Living Different Lives Together

We frequently laugh with our friends, Lynn and Gary, because every time they talk about somewhere they went or something they did, they disagree about details. We laugh that they went on different vacations together. Maybe we laugh because Jim and I see ourselves in the mirror they are holding up.

We have always been very close, enjoying doing things together. Someone in our past complained that we were too close, we spent too much time together. Fifty-nine years doesn’t feel like too much togetherness because now we fear that we don’t have enough years left. Its not that we have big goals like starting a new family or building new careers. No, we just hope we have a few more years for camping in the Upper Peninsula, working in the flower beds on warm Spring days, eating eggs and pecan pancakes at the counter at Blueberries, and running over to the grocery for some milk and carrots. We want more time for laughing with family and friends, or talking, just the two of us.

I’ve noticed that our conversations, as we are doing and going, are lit by little jolts of memory, flashbacks to earlier experiences. Flashbacks of things our children said or did, vacations we took, people we knew during all those growing-up-together years, things we both remember, usually. What differs are the details. He remembers my father telling about Grandpa building his house and I remember being in my parent’s kitchen. He remembers changing the flat tire on the trailer and I remember fixing peanut butter sandwiches and grapes for the kids to eat while sitting on the grass along the side of the road. Maybe when the pieces of our differing memories are put together, they create an accurate picture. Maybe they make up an interesting fairy tale.

Who cares. What I treasure is the joy I experience as new days together with Jim and new observations we share with each other are enriched by the intertwining of memories of the different lives we lived together.

Traveling Relationships

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We heard them arrive the night before, well after dark when backing into an unfamiliar and dark campsite is always difficult. I heard the patches of conversation waif under our open window, like a summer breeze that may develop into a storm. It brought a smile as I remembered the hundreds of times I would have to take a deep breath and do a walk about in a tight circle to cool myself. I was curious about what our new neighbors looked like, what kind of lodging they brought with them; as if these two pieces of data would tell me their whole story.

I was sitting at the table by the window the next morning, with laptop open, mostly minding my own business or maybe engrossed in the photos of the previous day. They were getting their breakfast supplies, moving in and out of the door of their one-room bedroom/kitchen, just a few feet away. I heard words about the size of bowls and amount of cereal and sharing blueberries, a male voice with an edge but not escalating. I didn’t hear the female voice even though they seemed to be having a conversation. Then they sat down, eating their cereal, talking quietly.

Have they been married a very long time, or are they newly-weds on their first trip together? I’m not sure I would want to start a new relationship traveling in close quarters – we appreciate the fact that we have 50+ years of working together and knowing how to create some friendly distance while spending up to 5 weeks in something less than 150 square feet. We know how to schedule our individual morning routines around the other’s routine in spaces that the law of physics states can’t be occupied by both. We aren’t quite so good at negotiating nocturnal difference. I like quiet time writing or reading or working puzzles – alone time at the dinette. He likes quiet time in bed with lights off and eyes shut, asleep with me next to him. But most important, we have learned how to laugh about how my hand signals point him in two different directions as he is backing up. And we have decided to pay a little more to have pull-through sites.

While I cooked oatmeal I wondered if they are happy, do they trust each other to be there when the going gets bumpy, do they work equally hard to meet each other’s needs. As I poured the coffee and JB pulled on his tee shirt I looked out the window and they were gone. JB washed up the dishes, and I sat looking at the empty picnic table, thinking about how wonderful marriage can be and how difficult it is making it work.

Coping with Change

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Delphinium planted in the Naples Botanical Garden reminds me to buy some for my Northern garden.

It’s that time of year when things are a-changing for me. It’s that time of year when I move from my winter home in sub-tropical Florida to very early Spring in Michigan. This isn’t the first time I’ve made this change and probably not the last time I’ll write about it. I’m at the point in the process where I have to stop to think where I keep the sharp knives, the spoons for my morning cereal, my favorite spatula, and my whisk. It is the time when I turn on the bathroom faucet to a harder flow instead of turning it off because the faucets work in different directions at each place. It’s a time of achy body and exhaustion – for a little while until I adjust or the weather gets warmer.

And it is the time of shifting friendships. Most of the migratory condo residents had left before we did so I had to give good-bye hugs and feel the sadness of loosing them for a few months. We have lived there long enough to become close and really care about each other. We left a few behind who won’t be leaving until May and I worry about them becoming lonely – like I was becoming without everyone being there. I really appreciate that we have made close friends who will be excited when they see us next October or January. There is a bond that has formed and with that bond is also the price of having to say good-bye – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is also the time of making connections with friends and family in Michigan. I want to see them all right away and that feels overwhelming but it must be worth it because I am starting to contact people and set up dates. Because people are so much more important than a clean house, my housekeeping will be done in little spurts. We are still getting things put away from the car – maybe next year we won’t take as much back and forth.

This year was complicated by my computer motherboard crapping out the end of March. What a pain! It seems like everything I need is on my computer and I had to wait until I came north to get a new one because the disks for my most used programs are in Michigan. I think that almost everything is loaded and working well, and I am once again feeling calm. I am also finally able to see and process the photos from my last two visits to the Botanical Garden.

The hardest part of not having a computer for three weeks was the loss of connection with people – some blogging buddies and some friends/relatives who are best connected with through social media. I wasn’t able to write any posts and missed reading what the people I follow are writing about. I have some catching up to do.

My take-away is that, even though I get stressed about the state of our government, the amount of violence in the US, conflict and migration around the world, and global warming, what is going on in my personal worlds seem to demand my full attention when there is unsettling change. Family/Friends and security seem to be getting more important, maybe even critical to my well-being. Something for me to contemplate.

Commitment

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The End of the Day

Commitment has been on my mind a lot during the past week or so. Probably because we celebrated our anniversary this week, and being married for 53 years requires a lot of commitment. An acquaintance in his late forties and never married, someone who had been hurt by a failed relationship asked me, when I was writing about being married 50 years, what does it take to maintain a long relationship. I didn’t respond to his e-mail because the answer seemed too complicated. Our marriage took lots of strength and courage, compromise, laughter and tears, anger, hugs and kisses, time together and time apart, physical work, well reasoned decisions, a steady flow of money, personal sacrifice and flexibility, and much more. I probably had to draw on every positive attribute or trait I had and then had to learn a few new ones. But this didn’t seem to be an adequate answer to his question.

I’ve thought about his question over the past three years and seem to have found some clarity. I know the woman he wanted to be in relationship with and from her perspective he was having difficulty committing to their relationship – and that is probably what I should have told him: commitment.

There are a lot of commitments we can make in adulthood; nurturing children, a job, making money, family, sports, hobbies, continuing education, helping others, gaining status, equality, justice, losing weight. I have come to the conclusion, with some hindsight, that the reason JB and I were able to make our relationship work is that we put the commitment to the relationship first, before all other commitments, but not to the exclusion of all the other things we value. I think I have been committed to each of the things on my list at some point in my life; some for brief periods, some intermittently, all at different levels of intensity at different times.  There were many years when I felt like the circus performer with all the plates spinning on top of poles, sometimes I had so many that I feared some were going to fall and smash into mounds of failure. I labored hard to fulfill my commitments, tried to keep all of my plates spinning, but the one commitment, the one plate that I wouldn’t let crash was my relationship to my husband.

This year I have been thinking about how our commitment has evolved with time. As newly weds our commitment needed to focus on learning how to live together, how to merge our unique routines that we had established while growing up but with marriage needed to be compatible with the other. You know, the nitty-gritty of daily life like spending and saving, picking up dirty underwear, bathroom clutter, dusting and dishes, paying the bills. As young adults we needed to be committed to putting the needs of our new family before the needs of our extended family and friends without breaking our old relationships. This was one I struggled with because JB’s mother was pretty dependent on him to help with household tasks she couldn’t do herself (he has been my reliable handy-man for 53 years). She seemed to have something for him to do every weekend and I was really jealous because I wanted his attention. I baked lots of cookies because I found it dissipated my anger. Maybe cookie baking a factor in making a marriage work?  If my memory is accurate, it seems that in those early years the most important commitment was creating a new family unit where the needs of each individual was respected and with both being willing to compromise and sacrifice.

The nature of our commitment seemed to change in our thirties when we had three children and the excitement of being newly weds was extinguished by the heavy cloud of responsibility. As I look back, the third and fourth decades seemed the hardest. We frequently had to tell ourselves that our commitment to each other had to be stronger than our need to escape the stress of all the responsibilities. That was the time when there were so many demands on our time and energy that neither felt the other was pulling his/her weight even though each of us were contributing 150%. I felt like we were business partners more than marriage partners. That was the time when I (we?) no longer experienced the breathless, earth shaking beneath my feet, fireworks going off in my brain emotions of our dating time. During this time commitment meant making time for each other with weekly “date nights” so we wouldn’t forget who each other was. I learned that commitment is a decision, a calculation that involves a cost/benefit analysis. This was when I realized that commitment is a decision made between two people, mutually, and that maybe we would have to honor that commitment by staying together even though one or the other had fallen out of love. Maybe we were able to transfer some of our commitment to nurturing our children into our marriage commitment that had weakened.

Now, after living together for all those years, there is absolutely no question about our commitment to each other. Neither of us is going to leave the marriage for someone else, we both are committed to wanting both of us to thrive, be healthy, and lead a satisfying life. We don’t argue over decisions any more, our squabbles come when we get fatigued (usually me) or anxious (usually JB) and say something hurtful or snarky. We have learned how to live together with joy, laughter and pleasure in each other’s company. We have learned a hundred ways to commit to each other as we have evolved and changed over 5 decades, a half a century. But I wasn’t prepared for the new kind of commitments that aging requires.

When we are settling down for sleep, after catching up on the day’s political news and doing a little reading, before we put on our c-pap masks and turn out the lights, JB will quietly, hopefully say, “See you in the morning?”

“Yes, sweetheart, I’ll be here in the morning. I’m looking forward to spending another day with you.”

This isn’t a commitment to refrain from running away in the middle of the night – its an answer to a plea for reassurance that I won’t die before morning. He is wanting us to commitment to staying alive for a while longer because neither of us wants to face life alone.

What we need now is a mutual commitment that doesn’t seem to have been covered in our marriage vows – the “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part” vows. We have faced all the threats to a marriage and have persevered – and have now become very aware of the ’till death do us part’ clause.

We have made the commitment to exercising, most days (okay almost every other day). We are committed to eating healthy, getting flu shots and all the other immunizations suggested for people of a certain age. We have committed to doing the bothersome testing to catch problems early. But we know that death is inevitable and that one of us will probably have to adjust to waking up to a new day without the other. Our commitment is to doing what we can to make the inevitable end of our relationship happen in the future – down the road a bit. And we sometimes talk about what conditions will warrant a commitment to allow the other to leave, to die with dignity.

Until that time comes, it seems we need to commit to responding with love and patience, with help and respect as we watch each other decline from the normal aging process, and from chronic conditions of aging that lead to death. It is a commitment to being gentle and understanding as we watch each other decline in strength and endurance. It means repeating things and helping each other remember, without a tone of voice that results in shame. It involves a commitment to look at each other’s bodies that have begun to take on the characteristics of an old person, and still see a lover that makes our heart skip a beat.

With a Little Help

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Our middle child visited us in May. Our grandson and his family were also visiting and she wanted to meet his wife and her son, and their baby daughter. She wants to be involved with her nephews and nieces but now that she lives in Texas and the nephews are in their late 20’s with adult responsibilities they don’t get together very often. It was a fun time having all of them in the house.

After grandson and family left, I showed our daughter the lap quilt I was ready to layer and machine quilt and she said she really liked it. I told her she could have it… or she could pick out fabric and we could make one for her. Her eyes lit up and we got busy going through my stash picking out fabrics she liked. Of course we had to make a trip to the quilt fabric store to round out the palette and I suggested we go south to Tecumseh because it has a great store and there is a nice little English Tea Room that has great lunches. Oh, did we have fun.

We made the quilt together, me cutting pieces and she laying them out using the finished top as a template. We looked, she switched pieces based on her knowledge of art, I put in an opinion or two based on my quilt-making experience, and we trust each other’s eye for color and composition. We discarded some fabrics we loved but didn’t work and made a couple of trips back to my stash to retrieve fabrics we hadn’t thought would work. I prepared them for sewing and she did the stitching. Then we “had” to make a trip to the fabric store in East Lansing to pick out the border and backing. The top was all pieced by the time she left. I have quilted it with a cotton flannel batting for the hot south Texas climate and now I have it boxed and ready to ship today.

I hope she takes it out of the box carefully because her dad added a secret surprise for her to find. He has been so excited because there is a story behind it – if she takes a photo and sends it to me I will share the rest it in a post. My surprise for her is that she will have to finish the hand sewing of the binding. I started but the arthritis in my thumb made it painful sewing. It truly is a collaborative quilt.

I keep thinking that I am in the best period of my life, now that I am in my 70’s. I have great grandchildren to fulfill my baby/toddler cravings and grandchildren from twelve to late twenties. I treasure my relationships with all of them, but my greatest treasures are my adult children and spouses. Our three children are all fifty-ish and are great people, the kind of people I like having as friends (as are the spouses). They are very different but each enriches my life in a special way. Now that they have total responsibility for making their life choices, we are freed to enjoy time creating fun life memories. It is the best time of my life.