Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

For two hours last Friday evening, I talked with someone I've known for more than two decades.  We were in school together, but her private school pedigree kept me sufficiently intimidated that we didn't properly get to know one another until the summer after we graduated, when we traveled to Halifax, both young and married in our first year out, to the wedding of mutual friends.

She made her life decisions deliberately, marrying a fellow she'd dated for most of her university career.  I'm pretty sure she was thinking about her thesis topic when she was a first-year.  And she intentionally had her babies young, reasoning that she could have her career when they grew school-aged and she was still young enough to chase down her ambitions.

On the other hand, I dithered about my major, didn't write a thesis due to lack of focus and confidence (luckily a four-year degree didn't require it, and few of us had sufficiently overcome our undergraduate insecurity to do it) and married a man I met in a fountain in Italy and who proposed to me ten days after he met me.  I had my kids after being married for several years, but certainly didn't know how it would impact my career, not that I had much of a plan for that, either.

So, as I pointed out to her on the phone, she has it together, and unless people know her well enough to understand that she's been through her own share of stuff during the past twenty years, they might think she'd look down upon us who've stumbled through life and had some more conspicuous failures.

The trip to Nova Scotia was made by my young husband and me in a 1971 VW Bus.  We had our first real fight driving through Montreal in the middle of the night, but made it for the wedding and looked quite presentable once there.  My friend, Dutch born, had married a true original, a South African who'd come to Halifax and then moved on to Queen's University, where he studied with his wife to be and me, though we didn't really know one another then. They were down to earth, but sophisticated and well-traveled, and my husband--who had spent a number of years living abroad himself--and I had great fun with them.

Once back in Toronto, we and other assorted friends had marvelous meals cooked by the South African.  Then they had their babies, but were still great fun--they were exhausted but because they had their children young bounced back faster than the rest of us who did it later on-- and continued their dinner parties, complete with good conversation fueled by cheap wine and opinions of a strength that can only be found in those in the grips of young adulthood, or at least only should be.  Life had not knocked the corners off any of us just yet.  But it would.

They went to Texas first, and we followed, in an unrelated fashion, a few years later.  They moved back to Canada, then to Texas again, then back once again.  It was pretty hard on both of them, in their own ways. In the meantime, to us, they served as absolute life rafts and tour guides in the strange land to which I'd moved.  How to be home with little babies all day?  How to live in this place where I had no cultural markers?  Our weekends together were a balm to my soul.

In the end, they went back to Toronto for the foreseeable future and we stayed until Fort Worth turned out to be home for us. When my husband and I split, they took it hard, but tried to be on both sides.  Ultimately history won out, though they would have liked to have kept up connections with the two of us.  At one point in the middle of it all, I sniveled to her that I'd "given him the best years of my life."  As soon as I said it I knew I sounded like Tony Soprano's mother, but my friend laughed indulgently and said, even if that were true, why give him any more? She had me there.

We keep in touch by phone and email, and have found we have more in common now in our middle age even than when we were young--our similarities lie more in our temperments than in circumstance, as it turns out.  And yes, she did get that career, and is in the thick of it now, almost an empty-nester in her early forties.  And we all thought she was crazy.

Last summer I had a great visit with them, and later their now nearly-grown children.  At one point, right before the South African arrived to meet us for a beer at a favorite pub, she told me the most romantic thing I've ever heard.  She said she is so happy to be married to be her husband because, she said, "he is such a nice man."  Twenty years together, and her takeaway is still that he is nice. I never hear this from long-term wives. If they weren't so dear to me, I'd be sincerely jealous.  In fact I am.  But more than that, I deeply admire and marvel at what they've done---managed to grow, change, raise great kids and give each other the room to be themselves, and still like each other after all of it.

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