I recently asked a few close friends who are in long-term marriages what they used to argue about in their younger years. One husband said about his wife, “She was always late; even when I would lie about the time we’d have to be somewhere, she’d still somehow manage to be late.” Another couple said they fought about money. A third couple argued about his driving.
When it came to my turn, it was easy: Feb. 14. Valentine’s Day. Every year (not including last week, thank God), I’d expect it would be different, and this would be the year it would hit him that what you were supposed to do as a loving husband on Valentine’s Day was get a box of chocolates and bring home a dozen roses. The fact that I don’t like chocolate or roses had nothing to do with it.
The day would dawn, and invariably I would wait for him to spring the surprise on me, and invariably the only surprise was that once again, there would be no chocolate and no flowers. I would yell, “One f___ing rose, that’s all you had to come up with! One candy bar, for God sakes!” And he would calmly say, “Nance, I’m not buying into the Hallmark mentality.” And I would go into the sulk room and spend an entire day feeling unloved. Because isn’t the ultimate expression of love something you get?
We all know the definition of insanity, or one of them anyway: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, of the two insane people in our twosome, I’d say I was the more insane. For one thing, who wants to buy gifts for a person who is screaming and swearing? And for the other, I still don’t get why we didn’t have a conversation around this problem.
“Sweetheart,” I could have said, “I know I may be weird because I know Hallmark has designed all these holidays so innocent consumers will go out and buy things that no one needs, but they have created a want, and look how effectively it worked with your unsuspecting wife? I hate myself for being so programmed that as soon as I see pink and red and it’s February, like Pavlov, I just want rosy tissue paper wrapped around something. You are totally right in not wanting to buy into being manipulated by consumerism. But I know you love me and I know you want to see me happy, so could you make an exception and just do something little, something symbolic, just recognize the holiday and get me a very small something. Like a box of chocolates and a dozen roses like you’re supposed to?”
Looking back, I know Joel would have said, “Of course, put it that way, I’m in. I get it.” Instead, it took about 11 years for me to be the one to “get it.”
I couldn’t help it. I am a child of the ’50s, and Madison Avenue was Main Street for me. They said if the guy really loves you, he’ll show up with some material proof of his devotion. If he really loves you it’ll be something big, and if he really, really loves you it will be something huge.
In 1977, I found a teacher. His name was Richard Alpert, and he was a professor at Harvard. He found his guru in India and was given the name Ram Dass, which means servant of God. In his landmark book, “Be Here Now,” I found a new way of looking at life. One of the things Ram Dass said was, “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.” My identity as a girl, a wife, one half of a valentine was keeping me stuck. It was a prison of sorts, and the sooner I could let go of the “role” I had taken on, partially because society expected me to and partially because it was modeled so well for me by my mother and every other woman I saw in my early formative years, the sooner my unrealistic expectations would dissolve.
Clearly my definition of love had to change. I saw that then. The fact was that I had a husband who was a cheerleader for me in every way. When I crashed the car because I wasn’t paying attention, he said as long as you’re OK. When I was sick, he made all the meals and brought me tea and honey and squeezed the exact right amount of lemon in the mug he knew I fancied. Whatever dream I had about what I wanted to do (and God knows the dreams changed rapidly), he was fully on board. Since I had kids and couldn’t possibly leave home to get my master’s degree, I found a college in Vermont that was taking older students and letting them design their own curriculum where they could get their degrees without having to go to the physical facility. The man said, “Do it.” I wanted to audition for the English satirical comedy group Beyond the Fringe while they were touring England. He said, write to them, do it. I wanted to perform my own essays on the radio, and he said, “Then do it.”
The biggest thing he did was he let me be me, in all my insecurities.
Once I realized this was what love was, my craving for something store-bought began to weaken.
And instead of buying me nothing, he wrote me something. Seventeen pages. On the back of a Cronig’s bag. I still have it. And he’s done that almost every year since. They’re not all 17 pages, but they are pieces of art, and I save every one of them.
We laugh now about those early years. Last week’s Valentine’s Day gratitude was our gift to one another; gratitude for our health and those around us who have managed to stay healthy, and it will be the only gift I hopefully ever need.
And OK … maybe some words on the back of a Stop & Shop bag.