“While one is yet only in love, the real person lies covered with the rose leaves of a thousand sleepy-eyed dreams, and through them come to the dreamer but the barest hints of the real person. A thousand fancies fly out, approach and cross, but never meet. The man and the woman are pleased, not with each other, but each with the fancied other. The merest common likings are taken for signs of a wonderful sympathy, of a radical unity. But though at a hundred points their souls seem to touch, their contact points are the merest brushings, as of insect antennae. The real man, the real woman, is all the time asleep under the rose leaves. Happy is the rare fate of the true . . . to wake and come forth and meet in the majesty of the truth, in the image of God, in their very being, in the power of that love which alone is being! They love, not this and that about each other, but each the very other. Where such love is, let the differences of taste, the unfitness of temperament, be what they may, the two must by and by be thoroughly one.” – George MacDonald
I think it was when he was about the age I am now that my father was propositioned by a woman at a writer’s conference. Just came to his door, and offered to stay, he said. They had talked, perhaps had known one another in other from writing circles, I don’t remember. He managed to turn her away, and so told his wife and even his grown daughter the tale. It made me feel strange. Yes, I knew those were years of tension and conflict between him and Mom, but I didn’t like to hear about other women being in the picture. But I think he wanted us to know that his faithfulness was a commitment, a choice not based on whether one feels one’s needs are being met in marriage. It was a kind of dying to self that he hoped would bear fruit. And I believe it has, and will. It gave me a sense of security in the possibilities of covenant love, and a perseverance in difficult times that would have had to create out of pure conviction (and regard for the children) if I didn’t have it by example.
My Dad would win admirers. He is good to talk to, thoughtful, intelligent, able to help a person figure out what they want to say, and create a space of mutual learning and discovery. Bearded, fit, distinguished in an approachable way, he is not a flirt as such, does not exude male virility, but is very attractive to women longing to be listened to, respected, understood. And perhaps being a family man made him feel even safer to talk to. So they would respond, and he had to learn to deal with that. As well as the attraction he felt to those who seemed easier to be with than my mother at the time, less familiar, more mysterious.
Mom told me after the fact that he was partly in love with an artist friend for several years. My father and I paid her and her husband a social call once, and I liked her too. She found out I enjoyed sewing, and gave me a book about how to make soft toys, one I used many times and still own. Was it her of whom my father spent weeks painting a portrait? I can’t remember. An exorcism, my mother said. During that stage he listened to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen a lot, maybe to explore some similar longings and the angst that accompanies that kind of poetic but desire-driven lifestyle.
Dad told me something he’s learned from seeing others go from relationship to relationship, that they always came to the same issues, the same relational dysfunctions in themselves, and would mistakenly try to solve them by starting fresh. This was part of my education about the nature of marriage, as one of the means God provides for us to get past get past ourselves and break through to something beautiful and until then mysterious.
What about my mother? I have tended to think of her as not having the opportunity to be tempted to be unfaithful, and it is true that the life of a homemaker did protect one from certain relational opportunities. She also lost her youthful figure in her childbearing years; after giving birth to and rearing seven children, she never really got it back. But I know no one is immune to unfaithfulness, at least in thought. There were signals–“crushes” she would confess to with a grin, a certain way she would speak of a fellow she admired, someone in my parents circle of friends or connections from our lives. She gave herself license to speak of these men even to us, who had no idea it had any real substance. And when some time in the late ’70s we finally got a television, she enjoyed the escape into the romances of the soaps, against her better judgment and the way she had helped bring us up. She longed for romance, closeness, attention, and love.
I watched my parents for signs that they loved each other, was always relieved when I saw signs of affection, reconciliation, companionship, mutual help. I could also see it was a lot of work figuring out how to love and accept another person so local, so specific, so imperfect, and to let go of the expectation that they meet all one’s needs. Even the sight of them doing dishes together would foster an inner sigh of relief for me. I saw one and then the other trying new ways to show love, and persist at it when the other would test it for sincerity, as people will. They were making their way to a new stage, a rebuilding of the fortress of love in stronger stuff. So they made it past the empty nest, I hope past the “Do you love me?” “I suppose I do” stage. But even that can be called an accomplishment these days.
I’m thinking of all this as I move into my upper 40’s. Thinking of it, hoping to make some use of the observations I’ve made, hoping my interpretations are good and will be useful as my husband and I press on, are tested and tried by difficulties and temptations, and purpose to grow less self-centered, more loving, more accepting, more mature. We’ve made breakthroughs throughout the years, and by God, we’ll make some more before we’re done.