I married a male version of my mother. If you believe Murray Bowen, the father of family therapy, we choose partners to help us work through unresolved conflict with our parents. Weird. But, then again, maybe he was onto something. Here’s a snapshot of my husband, Allan:
“You wanna drive to Baltimore today?” he asks me. We’re waking up on a Saturday morning with no plans.
“For a ballgame. The Orioles have a great park.”
“Isn’t that kind of a long drive?”
“Not really. Maybe nine hours. But I’m sure I can make it in eight and a half.”
I know my next response is crucial. I’m silent. What I really want to say is, Are you out of your mind? I’m supposed to hop in the car and drive from Ohio to Maryland for a ballgame? Why can’t we plan a trip in advance like normal people?
Allan is a living MasterCard commercial. He used to become so entranced by their TV ads of couples spontaneously whisking off to exotic locations that he mouths the tagline, “Priceless.” It’s the quality that first attracted me to him. Now, it’s the thing we argue about most. I’m the one who balances the checkbook. He’s the entertainment coordinator.
“Gee,” I stall, “Baltimore sounds like a lot of fun, but…” He’s Kerouac and Camden Yards; I’m Killjoy and calculator. The play-by-play starts in my head. There’s the cost of gas and food. Then the tickets – “We’ve come all this way, we might as well get good seats,” he’ll say. Of course there’s the new ball cap. “You’ve gotta have a hat,” he’ll say matter-of-factly. He’ll have no cash for any of this, so we’ll have to stop at the out-of-state ATM charging the highest possible service fee. Or, charge it. Priceless.
“What’s the problem?” Allan pressures, “It’ll be fun.” My breathing quickens. I look into his muddy brown eyes and I see them slowly changing into marbles of aquamarine. The shape of his nose softens, and his dark, curly hair becomes tinged with gray. I see my mother. Car keys are dangling from her hand as she motions for me to come. Words tumble from Allan’s mouth and I hear her voice.
“Come on,” she’s saying, “get in the car. Let’s go. It’ll be fun.” I want to believe her. I want to believe him.
Allan, of course, has no idea that he’s playing two roles. He never knew my mother. She died before we met.
“Tell me about your mom,” he asked me when we first dated. I hesitated. I always do. Which history do I tell? Pre-drinking, drunk, or post-stroke? I had only known her during the last two. I don’t know exactly when my mom started to drink, but I can’t remember her when she didn’t.
Gradually, my mother stopped asking me to go on car rides just for fun and instead demanded it, often pulling me out of school. She had come to believe that people were out to get her. We would spend hours driving around the city attempting to elude her phantom stalkers. Police began showing up at our house in the middle of the night, responding to her insistence that there was an intruder. Then began the flurries of pills mixed with alcohol, then ambulances, then hospitalizations.
I was 12 years old when my mother made her final trip to the hospital. At age 52, she had suffered a massive stroke. A blood clot had taken away her ability to speak and left her paralyzed. She remained this way for 12 more years, finally dying in a nursing home when I was 24.
It was about this time that Allan and I began dating. We met at work, and I was instantly attracted to his spontaneity. At the same time, it scared me. I like plans and follow rules because it’s the very thing I didn’t have growing up. That’s what makes me feel safe. It also makes me feel boring. Allan is the opposite of boring. Over the next couple of years we continue to date but, half the time, I was ready to run.
One day after work, he tells me to hurry up and get in the car. He’s taking me somewhere, but won’t give any details. When I protest he says, “Just get in the car. It’ll be fun!”
Our office is at the top of a large hill. Everyone knows to drive the speed limit leaving work because it’s a speed trap. Everyone knows this, except Allan.
“What are you doing?” I yell. “Slow down! You’re going to get pulled over!”
Sure enough, about 30 seconds later, the sirens sound and lights are flashing. It sends me back to my childhood, filled with fear and dread at what a police visit means. As a kid, I hated that my mother put me in the middle of embarrassing situations that I didn’t cause and now, here I was again. My hands grip the seat belt that’s crossing my chest, and begin pulling it away so that I can breathe. I’m furious. I silently vow to break up with him for good once this is over.
“Sir, I need to see your driver’s license and registration,” the officer says through the driver’s side window. I’m so embarrassed that I’m sinking in the seat, praying our co-workers traveling from work won’t spot me.
“Um…I can’t seem to find it,” Allan says, bewildered. WHAT? Seriously, you don’t have your license? My fury morphs into rage.
“This is not fun!” I scream when the officer leaves to run Allan’s plates. “How can you be so irresponsible?” I’ve barely caught my breath when the officer returns.
“Sir, you’re going to have to step out of the car. There’s a warrant for your arrest.” WHAT? Are you kidding me? While Allan seems only mildly concerned, I’m losing my mind. I can’t believe I’m in this situation. I can’t believe that I ever thought to date this loser. As soon as this is over, I’m definitely, definitely ending it.
The officer tells me to step out of the car too. He’s got Allan spread eagle on the hood of the car and is patting him down. My humiliation deepens. I’m sure someone from work will see us, and I’ll have to later explain this scene, which will be hard because I don’t even know what’s happening.
“What’s this?” the officer asks Allan as he pats over some object in his right coat pocket. My heart is beating out of my chest. The officer slowly pulls something out of Allan’s pocket, cupping his hands around it so that I can’t see. He faces me, “Do you know what this is?” Me? I have no idea! I want to deny even knowing Allan right now.
“No, sir.” I say.
Slowly, the officer opens his hands towards me, revealing a jewelry box. He opens it, and Allan drops to one knee. I’m so confused. I instantly start crying as Allan says, “Will you marry me?” I look at the officer and he’s grinning, like he was in on something. Wait – was this all planned?
Just then, the door of a van parked across the street flies open. All of our co-workers come flooding out, followed by a film crew. I look at Allan, “You actually planned all of this?” He’s waiting for an answer.
“Come on,” he says. “It’ll be fun!”
I want to believe him. I have no reason not to except my own fears. He’s never shown me anything but love and respect. Most of all, he’s shown me a version of fun and spontaneity that isn’t fueled by drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. Who else plans such a proposal?
“What would your mother have thought of me?” Allan asks. We are getting married. My eyes drop down to see the diamond on my finger. It will be joined by a gold band with three smaller diamonds, melted down from my mother’s wedding ring and re-shaped to fit me. His question gets twisted in my mind. I hear him ask, “What would your mother have thought of you?” I’m at a loss. It seems impossible to answer. Unless, of course, you believe Murray Bowen.
Over 25 years, my marriage has soared and struggled. There have been love notes left under pillows, and times when we have slept in separate rooms. We have exchanged hateful, angry words for which we have later apologized. I have learned to have fun and Allan is far more responsible than I initially perceived. Together, we have a beautiful daughter, in whom we see each other’s best qualities.
My ring is made of gold, precious and malleable. Embedded within are stones, hard enough to cut glass. One of the small diamonds from my mother’s ring is flawed. “Are you sure you want me to include this one?” the jeweler asked me.
“Well, I’ll put it in now, and maybe later you’ll want to replace it.”
I could. I never have.
Susan Fee is a speaker and author. She credits her marriage for providing her more story material than she could ever have imagined. Learn more about her by visiting www.SusanFee.com.