Thursday, July 11, 2024

Six Decades of Bickering

Calvary Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States.
Photo by S.M.

    As I've researched my grandparents' experiences in WW2, I can't help but think about their marriage, which spanned almost 62 years. Much of it includes things that you might expect even today—they were childhood sweethearts, they eloped to city hall, they raised three daughters together, and they are buried next to each other in a cemetery in Tulsa.  

    But there are other aspects that I have difficulty imagining; they escaped genocide and were forced to hide for years until it was safe for them to exist again, and then they had to (somehow) move on from the murder of most of their family. They also survived the loss of their oldest daughter, who died at age 34 from a particularly nasty form of multiple sclerosis. I can't (and don't want to) imagine the pain they must have felt.

    Despite my years of research, all the family stories, and even my own memories of them, I really don't get their marriage. They bickered and yelled constantly, didn't share a bed so far as I can remember, and usually didn’t even seem like friends. Yet, as far as I can tell, they hated being apart.  

    When I was a child, fighting at my Tulsa family’s dinner table was a given. Once, when I was about eight or nine, my mother got so sick of the shouting that she walked out of a family dinner, much to everyone’s surprise. I gleefully followed her (marching away from the dinner table felt wonderfully transgressive), though I didn't understand at the time that Mom had gotten used to the more peaceful atmosphere of the WASP family she'd married into and no longer wanted to participate in the spirited debate she'd grown up with.

    Fighting with a lover isn't something I really understand. I married my best friend 27 years ago, and like me, he has a temper. But we figured out early on that when someone lashes out, they inflict wounds that may never heal, and we learned to head off fights before they gathered steam. We do work through our problems — just not when our blood is up. 

    I know that my own parents also dealt with their share of marital troubles, even some serious ones, but they had worked through the worst of them when I was a very small child, and my memories of the rough patches are little more than fuzzy, incomplete vignettes.  Mom and Dad had 46 years together before Dad died, and I think their marriage was better than most.

    My grandparents though... they bickered all the time.  And it wasn't always just snips and snaps - sometimes their conflicts escalated to shouting matches. My uncle once told me about a particularly bad fight – Grandpa and Grandma were returning from a trip to Europe in the early 1970s, and they'd been fighting more than usual during their travels. When they landed back in NYC, they dropped in to see their oldest daughter and son-in-law who lived in Manhattan. I think my younger aunt was also there as she was attending college in the northeast. Anyway, something set Grandpa and Grandma off, and their yelling got so bad my grandfather fled to a separate hotel to sleep and cool down.  The next morning, when he arrived back at the apartment to retrieve his wife, their children staged an intervention of sorts to gently suggest that if their elders were fighting so much, perhaps they should consider separating or even ... divorcing.  

    After a moment of shock, Grandpa and Grandma instantly stopped fighting and became a united front against their children, enraged that they would suggest such a thing.  They told their daughters to butt out, and Uncle Jim said they acted like best buddies — as if the fight had never happened.

    Bickering isn’t the only thing I disliked about my grandparents’ marriage. Grandma gave as good as she got in fights, but their marriage wasn’t really an equal partnership. I know I’m wearing 21st-century-colored glasses here, but Grandpa was definitely the head of the family and sometimes acted in a paternalistic manner towards his wife.  

    For example, Grandpa once censored my grandmother's news intake. I doubt he made a habit of it or anything, but it still shocks me a little.  But when they immigrated in 1947, they flew from London to NYC. Grandma had never been on a plane before and was just terrified. So, for the two months between purchasing their tickets and actually boarding the plane at the newly-built Heathrow, Grandpa poured through the newspapers before Grandma could get to them, and removed any article that mentioned any sort of air travel accident.  I think he feared that if she found out about a crash, she'd refuse to get on the plane. I also suspect he also wanted to alleviate her terror as best he could. It was absolutely a kindness and also relatively benign, but I'd be nonplussed if I found out my husband was censoring my news intake.  

    Grandpa also made at least one serious health decision for Grandma back in the mid-1960s. She found a lump in her breast, went in for a biopsy, and woke up with no breast.  The doctors discovered the lump was malignant, and Grandpa authorized a radical mastectomy before she even came out of anesthesia.  She was mentally competent; doctors in those days just assumed it was his right to decide for her, and so he did.  Grandma didn’t seem to hold it against him and almost certainly would have made the same decision.  She mostly talked about how much pain she was in when she woke up and ended her story with, "he was scared to lose me."  

    I was a teen when she told me about her mastectomy, and even then, I knew I would never allow someone to make that decision for me. It's my damn breast; if I ever develop cancer, I will decide to have it removed or not. 

    Not everything about their marriage was bad—Grandpa also doted on Grandma, and Mom says he was devoted to her until the day he died. He was the first person in their neighborhood to install central air conditioning because Grandma hated the Tulsa summer heat. Because of that, their neighbors assumed they must be rich.  My grandparents had indeed clawed their way out of the serious poverty they'd endured when they first immigrated to the US, but they were far from wealthy at that point. Grandpa simply valued his wife's comfort over the many smaller luxuries others enjoyed. They got AC instead of TV, new clothes, movie tickets, or a fancier car. Even as their wealth increased, they continued to live frugally for a long time -- the deprivations of World War 2 made them very cautious.

    Toward the end of his life, when he was very frail from diabetes and heart disease, Grandpa told my mom that he hoped more than anything that my grandmother would die first.  It arose from an odd oxymoron of unselfish love for his wife – he didn't want Grandma to feel the pain of his loss – and the desire to rest without having to worry that she was properly cared for.  My aunt later told me that his doctors were shocked at how hard he held on before his body finally gave out.  Dying forced him to entrust the care of his wife to his daughters.  

    Grandma lived another three years without him. We once mentioned to her that they'd been married for 60 years. "Almost sixty-two years," she corrected us sadly.  Her memory had been damaged by lack of oxygen from a mitral valve failure years earlier, and she forgot calling us 10 minutes ago, but she remembered the pain of his loss.

    In the end, I suppose I don't need to understand their relationship. I didn’t like their bickering, nor the paternalism that crept into their partnership, but it somehow worked for them. Their marriage was woven from conflict and love and hand-in-hand survival of all the shit that life threw at them.

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