As the micro-vessels in my brain keep clogging, my memory losses are getting worse and more bothersome. While I know that there is a material cause for some of my forgetting, I acknowledge that I also sometimes forget things because of a “character flaw,” similar to that of someone forgetting to buy flowers or chocolates for a spouse or partner who cares deeply about Valentine’s Day: it is the kind of forgetting that I imagine many partners in a long-term relationship fall into: you take your partner’s love for granted and expect that he, too, should take your love for granted.
Is that, maybe, why our culture has invented Valentine’s Day? To bring us all to heel and shame us into collectively remembering our love for our partner and smother him or her with chocolates, roses, attention, or whatever else will make the day joyful–and, in many cases, make up for a year of forgetting to love each other every single day?
New Yorker cartoon
Peter and I do not celebrate Valentine’s Day: 1), we grew up in a culture where it was unknown, and 2), we snobbishly resist celebrating a day designated by commercial interests for demonstrating love. While our kids were growing up, though, we were unable to hold our noses as they got excited about handing out and receiving Valentine’s cards and treats at school–many is the time I broke out the paint and other craft materials a few days before THE DAY to help them make the laciest, weirdest, or funniest cards their imaginations could come up with. Now that the kids are out of the house, our grandkids are the foils to our snobbery–we are always delighted to get their special drawings or cards. When it comes to our own relationship, though, we say that we would rather make every day special to each other than celebrate “bigly” on one day of the year. This week Tuesday, though, we inadvertently performed a number of pleasurable activities that, to a space alien, might have made our day indistinguishable from that of millions of officially celebrating couples in the westernized world. What the space alien doesn’t know, however, is that–for me–these last two days were actually make-up days for the many times over the last months–years?– that I failed in my high-minded resolution to make every day special.
Take Peter’s birthday two weeks ago, for example.
Peter in Park City, Utah, where we went to get coffee and fresh air on his birthday
Peter and I have a long-time pact not to give each other gifts–at least no big gifts–on our birthdays or Christmas. We instead write each other a love letter and give each other spending money that we set aside for that purpose in our budget. Not very romantic, but practical for two people who already have everything that has an on/off switch and computes, flies, or provides screen pleasure (in Peter’s case) and everything one can hang on one’s body or display in the house or read (in mine). Sometimes we cheat and give each other a little nonsense gift. For his 69th birthday, I had nothing to give Peter except the love letter–and he so loves a little present! While I did help him order a drone to replace the one he had lost in the snow earlier this year, that did not count: it wasn’t a surprise and I did not buy it all by myself. Even the trip to Park City for coffee in the morning and dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant, Frontera, in the evening, was offset by my total lack of energy due to my then-still-incomplete recovery from the flu. Truth is, between coffee and dinner I lay in bed coughing and sleeping off my exhaustion after the morning’s outing. While I know it’s not “my fault,” that I was sick, my withdrawal to my sick bed like a swooning Victorian left my birthday sweetheart to communicate with the quail on our back stoep instead of his lovey-dovey.
Marissa, Newton, and Cheryl help celebrate Peter’s birthday properly over the weekend with a poker game after dinner. At the other end of the table, Adam teaches Kanye a strategy board game, Magic: The Gathering.
On the weekend after Peter’s birthday, the junior Saunderses came to the rescue: upon hearing that I was still sick, Newton and Cheryl, Adam and Marissa, brought over dinner, complete with dessert. All I did was set the table–they got all the food ready and got everyone to come to the table and get seated. Despite having hardly any responsibilities, I took time out to slump on the couch while they played board games and poker. I had a number of “Ouma, are you asleep”s from Dante and Aliya, who wanted me to wake up to play hide and seek.
After much seeking, Ouma found Aliya and Dante hiding in the coat closet. Peter’s birthday cake, a carrot cake made by Cheryl. In typical family improvisational style, Newton concocted an ensemble of candles that says “69.” Peter’s birthday gift from Dante was a set of magic tricks, so the birthday boy gave a magic show. Depending on their ages, Aliya (6), Dante (4), and Kanye (9) watch with expressions ranging from admiration to skepticism.
While I blame my sickness for my inadequate effort to make Peter’s 69th birthday into the special day it was supposed to be, I attribute part of my failure to the kind of forgetting that, as a 17-year old falling in love with him and as a young wife and mother, I swore I would never fall into. And yet I did: when my children were babies, when I was mad that he worked so hard at his own business in South Africa that I hardly ever saw him, when I went to graduate school in my late thirties, and–I am ashamed to confess–when I was so busy dealing with my dementia through defining my new identity by writing my book, I did not adequately express my love for him every day. At the outset of 2017, for example, I was able to arise from my sickbed to go to Minneapolis for the promotion of my book, only to return too depleted make some of Peter’s favorite dishes for his birthday.
I know what you may be thinking in this age where “self-realization” has become a much-admired goal and achievement–I think those thoughts myself: of course I should have gone to Minneapolis! But even though Peter went with me and supported me and we both felt it was a good trip, it does not erase the fact that his special day got short shrifted.
The Daily Beast: “You Can’t ‘Have It All’ & More of Feminism’s Outdated Phrases”
Ever since I have discovered feminism in my mid-twenties, I have espoused the notion that both spouses can have it all: a career, children, a happy marriage–in other words, what psychologists the likes of Dr. Phil proclaim their own marriages to be: the kind of marriage where two people each indulge in their careers but at the same time–constantly and on an every-day basis–pay each other the kind of attention that truly nourishes a soul-friendship.
La La Land, the multiply golden-globed film billed as a “romantic musical comedy” that Peter and I went to see this afternoon, comes down against Dr. Phil. When Peter and I talked about it afterward, we both thought that it was rather sad: in the “real world” of the film, the jazz musician’s and the aspiring actress’s ideals of realizing themselves through their art happened AT THE COST OF A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP. In the alternative outcome, which is shown in a fantasy sequence, they attain a long-term relationship, but AT THE COST OF THEIR CAREER IDEALS. The La La Land of “having it all” is just a dream.
Despite my regrets about Peter’s birthday, I feel that–for the most part, we have have had it all–just not all the time. Rather, we have had consecutive stages in which the one or the other’s ideals were fulfilled for both and other time when the one or the other of us existed in a space-time slice of non-fulfillment in either the “goals” or the “magnificent love” departments. In our 49 years together–45 of them in marriage, 46 years this coming March–we have gone through very difficult times. However, we have always been lucky enough to return to the marriage commitment we have made to each other so long ago.
We have been retired for 5 years now (other than that Peter took a dream job for a year in that time). What else is left to do in retirement than merging the two strands of possibility that La La Land keeps so firmly apart in its “real world”? For me, the time has come that my highest priority is to live out, day by day, the high-minded resolution that Peter and I formulated so long ago: to make every day special for him, to remember to look at him with the awe I truly feel for this man who stole my heart so many years ago.
Peter, being older and wiser than me, was on to this for quite some time before I arose from my “memory sickbed.”
From the kitchen where she is overwintering, Doña Quixote smirks: ‘Tis late to hearken, late to smile,/but better late than never:/I shall have lived a little while/before I die for ever. (A.E. Housman.)