This episode is told from Maggie’s point of view.
My mother, rest her soul, copiously littered her speech with quotations. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she didn’t have many original thoughts of her own, or because she wanted people to think she was well-versed in the classics when in fact she gleaned her sayings from back copies of Reader’s Digest in doctors’ waiting rooms. She would trot out her bon mots at regular intervals, often at inappropriate moments which may or may not have been purposely selected. She once went to dinner at the home of my newly married brother and his wife and, just before leaving, decided to quote Boswell’s Life of Johnson at them: “A dinner lubricates business.” My sister-in-law, still suffering from PTSD after a high school education by unsated nuns, was unable to look at her again without turning an artistic shade of magenta.
In my present circumstances (I read a lot of books, as my access to the internet is severely limited) my own collection of homilies steadily grows, although I don’t — daren’t — voice them aloud. From Katharine Hepburn, for example: Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then. Or from Mae West: Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.
The one that keeps coming back to me, though, originates neither from Reader’s Digest nor from Hollywood.
Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Mother never quoted this one. Not even she was that hypocritical. She liked nothing better than to discuss, in detail and at length over a nice pot of tea, the failings of others. Of course, we are all guilty of doing this from time to time, with or without the aid of tea, but most of us keep our inner judgments to ourselves. I certainly have tried to, with increasing success over the years as maturity has delivered its wisdom.
Recently, though, I’ve wondered if even unvoiced condemnation is enough to invoke karmic retribution.
I’ve known my young friend Libby for several years now and am aware that I have become a substitute mother for her, just as she has become a replacement for my own daughter. I have tried to be a better mother to her than I was to Sara — see above, re: maturity delivering wisdom — and part of that process means stepping back and letting your child make her own mistakes. You don’t say, after everything ends in tears, “I told you so.” You don’t even voice an opinion.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion.
Libby puts up with a lot. She was whisked away from her home and family at a moment’s notice, and has very little backup from Oliver, who pays more attention to his mother’s feeling than to his wife’s. Her mother, Jane, is too busy pandering to her own monstrous husband to give Libby any sound advice about how to deal with Oliver.
I say nothing, other than to offer assistance when I can.
Despite my external silence, I’m ashamed to admit that my inner voice — the internal eighth-grader we all have, the one that interrupts our higher intentions if we let our guard down — was, all the while, chirruping smugly.
You would never be a doormat to your husband and kids like Libby is.
You walked out on your husband rather than tolerate a second-rate existence.
And so on.
Of course, I smothered the voice, but nonetheless congratulated myself that I’d reached independence on my own terms, with no husband like Oliver telling me how to live my life. Been there, done that, left the party. A free woman of the world, an early example of the women’s liberation movement: that’s what I was.
I was still smugly congratulating myself when I went to Sara’s wedding in the Seychelles and met my ex-husband for the first time in nearly four decades.
I’d been apprehensive about the meeting — we had parted on catastrophic terms, after all — and expressed my concern to Sara, who said, “Mom, it’s entirely up to you, of course, You must do what feels right. But I’d love both my parents to be at my wedding now that it’s finally happening. Besides, it’s god knows how many years since you last saw Dad, and he’s been married and widowed and become a father and grandfather since then. He’s hardly going to sue for custody of me now. Just how much of a problem do you think he will be, in a public place, for 48 hours?”
She was correct, of course. (She was particularly correct when she said that I must do what feels right, but unfortunately I ignored that part.) Time appeared to have mellowed Derek. He walked our daughter down the aisle and quietly blew his nose as he sat down next to me. The proud parents of the bride, behaving decorously, as if their last meeting had been over coffee in a Starbucks instead of over…well, something more sinister than an iced latte.
At the reception, while the champagne flutes were refilled time and again by discreet, hovering waiters, the copious alcohol and minimalist hors d’oeuvres unleashed waves of nostalgia. Tsunamis of the stuff. Derek reminisced about his thirty years of blissful marriage to Cassie — my successor, his recently departed wife — whom he missed so much. He had tears in his eyes when he spoke about her, and I, poor fool, had tears in my eyes too. He talked about their two sons, Declan and Dermot, and how proud he was of them, and I wondered, for the first time, if things might have been different if I’d stayed with him in 1976. If maybe I’d been too hasty in my damning verdict of our marriage and even hastier in its execution.
No, I told myself. It was the right thing to do at the time. We were both too young.
But…we were older now.
When five bottles of Brut had been emptied by our table of six (which included two teetotalers) Derek was done reminiscing about his time with Cassie. As the sixth cork popped, he began to reminisce instead about his time with me, and how proud he was of his beautiful, successful, only daughter, and how he wished he’d been a better father to her. And a better husband to me. He couldn’t blame me one bit for leaving him as I did. He would have left him, if he’d been married to himself. He wanted to make it up to me. To show me the better man that he’d become.
I gazed at my ex-husband, hypnotised, wondering what would have become of our lives if I’d given him another chance. Just one more.
“Maggie, I’m truly a better man than the one you had the misfortune to meet when you were twenty.”
And like an idiot, I lapped it all up.
I should have remembered that he was a smooth-talking, lying bastard when he wanted something. I should have remembered the shouts, the threats, the hurled pieces of wedding gift china. I should have remembered that there are two sides to every story and maybe Cassie’s version of their thirty-year partnership would have been quite different from his, and that death could been a blissful, or even unchosen, release for her.
In short, I should have taken a taxi there and then back to the airport and the comparative sanity of Woodhaven. But instead I sat by him, bewitched by the romance of the evening as our daughter and her new husband danced under the palm trees and the full moon, and I let that scumbag reel me in, just as he did in 1967.
I let him reel me in, all the way to the Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas, some months later.
* * *
Another quotation I read recently. Charlotte Bronte: The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.
When I was single, I was alone, but never lonely.
Now I’m half of a couple again, and destined to spend my remaining years with another soul.
I’ve never been so lonely in my life.