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Three Thousand Miles and 36 Years Away From the Ripcord

“Marriage,” the minister said, “isn’t something you’ve entered into lightly.”

Someone snickered.

Someone else chuckled.

It was contagious. Within seconds, the whole group of family and close friends laughed loudly.

No, these two grooms had not entered into marriage lightly. They had, in fact, been together 36 years to the day. Thirty-six years that began at a Houston club (the Ripcord, we learned), spanned the next three-and-a-half decades in Texas and many other places, and was now being made official in New York City.

Like any long-term relationship, it hadn’t been easy or simple. Unlike most other long-term relationships, though, it had played out against a backdrop of politics, law, religion, strife, prejudice, and massive social upheaval. The most personal and individual of emotions — romantic love — had suddenly become everybody’s business, spilling into the evening news, demonstration placards, and heated arguments.

No, Dan and Jeremy hadn’t entered into marriage lightly. No wonder they and their wedding guests slipped from laughter to tears and back so easily. We were all celebrating a life together and seismic political change — even if we had to travel 1,800 miles to make it legal. Someday, that long trip will seem ridiculous, but right now, we were in a glamorous New York hotel and we were going to toast happiness and love and we were going to dance. What could be better?

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“You’re going to write about this in your blog, right?” asked Walter, one of our neighbors from Austin.

“Of course I’m going to write about it,” I said.

“OK,” Walter said. “I won’t email any of my friends about how wonderful the wedding is. I’ll just wait for you to write about it. I hope you get it right.”

“Mmmmm,” I said. I hoped I could get it right, too. You never know.

Behind us, the small band and cabaret singer were warming up. I talked to Dan and Jeremy’s personal trainer, Sam, who told me how much he’d learned from the two of them — about being a man, a good man.

It made me think of what I’ve learned from them, as well, in the four years I’d known them. They had taught me that two men could be as committed and romantic as any heterosexual couple. Seeing them at their wedding also reminded me of how openhearted and emotional they both were — qualities you don’t always associate with men. You learn from your best friends, and Dan and Jeremy had taught me so much.

After the singer and band performed, the tiny wooden dance opened up to the small party of wedding guests. They played Ray Charles and the Beatles as most of us danced.

Between numbers, Walter approached me again. He’s a shrewd businessman who’d sensed a bit of uncertainty on my part, and he wasn’t going to let it pass unnoticed.

“How can you do it?” he asked. “How can you make people feel all the love in this room?”

“I don’t know if I can,” I said.

All I could do was think of the scene on the tiny dance floor, where so many couples had danced together — gay and straight, long-married and virtual strangers, men with men, women with women, men with women. The couples had re-formed again and again, as others cut in, and swooped and swirled and bumped into one another.

After a while, we weren’t separate couples or individuals any longer. We had merged into something bigger and more joyous.

I don’t know if you can feel the love in that. But let me tell you, it was pure magic.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about The Death of the Other Ruth Pennebaker

 

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Who Brought the Map This Time?

In years past, I’ve met my daughter in other cities for Planned Parenthood marches and demonstrations. This year, we met in Chicago and it was personal, not political (although she and I both tend to confuse the two).

We’d hoped for a glorious autumn weekend, but it was rainy, windy, and cold. Who cared, though? We walked the busy downtown streets, we shopped in the stores, we ate in wonderful restaurants, and we drank wine and huddled and talked in our cozy hotel room. Bad weather forces its own kind of fun.

My daughter is 32 now and recently married. She lives in Seattle. She spent her first 18 years with us, but has been gone the past 14 — on both coasts and in the Midwest, in college and grad school, at various high-powered jobs. Gone almost as long as she was with us — it surprises me to realize that, even if the math isn’t hard. How can that be?

When you’re pregnant, then when you have a baby and young child, you’re awash in advice from experts, family, friends, and total strangers. You can’t pass a nano-second without getting buttonholed by some busybody or another who wants to make sure you’re doing it right. (Which you’re not, of course. From conception to college, you’ve been bungling it right and left and center, according to somebody. Perfect Parents exist only in their own tiny minds.)

But being the parent of adult children — nobody tells you about that. Maybe all the experts have died or something. There’s nobody to inform you about what I’m convinced may be the longest, most complicated relationship any of us will ever have with another being. Think about it. You start out with a completely dependent and helpless little being who can do nothing for herself. She sleeps, she eats, she screams — and you are her entire world.

Just as you’re getting kind of competent at this tiny-baby business, she grows on you. Toddler to kindergartener to teenager, she gradually needs you less and less. Step back, you tell yourself. Step back. Give her room.

And then she leaves. And comes back, but she always leaves again. She changes so much, and so — you grudgingly admit — so have you.

me,ctp, chicago

 

She’s grown up physically and emotionally; she is taking on the world. And you? This is a great time of your life. You’re healthy and working and happy, even if you doctor did mention you’ve shrunk half an inch.

But it’s a different era of your life, quieter and more contemplative. Taking on the world is for the young. Given the choice of waxing or waning (not that anybody seems to be giving you that choice, but still), you’ve waxed and been waxed enough. It’s somebody else’s turn.

So you haven’t exactly reversed places in the world, but the changes have been vast and profound. Can you think of any other relationship that upends itself so completely as the parent-child relationship over time?

Who needs who more these days? Who are you to each other now? Not who you used to be — but what, exactly? Nobody’s lining up to tell you; you’re on your own.

Or maybe not. As we walk and dine and shop our way through Chicago, as I notice I am once again whirling around when a younger female voice says, “Mom!”, as we talk and laugh and sometimes cry together, I realize once again I’m with a smart, funny, delightful, and strong young woman who has definite ideas about what our relationship should be as two adult women.

It’s a funny business, trying to figure out where you are in this life. How wonderful to have someone you love so much to do it with.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about What We Keep

 

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Frankly, My Dear

I am babbling. I can’t stop.

This is because I am at the Harry Ransom Center’s “The Making of Gone With the Wind exhibit on the University of Texas campus. Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Tara, Ashley, Twelve Oaks, Mammy — they are everywhere, in photos and film clips and scripts and lengthy correspondences.

Looking around the exhibition is like examining my adolescent mind. Sure, I’ve only seen the movie Gone With the Wind a handful of times, but as a teenager, I read the book so many times its cover fell off. I don’t know how many times, but “countless” is a good, round number.

Why? If you have to ask why, you’ve never been a painfully shy, bored, and lonely teenager who slept in orthodontic headgear and yearned for romance and adventure. Every time I looked up, I saw the desolate West Texas landscape and a family struggling with illusions and despair. I learned not to look up too often. Reading was so much better. Reading Gone With the Wind was pure escape, one I took as often as I could.

All of which explains why I know way too much about Gone With the Wind, even though I haven’t read it in decades, and I kind of can’t keep my mouth shut.

“Do you know Vivien Leigh’s eyes were really blue?’ I ask the friends I’m with. “They had to put some special tint on the film to turn them green.”

That might have been fine. But, as I said, I can’t stop. Do you know that Margaret Mitchell thought about naming her heroine Robin or Pansy? Do you know what Scarlett’s first name is? The names of her three husbands, her three kids, her two sisters? What was Bonnie Blue’s real name? Blah, blah, blah!

Oh, God.  My friends are looking at me like I’m a real weirdo now, since I can’t stop pestering them with completely irrelevant information that nobody but me cares about. Somebody needs to stuff paper towels and canapes in my mouth and stick me in a corner with the umbrellas and hats.

Fortunately, my husband isn’t here. He’s seen me like this many, many times before, when I go down a rabbit hole of literary trivia and celebrity relationships and get too excited and just can’t quit. Sometimes, I think he’s looking at me like I’m an escaped animal from the zoo — fascinating, but a little scary. You know.

On the other hand, I do wish my friends John and Bonnie were here. I sat next to John at a dinner party a few weeks ago, when the subject of the director Mike Nichols came up. Of course — aside from the fact Nichols was married four times — I also was thinking that he’d been bald all his life and wore a wig. Before I could open my mouth, John said, “Do you know he’s bald? He’s been wearing a wig his whole life.” (John and I think we may have been the same person in a previous life.)

Bonnie’s the same. She’s the only person I can ask, “Do you remember who Meryl Streep was involved with in the ’70s?” with a reasonable expectation of a prompt reply and avid interest. “John Cazale,” Bonnie says, rolling her eyes and indicating I should ask her something tough for a change.

Or maybe, just maybe, I spend too much time by myself working and behave inappropriately like this when I’m unloosed on the rest of the world. A childhood and adolescence as a reader and an adulthood as a reader and writer — well, you just don’t turn out to be normal. As God is my witness, maybe I just need to get out a little more.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about The Ballad of the Sick Husband

 

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My Heroes Have Always Been Everywhere, As It Turns Out

Almost nineteen years ago, when I was going through chemo for breast cancer, I used to go shopping the day before each treatment.  Retail therapy, cancer survivors call it.

I laughed with the saleswomen and took some clothes to try on into the fitting room.  There, I watched myself carefully as I undressed.  I was seeing my “true” self, I thought, with the fresh red scars slashed across my chest.  Every night, when I pulled off my wig, I saw that person, too, the way she really looked — bald and pasty-faced: a typical cancer patient.

I spent a few seconds congratulating myself on how well I pulled it off — my semi-public persona, I mean.  The saleswomen had no idea what I really looked like or how scared I was.  They couldn’t see my new scars.  They couldn’t read my chaotic, troubled mind.

That was when it hit me, finally — that real moment of truth.  The rest of the world, I realized suddenly, was doing the same thing.   We all tried to keep our scars private, to compensate as mightily as we could by being upbeat, appearing untroubled, pasting on that wig, that grin, cracking those jokes.  Nobody could see us sweat.  God forbid.

I learned the same lesson of how little we know of others’ lives and struggles when I began to go to survivors’ support groups.  How many times did it have to happen to me before I learned it?  Almost invariably, the one woman in the group I’d picked out as fortunate and enviable — you know, the pretty one who was well-dressed and self-confident — turned out to be the sickest in the group, with a prognosis that would be fatal.  I knew nothing, saw only the unblemished surface.

These days, I look around at my friends and acquaintances and often think the same thing: I know so little of their lives — and  they surprise and shock me with the problems and concerns they bear privately.  The friend who struggles with depression — a young, beautiful, smart, successful woman you’d never dream has a care.  Another whose child is an unending cause for concern.  Another who’s struggling with the aftermath of cancer treatment, a time that can be enormously difficult, when all the world moves on, convinced you’re fortunate and whole when, in fact, you’re scared to death and shaken to the very depths of your being.

How many times do I have to learn and re-learn that same lesson I thought I’d mastered in the dressing room 19 years ago?

You say the world has no heroes?  I say they’re everywhere, living among us, bearing burdens we can’t fathom.  It’s just that the rest of us are too focused on our own scars, sure we’re the only ones who struggle, overlooking the heroes who surround us, quietly doing their best and persevering.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read 10 Signs Your Writer Spouse Has Had Bad Day 

 

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How Old Are You?

When I started out as a journalist, which was about a zillion years ago, give or take a century, the question I always hated asking someone was how old he was.  It just seemed so personal, so prying, so impertinent.  I’d always apologize before I could even bring myself to ask the question.

As I say, that was a long time ago.  These days, I’m different.  How old are you?  I ask everybody that.  It’s terrible, shameless.  I don’t even have an excuse, since I’m usually not writing an article.  I just want to know.

“Tell me somebody’s age and where he grew up — and I already know a lot about him,” somebody told me recently.  Who?  I don’t know.  I’ve already forgotten.  Ask me tomorrow.  I’ll probably remember by then.  But it was somebody smart.

Ask someone’s age and you find out the music he grew up with, the presidency that shaped his early years, the politics, the wars, the economy, the culture, the fashions.  Where is she in her life?  Past college and early-career struggles?  At a point when, most likely, she still feels invulnerable?  Or have the casualties in his life — the illnesses and deaths, the physical slippages, the sheer randomness of the events and years that have passed — forced a certain kind of humility and fatalism?

Did you ever wear hot pants or leisure suits or — if you’re a male — a gold chain around your neck?  A pixie cut or sideburns?  Where were you when JFK was assassinated?   Can you hula hoop or do the twist?  Did you reallly believe the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking, or did you keep puffing so you could figure it out?

What do you remember and what formed you?  Where are you in your life?  That’s what I really want to know.  Maybe it’s the rudest question on earth.

But there’s a certain symmetry to it: The older you are, the freer you are to ask.  The older you are, the faster you forget.  So you ask again and again and after a while, it doesn’t even seem rude any longer.

Tell me who you are.  What could be possibly rude about wanting to know a thing like that?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Meditations on Being the Kind of Woman Who Never Inspired a Rock’n’Roll Song

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