Against All Odds
Three writers reflect on the myriad challenges—and untold rewards—of romantic relationships.
Another Kind of Love
That they were mismatched was a massive understatement. That it worked became the lesson of a lifetime.
By Laura Pritchett
As supporting evidence of my parents' basic incompatibility, I could point to the fact that all nine of us children have uttered phrases such as how is it possible, why do you think they bothered to...stay together. I could also list my favorite topics of arguments from my childhood, from the mundane (whether to sell a certain bull, where to plant the peas in the garden) to the equally mundane (faith, money, child-rearing). Or I could list the ways they've solved these arguments: Once, one abandoned the other in a town across the mountains, thus requiring a hitchhike home (which took a couple of days). Once, one lugged the other's furniture out into the lawn with a sign offering it for a dollar. Or I could list the particular traits that set them apart: my mother's propensity to have a fledging pigeon in the kitchen or a calf in the laundry room, no doubt products of her dominant rescue-gene; or my father's propensity to calmly whistle a tune while methodically castrating calves or peacefully irrigating, products of his dominant calm-gene. Or I could list their basic different qualities: calm versus ferocious, rule follower versus rule breaker, or, mainly, silent versus talker. (My father's "solution to the marriage," as he puts it, was borrowed from Chief Joseph: "I shall fight no more forever," which my mother thinks is dumb, and so sometimes they fight about that too.)
But none of that really gets to the depth of the problem of their marriage. The problem is temperament. And temperament, frankly, is more than your mood or personality; it also has everything to do with what you think is important about being human, and what we humans are supposed to do with our time on Earth. To illustrate: My father was a geneticist, and so a few years ago, while my parents sat outside their farmhouse in the sun, I asked him what he thought about heritable traits in our family. He was interrupted by my mom, who said, "My kids have round heads and kind hearts. Dad's kids have oval faces and are selfish." Then she added, "Mine all have type A blood except Alan, who has B. Dad's are all AB blood. Some of you inherited a sense of gratitude, and some of you didn't. Some are extremely anti-social; I just don't understand it. Some of you—especially you," she said, pointing at me, "are spiritually opaque. No light gets into you." My dad never did get to answer the question, which is typical.
That's my point. To him the world is a calm place to be observed and enjoyed, calmly taking in the surroundings, and to smile sweetly at a daughter's question, and to calmly reflect before answering (if he gets a chance). To her, the world is a place fraught with exciting possibilities and equally disturbing traumas, and the best way to handle all that is to leap into the surroundings, take 'em on, and speak up while you're at it.
So recently, as I sat in a cabin with my two parents on vacation in Estes Park, my mother doing a crossword and my father playing cards, all of us transfixed in an odd moment of silence, I considered their marriage of nearly 40 years. I thought: gasoline and cigarettes. Wind and forest fire. Oil and water. The potato-potato thing doesn't even apply here, although I did, at times, fervently pray they'd call the whole thing off.
They did not, and as I sat next to the crackling fire I came to a startling conclusion: They'd taught me yet one more thing to add to an endless list of lessons. Namely, that I was a spoiled snot who thought relationships should be full of loving-kindness and peace, sweet caretaking, and fondly induced laughter. I also considered a familiar theory of mine, which is that their first marriages were for romantic love, and then those people they loved died, so they got married again for another reason altogether—to prove to the world that there's another kind of love, the kind that basically illustrates the fact that explosions, wildfire, and unmixable elements make the world a very interesting place.
There's one thing I firmly believe, and that's this: Only a huge tragedy could have brought these two people together, which is exactly how it happened.
My mother was broke but spunky, very pregnant with her fourth child, and studying for her final year as a Ph.D. candidate. The phone rang. It was a sheriff from Oklahoma: "Your husband, was he flying a small plane? There's been an accident." She had to ask it herself: Is he dead? Yes, he is dead.
Simultaneously, there was a man, married, a professor of cattle genetics, who had one son and had recently adopted an infant daughter. His wife was feeling tired, they went to a doctor: "Your wife," said this doctor, "has leukemia."
And so, after burying their first loves, these survivors met in a Colorado town, dated a few times, and probably talked about what they had in common: the Depression, their tragedies, and single parenthood—three things which, to my mind, probably overshadowed all the very obvious and wildly polarizing things they did not share.
The disagreements started right away. They couldn't even decide whether to get married. So they played a game of gin rummy. He wins, they marry; she wins, they don't. My mom says she drew a good hand, she was going to win. So at an opportune moment, she quietly replaced some of her cards.
Such was the start of a huge gamble. A year later I was born, the seventh child, or the first, depending on how you look at it. Soon after came two boys, twins. And so nine of us—half-siblings and full—are bonded by the unique experience of growing up and watching two mismatched people doing their best to blend oil and water into a comfortable mix.
Here's what that particular recipe produced: a surprisingly sprightly pair.
These days, all of us children think how did they, why can they...act 20 years younger than everyone else their age? Perhaps it is the drama and spunk that kept them alive, kept them from falling into the doldrums I see weighing down other marriages, the couples silently eating with nothing left to say to each other. The couples that makes you want to lean over and shout: "GOOD GOD, ARGUE ABOUT SOMETHING!" before they kill your heart with their own cold deadness.
My parents will never, ever, not in a million years, look like that at a restaurant. As they prepared for bed that evening in Estes Park—putting out the fire, yawning, fixing a cup of warm milk—I considered their small attentions to one another. I considered the fact that what I once took for an unbearable convergence of two separate dispositions was in fact what gave their relationship its zest—it's pretty life-affirming and exciting and dramatic to see how much explosion one can stand, after all.
I want a love like that. A love that speaks up for itself, a love that demands attention and responses. I want to fight like hell for love, in order to protect it from the diminishment and entropy of time, the accumulations of betrayal and hurt, those dangerous ingredients that loom at the edge of every love, every day. Let the fire burn. Let it be bright enough.
Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor to 5280 and the author/editor of five books. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.