My mother called a few days ago, with the pattern of random small talk that I recognize well. She was upset about something. While she chattered on about the weather or her recent purchase of new placemats for the kitchen, she was trying to find the courage to say what was really on her mind.
Finally, in a quiet voice, almost a whisper, she said: You didn’t send us a card for our anniversary. We have been married for fifty years, this was special. I was just surprised.
Fifty years. I knew when their anniversary was. My mother has never been subtle or able to hold back excitement for any holiday or birthday. She is nearly unbearable around Christmastime, walking around in holiday sweaters that embarrassed me growing up and even now. So, for the weeks leading up to their anniversary date, she was dropping hints and asking for my advice on a present for my father, all the time reminding me of the approaching day.
I should be a bigger person. It’s one day out of the year. I could drop a card in the mail with some simple sentiment, nothing too sappy, devoid of anything that makes me sound overjoyed about the occasion. I could send flowers and just sign the card with my name. But I never have been able to make myself do it.
My parents both grew up in poverty in an area of Kentucky that is still a bit lost in time. At that time, in that place, it wasn’t uncommon for people to marry young. My mother was sixteen when they married, my father was twenty.
From day one, and not just because of her age, my mother has been dependent on my father. She is and has always been painfully shy, and doubts everything about herself with such depth that I am shocked when she steps even a millimeter outside of her comfort zone. She didn’t have a driver’s license until the age of 29, and this was after years of marriage and success with my father’s career—and after having two children. They had money for her to have a car. Instead, she waited for my father to take her where she needed to go.
Their marriage showed no evidence of love or respect at any moment since I can remember-- since I knew even a little about what those words meant. My mother has always professed her love for my father. I know she believes that and means it. But how you can truly love someone who has never put you first, has never encouraged you or believed in you, who has belittled you, taken you for granted, ignored your birthdays, squashed your dreams, and expected in turn to be waited on hand and foot—is beyond comprehension for me. She was a child when she married him. He taught her his version of love and she was an excellent student.
Fifty years of marriage for my parents, to me, is not a cause for celebration or special recognition. If I have to label it, I would say it is an accomplishment at best.
My mother survived fifty years of never making a decision without deferring to my father. She managed to put a face on for the world that seemed together and content, when my father’s alcoholism and many affairs were the crippling reality.
I can’t paint her completely as a hero or even a martyr-- as she lived in such denial over the toll my father’s choices and behavior were taking on our family. She chose indifference over action. She chose denial over protecting me.
For the forty years I have lived with or known my parents, their marriage has confused me, saddened me, angered me.
When I was very young, caught up in my mother’s excitement of marking special days on the calendar, I would make homemade cards for their anniversaries out of construction paper and glitter—happily handing it to them on the morning of the big day. But even when I was barely out of grade school, celebrating that day felt false. Not marking that day with some gesture wasn’t done out of bitterness, it just seemed so much like a lie, a betrayal of everything I knew to be true. I couldn’t make myself encourage my mother’s state of denial.
I feel for her. I hurt for her. I wonder so often what my mother could have become, what she would have done with her life had she not married my father—or had she broken away from him when she was young. I sometimes imagine her with someone who would have seen her. Truly seen the person she is, the heart she has. She can’t even see it herself.
So, each year, I let that day in February quietly pass. The square box stares back at me on the calendar. I don’t have to mark it, I know the date.
It is the date that made my mother who she is, and me who I am.
It was the beginning and the end for all of us.
It is the loss of her innocence, the beginning of his betrayals.
It is a mix of love and hate.
It is a contradiction—wishing the union didn’t happen—but knowing I would not be here if it hadn’t.
And there isn’t a card for that.