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The title of my last post, Stuff Part I, (posted October 2nd), suggested that my subsequent post would be Stuff Part II. There will be a Part II, but events in my life compel me to write about another topic first.
I often think of raising children as a series of transitions. They go to preschool for the first time, and every few years there is a graduation: from elementary school to middle school to high school. They have their first haircut. They get their first tooth and, later, lose their first tooth. There’s their first sleepover and the first time they go away to camp. They learn to drive and go out on their first date. Each one of us has our personal Achilles heel, that one transition (or transitions) that makes us sad. You may be puzzled about why you feel this way, and then you realize it’s because you are wondering where your little boy or girl has gone.
Until three weeks ago, the most wrenching transition for me, personally, was when I dropped each of my sons at college for the first time. I still cry every time I think about it. It marked the first time I felt that they were leaving me behind. I worried that a fissure might develop in our emotional bond, inviolable up to that point, because I now would play little to no part in their daily lives. I wouldn’t know their friends or when they had a paper due. I wouldn’t be able to walk into the next room and give them a hug. Of course I was excited for them, but it was excitement tinged with a feeling of loss.
Then came my son’s wedding day, and I realized all those prior transitions were bush league by comparison. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, I was aware that our nuclear family was being altered permanently. It nagged at the back of my mind, but I didn’t dwell on it. I did not cry as my husband and I walked him down the aisle, nor during the ceremony. But in addition to feeling joyful, it was bittersweet for me when they said their vows and walked through the crowd as husband and wife, wearing the widest, most radiant smiles I have ever seen. Perhaps some of you had similar feelings when your child married.
I have joked on more than one occasion that when I attend a wedding, I want to take the couple aside and tell them, “You have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you are getting into!” Yes, I am trying to get a laugh, but I am not entirely joking. When your children get married, you hope you have helped them develop the wisdom, common sense and courage they will need pretty much every day of their marriage.
Newlyweds—my son and his wife included—have faith that they will be able to handle any challenge they encounter, fortified by their love and respect for one another. Having observed my son and his now-wife for six years, I agree. They love and understand and support one another unconditionally. I can’t imagine a couple more prepared to deal with adversity when (not if) they encounter it.
As I am not a soothsayer, I have no way of knowing what bumps in the road await them. In my head I can reel off a list of the more common ones: one spouse feels the other spouse spends too much time at work; your child is sad or struggling and you have to decide what (if anything) to do while your heart twists and contracts with pain; disagreements over money or childrearing issues arise; someone is diagnosed with a serious illness that puts a strain on the whole family; there is bickering about trivial things (you always forget to take out the garbage, you never turn the lights off when you leave a room) that stealthily erodes the edges of a marriage, perhaps doing more damage than larger arguments.
I am confident they will function as a team, collaborating to solve difficulties that come their way. But I also know I will have to watch, silently, from a distance, as they do so. My mother-in-law used to mime zipping her mouth closed when she had an opinion she knew she had to keep to herself. I will be rooting for them all the way, but it will have to be from the sidelines. They will need to navigate their paths, both as a couple and as autonomous adults, without my input. Much of what comes to mind when one thinks of being a parent—nurturing, advising, molding character, leading the way—is now a thing of the past for me.
At the reception, each parent had an opportunity to speak. My remarks began with a few amusing anecdotes about my son’s childhood, continued with some playful ribbing about my daughter-in-law’s reaction when she first met our family, expressed our delight that she was joining our family, and told everyone what perfect partners they were for one another. (They really are.)
Then I directly addressed my son and his wife.
______, marrying _____ will be the most profound change you have experienced in your life so far. You are starting your own family unit, distinct from the family that your dad and I have nurtured and cherished for 31 years. Now your primary responsibility will be to your wife, to this new family the two of you will create. That is, of course, how it should be, and it is a type of happiness I have always wanted for you. However, while you and _____ are building something new, your father and I can’t help but feel some degree of loss, as if a rope connecting us to one another is fraying a bit.
No matter how much you and _____ love one another, marriage is SO hard. The fact is the two of you have many challenges ahead that right now you can’t even imagine. So, I would like to leave you with these words that are from the book and movie, Corelli’s Mandolin.
Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those who truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.
I wished them a marriage and a life of intertwining roots, of growth that creates one indestructible tree out of their love. We all raised our glasses and drank a toast to the newlyweds. And then it was time to dance.