This past Christmas was special for many reasons. It was my first Christmas with my husband as his wife. We married on the one year anniversary of our first date, Nov 13. Holidays have always been a tough time in my family, and although I loved the traditions and spirit of Christmas, I was on my own during that time of year a lot before meeting my husband. Christmas with my family became a boiling point of emotions, and almost always, a showcase for my father’s alcoholism and anger. My mother desperately wanted me home each year, and I tried for many years to be there for her. But finally I realized that my self esteem was getting battered each December so much so that it took me months to recover. I quit going home and took solo trips or stayed on my own for Christmas for the last dozen years or so.
For our first Christmas together, my husband and I planned to enjoy it with each other and then spend time with his aunt and cousins who live here locally. It was special for both of us. Then, my parents announced they were traveling from their home in Florida to NC to visit our old hometown and to spend Christmas with my sister and her family. They said they would like to stop in for the night to see us on the way.
My husband marveled as I was immediately in knots after the phone call. I was worried about how they would interact with us for an extended period of time. I was almost sure the time would be uneventful, as it was only in private amongst our family that my father let loose on me—and a great source of his anger and my mother’s disappointment always seemed to be because I wasn’t married yet. It was odd that they so wanted me to enter into an institution that had seemed to have almost ruined their lives. Their marriage, for both of them, seemed both suffocating and a façade—in different ways. My father was unfaithful and kept our house in a state of tension and fear growing up. My mother lived in denial of all of his faults, but was also utterly dependent on him.
But the fact that they would behave and put on a front (as I saw it) around my husband was almost as upsetting as the alternative. While I have been so honest with my husband about my childhood, my history with my father, and their history together, it always seems so surreal to sit with them when they are on their best behavior, acting like the happiest couple in the world.
My mother later called back to clarify that they would be staying in a hotel nearby and would only really have time for a late dinner as they passed through. I was relieved, but still on an emotional roller coaster until they arrived the day before Christmas Eve.
We met at our house and then drove to a local restaurant. My father, as he always is in situations like this, was utterly charming, engaging and funny. He shared funny anecdotes about my childhood, and lovingly joked with my mother about her growing obsession with germ avoidance, a level of OCD that is quite startling. As he gestured with his hands, imitating my mother trying to avoid a public restroom doorknob, I saw it. A wedding band. On his finger. For the first time in my life.
My parents, astonishingly, have been married 50 years. When their last anniversary rolled around, I remember staring at the number in my mother’s email announcing it with much pride. Fifty years. I would never, ever have described my parents as being happy or well matched, or even in love. It has been quite the opposite, watching the fighting, the days and weeks of silence, and the violence on my father’s part. My father has also been unfaithful. Many times. I don’t let myself think how many times or with whom. I fully expect there may be half sisters or brothers out there that I don’t know and might never meet.
But in all the time I have known my parents, from the time I toddled around and inspected my mother’s necklaces and jewelry while being held, until the Christmas of last year, I have never seen my father wear his wedding band.
I knew he had one. I would often sit and rifle through my mother’s jewelry boxes-- she loved jewelry and had tons of costume jewelry as well as nice gold and diamond pieces that she often saved up for herself. I remember several times coming across his band and asking her why he didn’t wear it. I have tried to remember her exact answers. I know she seemed to always give a different one—it didn’t fit right, it hurt his hand, he just didn’t like jewelry—until I felt sad asking her, as I could see it bothered her.
About 10 years ago, my sister found out about a company that would take men’s wedding bands and stretch and mold them into the shape of a heart for the wife to wear as a pendant. Oddly enough, the company most often did this for the wives of deceased husbands, as a way for them to carry that part of him next to their heart, dangling on a gold chain. Although she had the best intentions, my stomach dropped when she told me what she had done. She had told my father about it, sneaked into the house when my mom was at work, and swiped his band to send it off. She thought that my mother would love it as a birthday present, a way to make use of a band that meant so much to her, but that my father never wore.
My mother’s reaction was not what she had hoped or expected. My mother called to talk to me later, and touched only a little on the gift- in her usual way of skirting around anything painful. She only said, I wish she had asked me first. But, to me, my mother’s voice was saying- “he will never wear it now”.
Even when I was little, five or six, I remember knowing it was wrong that my father didn’t wear his wedding band. I didn’t fully understand the easily identifiable adult reasons for not wearing the band, but somehow, even then, I knew it was wrong. It was false. It was somehow lying.
What no one that cheats ever seems to understand is that you don’t just cheat on your spouse. Not wearing that wedding band was saying to the world—“I am connected to no one”. It was a betrayal of my mother, but also our family as a whole. As I grew up, I quickly learned the bigger reason he didn’t wear his ring, even though no one ever explained it to me- and my mother certainly never shared anything. If I believed her and her level of denial, my father was the best husband and father in the world. And I knew differently. On both counts.
So, as my father finished telling his story, I got lost across the table, and my husband took my hand and looked at me. I snapped back to reality and we finished our dinner with no outbursts or uneasiness. It was a perfectly normal dinner…from the outside.
My mother called on Christmas Day to wish us a good holiday and I asked her about the ring. She joyfully explained that she had bought it for him as a gift for their 50th anniversary. She had been so excited by the tiny engraving on it, the style of the band, and the sale price she had found. She ignored my initial question of why he was suddenly wearing a wedding band now.
And I am happy for her, that 49 years into her marriage, her husband, who has caused her a great deal of pain, is finally, in some way, honoring their union. I know that in their own way they have settled into getting older and realizing that they have reached the time of their lives where no one is leaving anyone and they are what they are.
But I hate that he has chosen only now to wear his wedding band. It took really having no other options for him to place a band of gold on his finger and say—this is my wife—this is my family.
And for me, it will always be 49 years too late.