was sixteen when her father died. Her mother bore grief and loneliness stoically while she sent sons into World War II, cared for two daughters still at home. Three years into family life without a father, Marrian was in college and began dating the orphaned Owen. He was anxious to marry her and Marrian’s mother pushed the idea of her daughter settling down. The match was made. Marrian gave up mostly-carefree co-ed life for total enmeshment in Owen’s quest to save the family farm.
She moved from the familiarity of her hometown to join a family distressed by recent deaths, financial problems, other incidents. Owen was strong. Strong enough to keep everyone happy–he must have believed.
With much to prove to her new in-laws who, by nature, were offish to outsiders–especially toward this petite, teenage wife–they immediately judged as pampered–who was even younger than their youngest brother–Marrian threw herself into the chores of processing and bottling milk, churning butter, gathering and packaging eggs–while cooking, baking, and keeping house. She carried on housewifery much as her mother had practiced it–and who had essentially chosen it for her–but marital bliss eluded Marrian.
She felt herself compared unfavorably to the former lady of the house who, granted, was a remarkable woman. A wise neighbor, seeing what was going on, told Owen he wasn’t going to find a wife like his mother (whom Owen had observed as an accomplished matron forty-five years Marrian’s senior). Perhaps the neighbor got tears in her eyes or a catch in her throat when she said this–after all, she had lost a close friend. However, this remark and others were interpreted by the family that theirs had been the rare blessing–if but for a few short years–of sharing the presence of an almost supernatural being, highly-favored of the gods.
We call this perfectionism and OCD now. I don’t know what the mental health professionals of the day called it when Owen’s unmarried sister was treated at the state hospital with a breakdown. Marrian would care for this sister-in-law–but was not to speak of it.
Owen occasionally escaped all these pressures taking trips with friends. Marrian resented being left alone. Yes, she was among plenty of other young wives surviving by themselves–after all, it was wartime. But they probably didn’t like it either. (Actually, there was a bit of cultural shame that Owen and his friends weren’t fighting overseas–even though their exemptions came from health or being stewards of the nation’s farms.)
Marrian was nineteen. She couldn’t see that, a half-century later, she would be included with the people one author called “The Greatest Generation.” Her motivations were close to home: expectations of Owen, pulling her weight in the relationship, keeping a clean house, hanging out spotless laundry. But the drudgery was wearing on her.
Insult to injury, her own mother pronounced disapproval about Marrian’s appearance. Upon arriving for her first visit to the love nest, Mother uttered the fateful words: “Marrian, you’re looking a little ‘married’.”
The remark galvanized the young Marrian. As a single girl, she had always been careful with the way she looked, particular about her clothes. She redoubled her efforts. As her babies and other life changes came–bringing extra pounds–she experimented with weight-loss dieting. Her determination proved she could sometimes lose a pound a day in preparation for a trip “down home.” She kept her fashion flair alive to accent her slim figure and stunning face–black eyes, pale skin, high cheekbones, radiant smile. She eventually regretted some of the measures she took for vanity–having crooked teeth extracted, wearing shoes sized too small. Oh, and there were naysayers when she got a nose job in her forties, a facelift in her seventies. And, despite great effort, she couldn’t endure wearing contact lenses.
But, in all, Marrian succeeded at beauty.
Try as she might, Marrian didn’t find the satisfaction her mother had as a full-time homemaker. She cooked, she gardened, she canned produce, she sewed, she collected antiques. Her children were well-dressed, well-thought-of, smart. Her home beautifully appointed and maintained. She and my uncle socialized with other couples, joined Rotary but, when he was at home, Owen worked in the yard. He left before dawn–before the house stirred. Aunt Marrian was restless; she was in her mid-thirties; her marriage was troubled; she declined going through another pregnancy.
In youth, there were limitations on fulfilling her dreams–some imposed by the Depression and war. But she had money and time now. Her youngest had started school. What would she do? Her older children were taking music lessons. Playing piano had been very important in the home where she grew up but there hadn’t been much money. She now began serious study with a teacher. She also became a church organist. She planned a new house and oversaw all the details of construction.
Marrian then decided to enroll in a nearby university’s interior design program. She kept at it and finished the requirements for a bachelor’s degree–except the class in rendering. Her stated reason for avoiding the class was fear that she wouldn’t have the skill. But I wonder–since she later became an accomplished oil painter–if she resisted graduation with its attendant expectations of getting a job in the field. Part of her still lived for the carefree young girl.
Sometime during this part of her life, I began studying Spanish at the same nearby university. Like Marrian’s son, my cousin, I was on a mission for our church. My aunt offered to pick up my laundry, paying it forward in hope that someone in another part of the United States would take care of her son. I accepted the offer. She and I passed the clothes back and forth without seeing each other (except one Wednesday when I sensed she would be coming up the walk and staged a brief, unplanned meeting) but each week I included a note when I left my bundle in the dormitory mailroom. When my white shirts appeared on hangers (ironed), my undergarments and socks washed and folded, there would be a note pinned on for me. For nineteen years, I had held somewhat equal status among the forty nieces and nephews she and Owen shared. Now her service and the messages we wrote started to make me someone special.
Five years later, I returned to that university ostensibly to train myself for a career. Unlike my cousins and siblings–my age, older, and some younger–I wasn’t married.
Like Marrian, I had been born into my nuclear family after traditions were established, expectations set. Also like my aunt, I was good in all the arts. Perhaps like her, I was taught that what I wanted to do with my life was considered play, not work. Graduate school was supposed to teach me to work.
Aunt Marrian became an important mentor: I don’t think either of us was clear about my post-baccalaureate pursuits. We carried on anyway.
It was a sunny, mild fall. We had both been noticing milkweed pods–unspoiled because of delayed storms–that dried along fences, the marsh grass plumes–like buff-colored cotton candy–that stood in receding wetlands, and the dark red seed stalks we called Indian tobacco. We sensed an urgency to gather in (what we hadn’t sown)–beauties of the season to make dried-weed arrangements–all the rage in DIY decorating at the time. Aunt Marrian had experience with these things. We planned our first joint project for a particular Saturday.
I learned some things about design: 1. Offered a seemingly endless harvest of weeds, I succumbed to the temptation of hauling too much; 2. Some plants that sang to me in the fields when seen against other vegetation or dirt didn’t translate well when placed in a container (“It looks like you used all your dogs,” was Aunt Marrian’s unvarnished appraisal of my first attempt on the design table we set up in her basement); and, 3. Uncle Owen–who had spent the day at his place of business with the other men in his family–complained at coming home to the chaotic wake of my creativity. (Aunt Marrian sent an SOS to remove leftover weeds from their storeroom. “Good thing you’re Owen’s nephew too!” she communicated later with a note of alarm.)
I was also learning about dynamics in my aunt’s and uncle’s marriage–which, on the surface, seemed so different from my parents’. I didn’t know my Mom and Dad to distinguish between families or to assign blame for the actions of the other’s blood relative. But, when you’re interested in finding power chips, one is just as good as another.
Unfortunately, twenty years later, I had fallen into assigning blame to my wife for my unhappiness. I have come to believe that humans who feel their lives are controlled become focused on controlling the people to whom they have abdicated. “I am powerless to make myself happy so YOU must do it for me!” Blaming is the way we excuse ourselves for failing at this mis-directed endeavor.
My marriage ended in divorce, unlike Aunt Marrian’s–although at one point, she drew up divorce papers. I’ve had the good fortune of being alone with the consequences of my choices long enough to consider I might not have been right. As a shift in the foundation of my thinking, it’s been liberating. It’s helped me be patient with others.
It’s helped me be patient with my aunt who–although she likes me very much–actively disapproves the way I look, my career choices. I recognized that being unable to make her happy is just as it should be.
Saturday before last I made the hour drive to her home to wish her Happy 89th birthday. I arrived to find Aunt Marrian in the studio she converted from my cousins’ former bedroom. She hasn’t painted for a few years so had placed an ad to sell her art supplies. Two women were there claiming spoils from Aunt Marrian’s organized piles. She totaled the charges–mostly in her head–and offered them some cake in the kitchen. She tottered–a result of fused vertebrae–but didn’t stop moving until each plate had been served with a fork and paper napkin. Then she settled on the loveseat and began explaining how my long hair and beard would be unacceptable to my dearly departed mother, her sister. One woman argued that it wasn’t as important as all that but Aunt Marrian returned a volley about how handsome I would be without . . .
I interrupted. “Do you want me to make you proud by singing for them?” I went into her formal living room and opened the pecan grand piano (she acquired twenty-five years ago when she withdrew the divorce suit that would have ruined Uncle Owen financially). By the time I finished the song, the women were watching from the entry hall. We all walked through the front door into the sunshine.
While Aunt Marrian looked in her mailbox, I told one of the women about my blog. “Dumpster!” Aunt Marrian had overheard, “Why would you call it diamondsinthedumpster?”
She seemed to get quite tired during the soup and salad we shared at her kitchen island but she did one more math problem in her head when I brought up how much water a person should drink based on body weight. While we cleared the dishes, she passed along a housekeeping tip she had just picked up.
We hugged just inside the back door; then she walked me into the carport to my car. I pointed out a bright side to outliving her brothers and sisters: “You get to have the last word.”
She leaned backwards against her ride these twenty-five years–a sporty convertible–to relieve discomfort in her back, I presumed. “Oh, I’m so lonesome for my family now,” she was serious. “I’m ready to go at any time.” I didn’t cry like I did the first time she told me this some months ago. I understood she wasn’t talking about quitting. Nothing in her character is about to quit.
I slid into my car commenting on the nice life she continues to sustain. “You’re a remarkable woman!” I said looking up through the driver’s side window.
“Am I,” she said over her shoulder, pleased but half mocking. “Yes, I guess I’m a remarkable woman.” Aunt Marrian brought herself upright again, balancing her capri-clad legs over her stylish sneakers. She squared her shoulders on a frame that without heels maxed out at 5’3, that this impromptu call to action transforms taller. Then, with a quick glance to make sure I was watching (and laughing), turned her face in profile, set a firm chin, a studied unconscious smile, instantly placid, eyes fixed in a faraway gaze both resolute and mysterious. Before me I see the woman carved of granite, billowing skirts, the forger of frontiers, the aunt I’m to remember, the woman she was supposed to be.
And, in important ways, is.
Find what’s yours . . . truly, danscir52
copyright 2013 Dan Christensen all rights reserved