by Sally Schwartz
We had planned with care the balance of activities, from museums to manicures. The night we were caught unaware, we had just finished a dinner of oysters and coleslaw, a silly combination, considering it was January, but one that captured the spirit of our mother-daughter weekend. Walking back to her apartment was slow-going. The sidewalks around Fenway were piled with snow. Even as we talked a mile a minute, we stepped slowly, careful to avoid the treachery of black ice.
“But how did you know that Dad was the one?” my twenty-six-year-old asked. She was in the throes of dating and needed to hear from her mother some golden nugget of insight that would clarify the mystery of knowing when the guy she was dating would turn into the guy she should be marrying.
The silence that followed her question underscored the fragility of our psyches. Sometime during the evening, we had slipped into the familiar world of our recent past, the world where her father and I were still married.
A single lamp illuminated the pavement in front of us, leading us toward the intersection. Before we could cross, the signal turned red. We let the thrum of traffic fill the pause in our conversation.
Mine had not been a marriage of screaming, but of crushing quiet. There had been no culprit to mark the end, just my loneliness and his silence.
Pausing on the sidewalk, I wanted to tell my daughter when her father and I met, I had known to my core that he was ‘the one.’ I remember kissing him and thinking, “He’s who I think about when my eyes are closed, and he’s who I want to see when my eyes are open.” The more time we spent together, the more I wanted to keep being together. I don’t know how we knew we were right for each other except to say that we knew.
Our wedding photos show both of us beaming, arms around one another.
The first time my husband quit his job we’d been married less than a year.
“Why didn’t we talk about this?” I asked.
I didn’t put up a fight. I didn’t fly into a rage. I didn’t do anything but stare for a moment, blinking at the abrupt change in the trajectory of my life. I tapped into the strength I had brought to my marriage, using it to push down the panic rising within me. It took strength to pretend everything was fine, strength I wish I’d used differently. I did not give voice to my objections, or my disappointments, or my fear. It took every bit of my strength to help me survive the lack of control I felt washing over me.
We never talked about it. Instead, unhappiness moved into our house, filling the spaces between the furniture and the books, forever present in every room. We didn’t discuss it, the way I imagine other couples might. We just felt it, and worse, we got used to it.
How could I explain to my daughter that by the time I asked for a divorce, her father wasn’t even close to the man I had fallen in love with, and I was no longer the young bride, stunned into an unfamiliar silence. We had two daughters together, and we loved them and parented them with all the fervor we no longer felt for one another. As each of her father’s ventures floundered, he retreated further into himself. I was guilty, too. I kept removing myself emotionally, inch by inch, from the life I was living, from the person I was sharing that life with. The quiet man I had married turned into a silent man, a remote partner even when he was standing next to me. The man who had loved my family turned into a husband who declined Sunday dinners, who left events early. I found myself married, but alone, time and time and time again.
As years passed, I bore witness to my husband’s unrealized professional dreams. To his stubborn refusal to acknowledge start-ups that never took flight. What he needed, I withheld: faith in his serial entrepreneurism. What I needed, he couldn’t provide: security, and a partner whose ambitions I respected. Ours became a marriage at an impasse; we both disappointed each other. The toxicity of our union festered beneath the surface hum of our lives.
In the last photo we took, we’re not touching. A single picture brought twenty-three years of marriage into focus. Seeing the distance between us, I knew again. This time, a sadder truth.
All of this ran through my mind as my daughter and I stood at the crosswalk. All that had happened was a daughter had asked her mom for advice, something so normal it felt like breathing. And yet here we were, frozen for a moment. Both of us realized that even though I was the mom, I had forfeited my authority to answer the question when her father and I got divorced. It ached, realizing that my twenty-something daughter couldn’t look up to me as a reliable source for revealing the secrets of what leads to happily ever after. As frigid as it was on the icy sidewalk in Boston, the cold fact still caught me unaware. If there were secrets to what led to a happy marriage, I surely didn’t know them.
The light turned green. As we crossed, what I said was this. “When I married your father, he was the right one.”
In such a quiet voice, my daughter looked at me and said, “Thank you for that, Mom. I believe you.” She took hold of my hand, and together we kept walking.
Image by Art by Steve J.