A Question of Trust: A Story That Leads Back Home

The old guy was an easy mark. He’d had a stroke a few years before, made a good recovery with no evident physical effects, but certainly wasn’t the bright young man of his youth. And he wasn’t just any old guy. He was my dad.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, an appellation that referred to his reliability and work ethic, was 83, but still active. Early every morning he took a walk of perhaps a mile in the area near the condo he shared with my mother, who was seven years his junior.

It was the very steamy summer of 1995, the hottest in Chicago’s history, topping out at 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). On the day in question the temperature was already in the 90s, although not yet 7 AM. A relatively young couple with a small boy approached him.

“Our car broke down, sir. Do you have any water — water to drink?” It was a Sunday and stores would not open for three hours or so.

Milt Stein was a gentle and decent man. Perhaps he noted that the family wasn’t especially well-dressed — that their clothing was damp with perspiration. Approximately 750 deaths by heat and dehydration had been reported in the news recently. The condo was only a couple of blocks away. He led the family there.

My mom was shocked when dad unlocked the door and the family entered. Much less trusting than my father, Jeanette Stein never would have permitted this if she had been given a choice. Beauty, charm, and a quick wit were my mother’s strong suits. Faith in humanity wasn’t high on the list. She often said that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mom knew this wasn’t exactly politically correct and wondered what others might think of her lack of trust. She sometimes made a joke of it by saying (always with a twinkle in her eye), “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

No time for such comments now. Strangers were inside her home. As she viewed it, the “aliens” had breached the gate. But what could she do? Dad was already on the way to the kitchen to get some glasses and fill them full of water. Meanwhile, the man and woman began to talk excitedly to my mother.

The boy disappeared.

It all happened quickly. Within just a few minutes everyone had been hydrated and the trio departed. But when my parents went into their bedroom, they noticed that a closet door was open and a cardboard box on a shelf there was ajar. The box was empty of the $10,000 in jewelry it had contained only a few minutes before. The little boy had done his crafty worst. He had taken the treasure.

The police were engaged quickly. A report was filed and the officer told my parents that there had been similar episodes in their neighborhood recently. None of this made my dad feel any better. He felt the fool and, unfortunately, my mother’s criticism of his trusting nature didn’t encourage a quick emotional rebound from the event.

Surprisingly, the police actually were able to recover more than half of the jewelry within a few weeks. But Mrs. Stein’s approval wasn’t so quickly retrieved by Mr. Stein. Mother would tell people the story and father would have to admit that, yes indeed, his kindness had not been repaid in kind.

So what we have here is a difference of temperament or personality on questions of trust and compassion — two models of how to live. You probably have a few family stories yourself, the kind that illustrate similar things, get repeated, and eventually become amusing, even if they didn’t begin that way.

As time passed, my always-clever mother found a humorous way to tell this tale. First she would explain the details of the “con.” Next mom would comment about my father’s naivety and mention the recovery of some of the jewelry almost as an afterthought. But you just knew she couldn’t end it there and the twinkle in her eye gave away that she was getting ready for the knock-out punch. Mrs. Stein pointed her index finger at the man to whom she had been married for nearly 45 years, took a deep breath, wound up and delivered:

“People keep telling me that I should change the locks on the condo. But the problem is, he’s got a key!”

The image above is my mother as a young woman. This is a revised version of a story I wrote some time ago.

The Ultimate Love Test: A Story That is Too Gross For Comfort

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This story is about true love and nausea. Not a typical combination. And no, I’m not talking about butterflies in your stomach when you fall in love “at first sight.” My topic is something else entirely. More like, what would you do for love?

If you believe in love and enjoy love stories, you should read on. But, if any discussion of queasiness leading to vomit makes you sick, then you probably should go back to reading War and Peace, which I’m sure you were doing just before you landed on my web log.

I suppose I might call this post, “How my wife and I survived England and Denmark,” or at least a couple of bad meals we had there many years ago. But I don’t want to cause an international incident here, and I happen to like the Brits and the Danes, so I’ll stick with the fact that the story leads back to what people are willing to do for each other when they are happily married. Be patient.

The tale starts in Denmark; Copenhagen to be exact. We’d just had a lunch of smorgasbord at a recommended restaurant. Smorgasbord is a buffet of hot and cold dishes, cooked vegetables and salad, pickled fish, and things like that. The sumptuous repast was at a culinary establishment on the famous Copenhagen pedestrian shopping street known as Strøget: tons of stores and restaurants, lots of fun, and no vehicular traffic. We finished the meal feeling great and started to walk, perhaps for three or four blocks. Then it hit me without warning. But unlike what happened to me, I will give you a flashing yellow alert: there is still time to bail out on the story. I won’t hold it against you.

My stomach is actually pretty strong. I probably haven’t vomited in decades. Maybe even back to the day in question. But there was no anticipatory alarm here like the “two-minute warning” in American style football before the end of the game, no signal that something bad was going to happen with enough lead time to easily remedy the situation. I could feel only the kind of rumbling that occurs in horror movies just before the monster leaps out of the swamp.

A quick decision was required. While I might have tried to go into the nearest shop, I’d then have to explain my situation and attempt to persuade someone to let me use the W/C (water closet) or as those of us in the USA call it, the washroom. There was the possibility that language would be a problem, since I didn’t speak Danish. By then the stopper would have popped out of the volcano. So I did the only thing that made sense. I ran as fast as I could back down the Strøget to the restaurant we’d just visited, and to the W/C whose location I knew precisely.

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You’ve probably read stories about people who have done incredible things to save the life of a child. Little old ladies who find the strength to lift cars — that sort of thing. Under pressure it is sometimes remarkable what a human being can do. Put another way, the stage was now set in the middle of Copenhagen for a triumph of the human spirit!

Back in the day I was a reasonably fast runner, not for distance, but for speed on a short track. But this was not just any day, this was probably the greatest day of my modest athletic career. I ran with some combination of frenzy and desperation, leaping over small (very small) children, dodging couples holding hands, maneuvering around the slow-walkers. I think I created some sort of vacuum, with paper and tiny objects being swept into my wake as if they were following me down the street, just hoping to catch up, or attached to me by invisible strings. Passers-by noticed me and some were sufficiently astonished by my pace that they stopped to applaud. Even to this day I am certain that I set a record in the 800 meter run. Unfortunately no judge was there to testify to my achievement, stop-watch in hand.

I did make it to the W/C in time. Thank God no one occupied it. I felt spent afterward, as if the life had been sucked out of me. How I dragged myself off my knees I don’t remember. But I do recall that my wife had caught up to me by now, sitting down beside me on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant and putting her right arm around my shoulder. And, in the way only a woman can do, made it all better, leaning into me, stroking my hair, even though I was probably not at my most fragrant. We just sat there for a bit, as she tenderly ministered to me until I had a little strength again. Really something. Something, to my great good fortune, that I’ve been the beneficiary of, in my wife’s loving hands, too many times to count.

But relationships demand reciprocity and it isn’t always enough just to say thank you and buy your beloved some candy. The chance came sooner than you might think, days later on our European vacation. London was the location, at a time when British culinary art wasn’t thought to be very artistic. A restaurant again. Another vomit story.

Once more, the guide-book promised a lunch that would be both enjoyable and reasonably priced. It was steak and kidney pie for Aleta, an old English specialty, followed by some sort of pudding for desert. I had something different. We enjoyed the afternoon touring the Tower of London, then back to our room. Apparently, the pie-pudding combination had taken on the shape of a giant basketball being heaved down the elevator shaft of my wife’s digestive system. It was some time before dinner that it bounced off the bottom and rushed back up. Aleta assumed a fetal position on the bed, complaining of a stomach ache. And then, in a split-second, she dashed from the bed to the sink that was in the middle of our cheap, W/C free compartment; lowered her head and filled the basin with the half-digested meal. The love-of-my-life turned back slowly and staggered the couple of steps to the bed, plopping down into a heap; feeling better, it’s true, but certainly not her best; relieved by the release of the toxic stew that had been inside of her.

There was only one problem. A kind of big problem. The steak and kidney pie, the pudding, or whatever these things had become, were resting comfortably in the basin, just waiting there. Smelling awful, they had taken on a yellow color that was not their original hue. The drain was too small for the curds to pass. Clearly, I’d failed to read the fine print in the hotel’s brochure: “Cesspool available at no extra charge.” Something needed to be done.

I suppose that I could have tried to summon the management of the place we were staying in, but that would have meant waiting and watching while they fashioned an on-the-spot remedy. Aleta was in no state to be disturbed. Besides, the staff wouldn’t have offered any different solution than the one that occurred to me, unless they had some sort of scooping utensil to ladle the foul-smelling goop into a bucket. That sight might have made my wife feel worse. No, there was really only one thing to do.

No gloves were handy, so I simply reached into the basin with both hands, past my wrists, up to my forearms, and started to crush the vomit curds. The drain was tiny, so some serious massaging was required. In time the job was done. I rinsed the wash bowl, soaped my hands, and sat down. We didn’t go out that night. Aleta felt much better in the morning and life went on.


Pretty romantic stuff, right? Yet couples are bonded by just such experiences. They are remembered, usually with a laugh, and take the shape of markers along the journey that partners make on life’s uneven road. A life together is a bit like walking down a book-bounded corridor in a library, where each volume contains the description of only a single moment in your time together. In a funny way, these incidents become more than incidental, enriching your marriage and telling you what you mean to each other; transforming you, if you are lucky, into who you want to be and informing you, once again, who you want to be with.

By coincidence, Mother’s Day is this weekend, and my wife is a mother to our two wonderful children. Mother’s Day focuses on relationships, not only of the parent-child kind. There will be lots of children (and husbands) bringing mums to their mums and wives, lots of greeting cards sent, lots of hugs and kisses. Our kids will shower Aleta with affection on the day itself and she deserves every bit of it.

But, my dearest, as you revel in your children’s attention, I’d like you to ask yourself one question: has anyone else ever been willing to crush vomit for you?

Sweetie Pie, I just wanted to say, perhaps in a kind of yucky way, that I love you.

As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Literally.

This blog was inspired by blogger Daniel Wall, in particular his amusing story This is Really Gross: You Probably Shouldn’t Read It! I have borrowed one stylistic feature of that essay, not to mention a crucial aspect of the topic. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Daniel. I hope that you approve!

The first photo is The Red Arrows Cupid Formation at the Bournemouth Air Show 2009 by D. Everett. The Runner by Jason Goodger follows it. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final photo is my wife Aleta, taken by a secret admirer (really) when she was in college. It simply showed up in her mail box one day, with no explanation. Lucky for me, the admirer didn’t make himself known.

Love Letters: Da Capo*

It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.

A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.

Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.

Such was the case during World War II for my parents.

Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time —  “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.

My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.

I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:

My Adorable Sweetie Pie,

This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…

It ends:

Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.

My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:

You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:

I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.

My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:

Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.

Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…

All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.

Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.

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On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:

This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.

Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:

We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:

Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.

On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.

In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.

Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:

My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.

My father would have been 100 years old this week.

*This was originally posted last year. I have repeated it (hence the Italian phrase “da capo” or “from the top”) in honor of the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. Until I posted it, I didn’t realize that it also honors his service in World War II in a week that includes Veteran’s Day.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

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It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Love Letters

It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.

A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.

Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.

Such was the case during World War II for my parents.

Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time —  “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.

My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.

I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:

My Adorable Sweetie Pie,

This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…

It ends:

Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.

My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:

You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:

I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.

My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:

Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.

Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…

All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.

Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.

File:Cheret-Folies-Berger.jpg

On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:

This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.

Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:

We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:

Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.

On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.

In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.

Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:

My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.

My father would have been 99 years old today.

I’ve reposted this blog from 2010 in honor of my dad’s 100th birthday anniversary.