Requiem for a Marriage

“To James, In Requiem,” the wedding present ditty reads.

I open a yellowed envelope and find it tucked in a “Wedding Congratulations” card dated April 10, 1948, signed by twenty-seven people. My father’s coworkers at his engineering firm perhaps? None of the names seem familiar. A lavender orchid decorates the front of the card, with this verse inside:

+++++++Today’s congratulations

+++++++Carry with them, too,

+++++++The very best of wishes,

+++++++For years of joy for you!

It’s something my mother wants me to have, apparently, one of the few cards included in a haphazard stack of old photos she pressed on me the last time I visited her in North Carolina. A confused jumble, some in envelopes that are blank or mislabeled.

Alone in her apartment she pores over old boxes of memorabilia, reshuffling and sorting them according to some system only she can understand. A day later she’ll tell me that they’ve been moved, though the housekeeper wasn’t there, or that a box is empty that was full before. Sometimes she reads old cards to me on the phone, touched by the preprinted sentiments on Hallmark birthday cards and valentines my father sent her long ago. Probably she will tell me this wedding card was stolen, a few months from now.

She is often confused. She calls the management of her Independent Living complex to report that two brown jackets have been stolen. That a black blouse that isn’t hers has mysteriously appeared in her closet, and what should she do with it? That her nursing pin, which she’s forgotten that she gave me for safekeeping last year, is missing from her jewelry box. That someone has substituted a different pair of binoculars for her husband’s. “I’ve never seen these before,” she tells me. “I can’t find your father’s binoculars anywhere.”

My father died five years ago, making the title of the sixty-year-old mock “Requiem” somewhat startling. The rollicking rhymes are typewritten on a sheet of white business paper, folded in half and then in half again to fit inside the wedding card. They were probably composed by some wag at the office and read aloud at the wedding reception. Or maybe my parents chuckled over them in private when they opened their gifts after the honeymoon. It’s nineteen-forties humor—the carefree male has relinquished his freedom and suffered a kind of death by capitulating to the demands of marriage:

+++++++That Jim, to whom all the maidens looked,

+++++++For rescue from the shelf

+++++++Should go and get himself be-hooked

+++++++Is a sad commentary on himself.

*     *     *

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation. My mother Peggy was still a teenager, a lively, pretty, and somewhat giddy young nurse. Nine years her senior, Jim was a staid engineer, bookish and antisocial. She always said he was handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Tyrone Power. She thought it was glamorous to be dating an older man. Shortly after they started seeing each other, he left on an extended voyage to India and the Middle East to earn his engineering license as a machinist. That was exotic too, getting postcards from Calcutta and Port Said. “Missing you!”

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation.

When they finally married, he was thirty, she was twenty-one. Their age difference isn’t apparent in their formal wedding portrait. She is regal in a flowing satin dress with seed pearls stitched around a scalloped neckline. Serious and proud, he stands erect beside her in full tails and pinstriped trousers. My mother was 5’9”, my father not much taller. I don’t know if she was wearing flats, but I know that she did when they were dating. She looks very beautiful, her brown hair in waves, her expression serene. He is indeed very handsome, his hair jet black, his face pale. There is a solemn purity in their expressions as they look forward to their unknown future together.

*     *     *

She gave up her nursing job when she became pregnant. By the standards of the day, she’d made it. “All of the other nurses were jealous,” she told me. She was married to a prosperous professional; they’d decorated their Jersey City apartment in daring modern style, with freeform orange glass ashtrays, a tailored studio bed with abstract figured upholstery in browns and yellows, and Dufy and Picasso reproductions on the walls. She was surrounded by wedding presents, and Jim was always buying her modern copper jewelry.

There wasn’t a lot to do, though. She wasn’t keen on housekeeping. She liked a good gossip but all her friends were busy at the hospital. When their baby girl was born she had her hands full. “I’ve got my hands full,” she told the grocer. “Our new baby is a handful,” she told the dry cleaner. Motherhood wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. The baby shrieked all day long, and while she knew it was just colic, there were days she thought it would drive her mad.

+++++++However, inasmuch as he

+++++++Has dashed their hopes thus down the drain,

+++++++The only compensation we

+++++++Can offer for the ball and chain

+++++++Is this carving set…

It was hard to say who was more bound by the ball and chain. Jim was still free to work and move around in the world, while she was confined to the house and a squalling infant. Jim took over child care in the evenings, walking the baby back and forth, back and forth in their tiny living room, but life just wasn’t all that much fun any more.

He seemed bent on changing everything about her that had attracted him to begin with, criticizing her loquacious high spirits, suggesting that she read more, learn more about modern art and music. He recommended a more severe hairstyle, with her hair pulled away from her face. They were saving to buy a house, and went out less. He’d never liked to dance the way she had anyway. It was her idea to start a penny budget, recording each day’s expenses on a notepad, and then transferring them to leather binders for financial projections. It was something to do. Her mother had warned her that maintaining household finances was going to be difficult. “You’re not going to be able to spend all your salary on clothes anymore.” Managing their money made her feel grownup.

+++++++Is this carving set, ostensibly

+++++++For cutting meat—but could

+++++++Be used, to set him free

+++++++If things by any chance should?

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

*     *     * 

Soon enough they moved to the suburbs, another child on the way, and she became a suburban housewife and mother in the PTA. For a while she enjoyed the domestic flurry, trading recipes, cooking pot roasts and meat loafs, and tuna casseroles. Bent over a Singer sewing machine in the upstairs master bedroom, she produced two seersucker nightgowns for her daughter, and a red felt skating skirt, complete with appliques of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. She and three of the other first grade mothers did a high-spirited can-can at the PTA talent show that they rehearsed for many weeks before the event. They were giddy with laughter.

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

But the other mothers were busy with their own children and households, and she was often lonely during the day, spending afternoons watching soap operas on TV, waiting for Jim to come home from work in the city. “General Hospital” was her favorite. She left the TV on all day—“for company,” she said.

Evenings, after his long commute, Jim was increasingly impatient with her need for conversation, preferring to settle in with a scotch and the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m reading, Peggy. Can’t you see I’m reading?”

She drank a martini, and then a second, and couldn’t seem to refrain from interrupting him. “Jim? Oh, never mind.”

She worked on a book of crossword puzzles, started up again. “Joan called today. You won’t believe what Harriet is spending on their new living room set.”

“Peg, I’ve been working all day. Can’t I have a little peace?”

+++++++The cocktail set, will also help

+++++++When with potent spirit filled,

+++++++To recapture that carefree self

+++++++Now relinquished and willed.

She never felt like cooking or cleaning any more. She’d discovered that exertion gave her hives. Complaining of allergies, chronic colds, and fatigue, she began to spend her days in bed. The drapes were always drawn while she napped and watched the soaps. Her children tiptoed into the house after school, their voices hushed. When Jim got home from work, she pulled a housedress on over her nightgown and settled downstairs on the living room couch with a martini and cigarette to complain about her day.

“I just don’t have any pep today. I don’t understand it. Of course I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment for Thursday. We’re going to try a specialist. I think I’m allergic to something, and Dr. Williams does too.”

He never questioned her multiplying ailments, but they fought about her talking, they fought about who was going to make dinner.

“You know I get hives from the hot stove,” she said.

More often than not, he threw down the newspaper in disgust and strode into the kitchen to improvise a meal.

Sometimes he didn’t, and she announced, “It’s do-it-yourself night, kids!”

Tensions escalated when the children became teenagers. Their son rebelled against his father’s authoritarian control by flunking his classes. Their daughter mouthed off about her mother’s hypochondria, her father’s politics, American imperialism, and life in suburbia.

Jim retreated in angry disappointment from all of them.

For a while after the children left for college, Peggy emerged from the bedroom and developed her own social life, playing bridge in the evenings, earning a Life Master certificate in duplicate bridge tournaments. Jim declined to play bridge, or to engage in any activities she excelled at. They continued to bicker, and soon her lethargy and chronic illnesses returned. Both children moved thousands of miles away when they married. They rarely came home, and their parents never traveled to see them.

*     *     *

The first time my husband visited my parents, he was astonished. “It’s like a war zone.” My father had taken over the food shopping and cooking completely after his retirement and became enraged when my mother peeked into the kitchen. “It’s under control, Peg,” he said, banging pots and slamming cabinet doors. At the dinner table, he was angry when she interrupted him. She fumed when he rebuked her. They fought about what to have for dessert. About the correct way to load the dishwasher. About our plans for the next day. There were no victors in their skirmishes, the product of decades of simmering tension and sniping.

It was hard to explain to my husband why they stayed with each other. It was nothing like his large extended family, where squabbles were short-lived and everyone was always gossiping and giving advice. Maybe there is no explanation.

The times. Their Catholic upbringings. My father’s strong sense of duty. The energy my mother had invested in her self-diagnoses and self-delusions. Inertia. Familiarity. Fear of being alone. Habit.

*     *     *

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost. The missing objects they shared have taken on exaggerated sentimental value. The carving set. The martini shaker and glasses. “We had cocktails every night,” she says, proud of their sophistication, forgetting the discord. The silver pitcher that she wrapped tightly in cellophane after their wedding and never used. The pewter chandelier that hung over the dining table in their house in New Jersey. “It was just lovely. Remember that chandelier? I was surprised neither of you kids wanted to take it when we moved.” The ceramic ducks they bought on their trip to Spain. “You haven’t seen the ducks, have you?” she asks every time we visit, though her rooms are overflowing with boxes of knickknacks that have never been unpacked.

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost.

She sorts through mementoes and scrapbooks of their life together, lost in nostalgia for the fictional marriage she has created. Eyes narrowed in concentration, she shuffles stacks of old greeting cards that she pulls out of their envelopes and strains to read with her bifocals. She mouths the verses out loud, setting her favorite cards aside so she can repeat the ritual again a week later.

“The man was a saint, a real saint,” she likes to say, shaking her head in rueful regret at his passing. Her requiem for James.

*     *     *

I write scenes of my parents’ life together, holding snippets up to the light, selecting, rewriting, rearranging. I choose some to keep, others to toss back into my box of jumbled memories to look at later. Do I see through a glass darkly when I reveal the unhappiness of their union? Was there something I didn’t hear, under the prolonged cacophony of their disputes? A requiem is an act of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead, yet remembrance doesn’t always bring repose, for the dead or the living. I search for insight as I create my own fictions of the past, I look for resolution, but sometimes I think I’m no closer to understanding what kept my parents together, or why our family fell apart.

“Peg, could you please just be quiet? Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”

“I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. She has published creative nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana ReviewNinth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review, and fiction in Lunch Ticket, Confrontation, Tampa Review online, and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle