In the old days when I was in college, marriage and the family along with basket weaving, was a course to take if you wanted an automatic A without doing any work. But you did have to show up for class. My first husband (who is still alive) managed to fail marriage and the family when he was in college.
I don’t know why it was such a gut course, because nothing, in my experience , is more complex in real life than marriage and family. Jerry is my 4th husband. We have been married for 5 years. He had 2 previous marriages and fathered a son in each. My three previous marriages lasted 10, 10 and 20 years. In my first marriage a son and 2 daughters were born. My second husband came to me with a little girl of 3 whom I raised and adopted, and I had a baby boy with him when I was 40, just before we parted. My third husband, who happened to be the brother of my first husband, brought me 4 stepsons, who were first cousins of my three older children. My frist husband married again and had another son and daughter. They are the half-brother and half-sister of my first three children. My second husband, Willis, had a daughter with his third wife (the one after me) and another daughter with his 4th wife. Nancy, the wife after me, said his rule was: “one child per wife.” These girls are half sisters to my adopted daughter and my youngest son.
My own parents were divorced when I was 8 years old. Both remarried and my mother had another daughter, my half-sister, and my father had 3 sons, my half-brothers. My mother’s husband had 2 sons by his first wife, my step-brothers. I did not meet them until I was an adult because their mother was bitter over the divorce and would never let them visit my step-father and mother. For most of my childhood and adolescence I lived in the houshold of my father’s sister and her husband. This was because my parents were sometimes separated and after they remarried my relationships with my step-father and step-mother were difficult. My aunt and uncle had 4 daughters, all younger than I, cousins who seemed like little sisters to me. From time to time my grandmother, my father’s mother, lived in my aunt and uncle’s house, my uncle’s parents spent summers there, my uncle’s sister lived there and occasionally my father’s brother lived there.
Who could pass a test on this sort of thing?
The above is just a skeleton of complexity. With most of these people I had a relationship, each specific to the individual. With some of them only a connection through my children. I have never met the second wife of my first husband, though I have spoken to her on the phone, nor do I know the children he had with her, though they are my children’s siblings. I did not meet the wife and 2 children of my younger step-brother until we were together at my mother’s funeral. Then we became good friends.
In November when I went to Florida for my granddaughter’s wedding, my Lawyer Daughter and I stopped for a couple of days to visit with her father’s third wife, Nancy. I had known Nancy slightly before Willis and I were divorced but didn’t get to know her well until Willis’ funeral. She organized it, as it was boycotted by his fourth and final wife, an extremely unpleasant Russian woman. I had only met the Russian woman once when delivering my son to his father for a visit. She was very young then, younger than Lawyer Daughter, Willis’s oldest child. Though I heard later through the grape-vine that she often declared herself to be irresistible to men, I thought she was unattractive. She was short and thin, with stringy hair. Apparently she belonged to the school of fashion that believes in all things natural so there was no removal of any of her copious leg or armpit hair. Eventually she persuaded Willis to end all contact with many of his former friends and all his children by his first 3 wives. For this I was permanently angry with him and I shed no tear when he died.
Nancy is a lovely and remarkable woman. Her heritage is Cuban. She lives in the Spanish influenced old part of Tampa in the house she grew up in. It is full of things of her mother’s, and her own accumulation of interesting and odd possessions. There is a lot of art work, some by artist friends of hers and Willis’s. She deals with all the finances of the English Department at the University of South Florida where Willis taught philosophy and where I finished my Ph.D. She has tried to retire more than once, but they need her. She is full of life and energy and has a house full of cats. Her yard is even fuller of cats. Her neighbor who was in the habit of feeding about 25 or 30 feral cats died, and the cats migrated to Nancy’s yard. She solved the problem by calling in the experts, who trapped the cats, neutered them, found homes for those that were tame enough and then brought about 14 of the wilder ones back to live in their old neighborhood. Nancy feeds them daily, and gradually their numbers are diminishing.
Nancy’s daughter Carmen joined us. Carmen is a charming young woman, about 15 years younger than Lawyer Daughter who is Carmen’s half sister. Nancy was, for a time, Lawyer Daughter’s step-mother. Over the two days we were together the four of us formed a sort of family, joined by common memories and by the binding element of the dead Willis. We told each other stories of the past. Nancy told me how Willis had taken Carmen, a child of about 9, to Russia with him on some academic project where he had met the unpleasant (but self-styled irresistible-to-men) Russian woman, who was then the wife of a Russian academic. When Nancy joined them about a month later the affair was in full flower; she took Carmen and fled to Greece, where there were old friends, a student of Willis whom both Nancy and I knew well. Willis and I had stayed with them when we were traveling in Europe on his sabbatical in 1973. With Willis and me then were Lawyer Daughter, British Daughter and Ben, baby son. At the time Lawyer Daughter was 11, British Daughter was 20. B. D. and I were wild to know what was going on with Nixon and Watergate. Papadopolous, the failing Greek dictator, kept banning the International Herald Tribune because it printed unflattering things about him. But Nancy’s experience many years later was of a different sort. She was reeling from the events in her personal life in Russia. Our Greek friends were very angry with Willis.
As we talked into the night I realized that Willis had seemed a different person to Nancy from the man I knew. I was four years older than Willis. I met him when I was a first year graduate student and he was just finishing his undergraduate degree. He was a hippie. He had a common law wife and a baby. We became friends, but to me he was just a kid, a college student, who introduced me to beatniks and gays. His undergraduate mentor was a professor, Herman Lynn Womack, who was later jailed for publishing pornography. Willis was funny and knew how to have a good time. During our marriage I saw him through his Ph.D. and helped him write his thesis. He and my father became good friends through a mutual interest in philosophy, but though my father was fond of Willis, he told me privately that Willis, in his opinion, was a second rate philosopher. Willis used to proclaim loudly that no woman was smarter than him; nevertheless we both knew that of the two of us I had the better mind.
Willis was about 15 years older than Nancy. When she met him he was the chairman of the philosophy department at the university where she worked in administration. He was a sort of campus celebrity. He had declared himself to be a Marxist, which gave him an aura of daring. I am not sure just how he got away with that, but he always said the right thing to deans. No matter how drunk he was at parties, he could always moderate his act if a dean appeared. He promoted himself successfully as a giant intellectual. Students adored him.
I found that while I remembered him with bitterness as a little man with a small mind who abused his wife and children, an alcoholic and a womanizer, Nancy thought of him as a sort of heroic figure, a man with faults but because he stood so much above other men in talent and achievement she could, at least to some degree, remember his “goodness” as somehow mitigating his flaws. She gave me a video disc of his memorial, which I attended because my children with him wanted me to. And she gave me a folder of testimonials read at the memorial. I thanked her, but wondered to myself why I would want those things. Perhaps the grandchildren he never bothered to know would like to have them.
What I will not forget is the way 4 women, Nancy and Carmen, myself and Lawyer Daughter, came together with good will and love to share common cares and memories and put the painful past into some kind of order.