Friday, April 11, 2008

Part XV: a very married Christmas

It wasn't all bad. Why else would I have stayed if it was all bad all the time? The good is just harder to remember. As strange as it may sound, it is far easier to cope with a failed marriage by boiling it down to all the bad and focus solely on his faults (as opposed to mine) and ignore whatever positives may have existed rather than dwelling on why I loved him. Because that just hurts. Besides, time and perspective have a tendency to twist the good into bad and highlights how low my threshold for "positive" had fallen. Generally, if I ever have to respond to the question of why I am divorced, I will glibly respond "you name the problem, he had it." While there is some truth in that, he had to resort to calming and soothing at some point to keep me put.

It took me a very long time to even consider leaving Mitch. Partly because I was raised with the idea of marriage lasting forever and partly because I am not a quitter. I have incredible stick-to-it-ive-ness (seriously, it's a word) that prevents me from quitting early. Once I start something, I want to make every effort to complete it to avoid feeling like a failure. And that is the key - I really hate failure, which motivates me to push through a lot of rough stuff. Like the first months of adjusting to marriage.

Besides, by December I was enjoying (yes, enjoying) our first Christmas season together. In my revisionist memory, much of our fighting went on hold and we started talking to each other again and liking each other again. The pre-Thanksgiving hit/punch/slap incident was forgiven and forgotten. I would not have even remembered it less than a month later since I had squirreled it so far away into the deep recesses of my subconscious. We were finally enjoying being newlyweds. I thought the only thing standing in the way of us and happily-ever-after was moving away from the temptations his brother so readily provided and the judgmental eye of his parents.

Our small, but fat, lopsided Christmas tree occupied the bulk of our small living room. We decorated it with some old mismatched bulbs and lights my mom donated to us from her collection. Almost every night during December, we sipped hot egg nog in the dim glow of lights from our tree. Mitch introduced hot egg nog to me and, at the time, I fell instantly in love with the thick, rich beverage diluted with a bit of milk to cool it after the inevitable overheating. Not surprisingly, I've never tried heating egg nog again and I believe last Christmas was the first time I've tasted it in years. I could barely drink it.

Cozily sipping egg nog next to our tree we talked about our future together and the things we would buy each other for Christmas if we had any money in our bank account. Oddly, I do not remember baking during that Christmas season which may be the only Christmas I can remember during which I did not bake. This could have been due to finals but that never stopped me before or since - even in law school I managed to squeeze in some Christmas baking after, and sometimes during, finals. Another challenge could have been my two week work stint in Salt Lake or maybe it was all the time I spent enduring the flu.

At some point that December I was struck with one of those horrifically memorable flu viruses. The type you always remember as "The Christmas Flu Death Encounter of 1995" or "The Terrible Night I Spent in My Sister's Bathroom the Christmas of 2006." The type of flu that grants instant empathy whenever anyone thereafter mentions the flu because the pain and weakness are vividly remembered years later. This is the type of flu that acts as an incentivizer for seeking out a flu shot each October.

While I was confined to my bed for a day or two or week (the timeline is fuzzy), Mitch displayed his most tender side. He waited on me hand and foot, fetched me soup, sought out movies I would enjoy wathcing and for an unprecedented period never to be repeated, he took over the housekeeping duties of cooking, cleaning and most surprisingly - dishes. Although I do not believe he literally held my excessively long hair back as I threw up, the sentiment of such a gesture was certainly there. My incapacitation gave him the opportunity to step up and he did - however briefly - and it reaffirmed, renewed and even deepened my commitment to him.

By Christmas day, I was back to normal and unprepared for what I generally view as the worst Christmas of my life (with a couple of recent challengers). This dark view of Christmas 1995 is partially due to revisionist history, but mostly it is tied to one key incident. Had our marriage endured, Christmas morning would have dominated my memories and everything else would be a quirky story about my first Christmas with my in-laws.

Despite our lack of money, we were looking forward to exchanging gifts and I know I put a lot of thought and effort to find something for him - although I have no idea what it was. On Christmas eve we acted like children waiting for Santa. We even slept in the hide-a-bed in the living room so we could enjoy the lights and smell of the tree with Meeka curled up on the floor between the bed and the tree. Mitch had some young nieces and nephews as well as a 4-year old brother which meant we were scheduled to meet at his parent's house early the next morning. But we wanted to have our own Christmas together with our own tree in our own little home. So we set the alarm and woke up extra early, despite staying up far too late.

Again, in an unusual moment of thoughtfulness, Mitch got out of bed first on Christmas morning and made us hot chocolate while I leaned over from my reclined position in the bed and stole a candy cane from the tree. I broke up bits and pieces of the candy cane and dropped them in each of our steaming mugs when he returned to my side without stepping a toe out of bed. He turned on the heat and plugged in the lights and I sat up with my knees pulled into my chest dragging the blankets up around me and clutching my warm mug of hot chocolate with both hands and smiled. In that pre-dawn hour we shared what should have been a common place feeling of security and serenity as we eagerly exchanged long forgotten gifts.

Unfortunately, we could not spend the entire day lazing in our home enjoying the peace and contentment of our own company. Instead, we had to rush ourselves out the door and over to the in-law's house for a chaotic display of torn paper, tears, "no fairs!" and sulking. And that was just me. I don't know why the picture of that morning is so awful but I feel like a spell was broken between Mitch and me as soon as we walked in that house. Mitch has 8 siblings and about half of them were older and married at that time which meant there was a lot going on when we arrived at the designated hour and none of it was happening quietly.

A brief caveat: when one is loved and accepted into a large and rowdy family there is a certain rush to the chaotic fray - intimately knowing one sister-in-law's insistence that she and her child have bows in their hair before unwrapping presents is eye-roll worthy but sweet, the foot-stomping 4-year old impatient to see what Santa brought is a humorous incentive to hurry everyone along, the mother and hostess desperately trying to count to make sure everyone is present and the father calmly taking photos of the tree are endearing displays of their complimenting personalities. But when one does not feel loved and is treated like an outsider and desperately missing one's own family . . . such a scene is just noisy, whiny, stressful strangers ruining Christmas day.

Once all 18 or so people were coralled into the living room and perched on some piece of the couch, a chair or the floor, it got worse. By that time in my own family's Christmas routine we had settled into our leisurely Christmas habits of sleeping in, taking turns unwrapping gifts from one another and enjoying a large breakfast. Our numbers were much smaller at six and we didn't have anyone younger than a teenager but we enjoyed spending time together and we enjoyed selecting personalized gifts for one another which made it fun to watch each person unwrap each gift.

Mitch's family - like most large families - drew names. I don't know who we had or what we got them but I do remember what I received. My mother-in-law had requested a list from me. When my family makes lists it is to spark ideas. We put crazy extravagent things as well as every day necessity items on the list. Like socks. My list that year was small - I didn't think they would get it when I requested a car, tuition and rent for a year so mine included a rolling pin, cds and rag wool socks. And those are the items I received. Exactly. Nothing more and nothing less. It was strange to me because it was different, this wasn't how my family did things and it reinforced how little these strangers knew about me and how little these strangers cared to know about me. They were supposed to be my new family but I felt like I had placed an order for my own Christmas.

I comforted myself by stroking Meeka's head in my lap (not realizing this was the last day I would have her with me) and focusing on the kids as they ripped through the wrapping paper as cameras flashed at them. I didn't have to worry about anyone noticing my disappointment, no one had even watched me open my gifts except Mitch. And even he became distracted by his own gifts before I was finished. Everything was a mad and selfish grab that was over minutes after it started with everyone quickly wandering off to do their own thing as soon as it was complete.

Despite the long distance charges, I must have called my parents three to five times that day. Crying at least once I am sure. Before it was even noon I was ready to go home. But that wasn't an option. Mitch and his brothers and dad had a tradition of playing paint ball every Christmas day. When Mitch described this grand tradition I was excited about it. I had never played paint ball and running through some patch of weeds in the cool December air sounded like a huge relief from the stale overheated air of the house that seemed to be suffocating me. Until I was reminded this was a boys' tradition and I would be hanging around the house with the other frail ladies.

Despite the fact that Mitch's family consisted of 8 boys and one girl, gender roles were strict. The sons helped dad with the yardwork and took out the trash. The sole daughter helped mom cook and clean. On occasion one of the sons would help with dishes but even that was rare. Mitch's mother cleaned the house, cooked the meals and then cleaned it all up afterwards and generally shooed away offers of asssitance. At my house, which was more evenly balanced wtih two boys and two girls, there were no gender divisions with work. When there were dishes to be done - we all had to do dishes. Or, we were assigned in pairs and more often than not those pairs were a girl and a boy. And dishes specifically were an everyone job. I doubt my parents ever made the conscious decision to not confine us to "girl" chores or "boy" chores, but that is how it worked out. And I am grateful for it. I have never felt hindered by my sex and I think my brothers are better men as they enjoy cooking with their wives and both are always quick to assist with the cooking and meal clean-up when they are visiting me or our parents.

Besides, I grew up as a tomboy. I always had a lot of boy friends, I loved running around outside and playing and watching sports and I had never been a girly girl. At 20-years old I hated wearing skirts and had never owned a pair of heels, vowed I would never work at a job which required nylons and rarely to never wore make-up (things change but that was then). I think these were some of the qualities that attracted Mitch to me, to be honest. I was low-maintenance and could wake up and be out the door within 20-30 minutes. I hated the color pink for all the frilly girly-ness for which it stood and as a child swore my favorite color was brown. One of my earliest memories is of watching basketball while sitting on my dad's lap when I was only 2 or 3 (now we just text message during games). I was an absolute daddy's girl which meant I loved almost everything my dad loved. And he loved that. He never told me I could not do or be something based on my gender. In fact, when I made my school's basketball team in 9th grade he would proudly introduce me as his daughter "the jock" and even now I know he enjoys telling people about how his daughter is a lawyer in New York - neither of those two things are traditionally feminine roles.

In my entire 20 years of life leading up to that Christmas, I did not recall ever having been excluded from a family activity for being a girl and I did not take it well. But there was nothing I could do about it after my initial protests. Mitch took our car and I was left with the girls to spend the day cleaning up the morning's carnage and preparing for Christmas dinner. I plodded through the day deepening my attachment to Meeka, entertaining my niece-in-law and mostly waiting to be released from the confines of my in-law's home. I tried comforting myself with the reassurance that before the week was up we would be living in Salt Lake and my weekly (and sometimes more frequent) visits to the in-law's would soon be over but that did not save Christmas.


KimmyGoat said...

Thank you for another installment of your saga. I continue to be intrigued and thankful to know you survived.

Misty Fowler said...

It's amazing what we will put up with when we're 20 and don't know ourselves well enough to stand up for what we want and need, huh?

As usual, I read this story, and realized I've been there, too. And I won't do it again. No more ruined holidays for a man or by a man - I love holidays too much!

Anonymous said...

It is quite harrowing that so many of us make choices about marriage at such a young age when we know so little. Some of us luck out, and some don't. My brother just got engaged to an 18 year old and I can't help but see their "issues" ahead quite clearly. Thanks for sharing your story. Jen S.

Aimee said...

It seems like holidays always bring out the extremities in our emotions because there is so much expectation and tradition. I think the first few Christmases in any marriage are difficult because the couple is still trying to figure out how it fits in with their new families, but it sounds like yours was especially horrible and strained with an unaccepting in-law family. Hope you never have a Christmas like that again! So frustrating they wouldn't let you play paintball! Argh.

Christina said...

Ugh! I still can't believe this was your reality. Thanks for another glimpse into the story!

Thad said...

Not sure why your story is so intriguing to me. I can't wait for the next installment.

Tiffany said...

Sorry for reading late. I am out of town. Another great installment.

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