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Friday, December 28, 2018

Pipes, Curtains, And Grouting–The Stuff Of Marriage And Ways Of Escape

The Painters were to all appearances a couple in a good marriage of many decades.  They had divided responsibilities equitably, brought up two children well, and were loving grandparents. They co-existed, each in their own spheres of interest – different friends, occupations, diversions – rarely got in each other’s way, and all in all rode even rails with only an occasional loose shunting.

Their early years had been good, although it was not long after their marriage that Robbie had begun his affairs.  At first short, desultory pairings in exotic locations; then more serious ones but necessarily brief.  Robbie had no intention of leaving his wife or children, was perfectly satisfied with the short shelf life of his meet-and-mate liaisons, and eventually they became part of a well-balanced life.  As his marriage became more and more predictable, and as his wife became more and more occupied with house and home, forgetting the adventure and romance of their earlier years as if it had never existed , Robbie felt the need to chart his own course and navigate by very different stars.

“I just work here”, said a friend, following the instructions of his wife, admitting the less-than-ideal relationship with a woman of fixed ideas and assuming that since all husbands were complaisant helpers to insistent, practical wives, he could be honest.  Robbie understood the predicament.  Despite claims to the contrary, women were indeed nest-builders, even those who had lived much of their lives in the boardroom.  It was not that women wanted a secure place for their families as they always had.  It was that there were no natural brakes on the impulse.  The earliest women had little to build their nests with – more mud and wattle, tighter weaving of the sticks and twigs, deeper swales to catch and channel the rainwater – but the modern woman had everything. Not only to repair leaks and cracks, but to redo – reupholster couches, repaper the walls, reconfigure the family room, bump out the kitchen, add a sunroom, retile the bathroom floors – and remake for no other reason than some vestigial impulse to rethatch the roof. 

Men, Robbie thought, either helped, got out of the way, or reconfigured their own lives.  Bill Lincoln, for example, had always been scarce or unavailable for Sunday morning outings.  Margot wanted him to grout the bathroom tub, replace the screen doors, or repoint the chimney.  Bill never complained, was always a dutiful husband and companion, and placed his wife’s concerns over his interests.   It turned out, however, that shortly after his death, his wife discovered email correspondence between Bill and his Honduran lover with whom he had been having an affair for ten years.  Those trips to Tegucigalpa were not as innocent and work-related as they had seemed.

Dark-eyed beauty

Bill had simply traded uxoriousness for a life of sexual adventure, love, and intimacy with another woman.  His dutiful obligation, his deference, and his constant attention to his wife was the perfect cover.  She suspected nothing.  The revelation after his death came as a shock and complete surprise.  She not only felt cheated, but tricked.  It was one thing for a husband to stray; another thing to act the part of dutiful spouse with such fidelity than even the most critical audience would have suspended disbelief. 

“It served her right”, said one of Bill’s friends during their coffee post-mortem.  Far better for her to have found out after his death than before.  He had to suffer no screams and recriminations.  No pound of flesh, no hectoring, harping, and surveillance; and she had to endure years of painful, frustrated anger and unrequited revenge.  He couldn’t have engineered a better or more fitting end to a woman who had been bsimply too difficult to get rid of.

Robbie’s route was ironically more honest than Bill’s ever was.  Robbie refused to help re-grout the shower and help select new drapes and kept a mistress in Port of Spain.  It was a question of personality.  His wife was so preoccupied with the mud-and-wattle of her life that she ignored the cost.  It was far more important for her to have a new kitchen and bumped-out sunroom than it was to get any spousal support; and that enterprise kept her nose out of Robbie’s affairs.  When he finally pulled up, settled for a nice bed of hay and a warm stable, his wife was none the wiser.  She was only happy that his busy professional life was winding down and coming to an end.  He would be underfoot to be sure, as unwilling to help out as before, but still, it would be nice to have him home.  Their relationship had always been skewed in his favor.

Image result for beautiful turkish women

Perhaps it was motherhood that so defined women’s mud-and-wattle character.  A baby cannot simply be left to the elements.  Cold air whistling through the cracks has to be stopped, the leak in in the thatch repaired, the dung floor resurfaced, and the briar fence replaced.  Home improvements are not for the mother but for the baby; but just as Australian shepherds will herd little children when there are no sheep in the pasture, women cannot stop refurbishing, redoing, and renovating once their children are out of the house. 

Perhaps it had more to do with historical legacy.  Women had been confined to house and home for centuries, so it is no surprise that they busy themselves with drapes, curtains, rugs, and glassware long after they have entered the competitive male workplace.

When the reshuffling of the furniture, the in-and-out of sofas, highboys, and tables, and the replacement of the flagstones got too much, Robbie headed out to meet his lover in Miami Beach, or drink rum punches at the Oloffson, or even rekindle old affairs in Sioux City. 

Robbie and his wife stayed married for decades, their home had been featured in House and Garden, and their family remained intact.  Robbie assumed that either his wife knew about his meanderings and ignored them, intent as she was about her own, very practical ends; or that she had no idea what he did after he closed the front door.  In either case she was happy to have him out from underfoot as she reupholstered and refinished, and he was happy to leave this workshop.

They had never shared a ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ moment either before their marriage or after, so perhaps it was that diffidence or patient indifference that kept them together.  Who is to say what marriage should be, as artificial a social construct as it has been? And perhaps the best marriages are those where husband and wife follow their own hardwired, pre-historic instincts but still manage to co-habit.

Many women might claim that such duplicitous and deceitful marriages such as Robbie’s and Bill’s are fundamentally wrong and the ends do not justify the means.  An intact, ‘happy’ marriage cannot justify treachery and dishonesty.  Yet many marriages come apart for a lot less, and most are unhappy, dreary, affairs.  What is wrong with one built on the honest desire to be busy, constructive, and hearth-building; and on the faithful, although temporary, return of a sexual wanderer?

Nigel Nicholson wrote Portrait of a Marriage, a memoir of the unusual open marriage between his mother, Vita Sackville-West and his father, Harold Nicholson.  Literary critic Nava Atlas describes it this way:

Sir Harold, distinguished writer, scholar, diplomat, and statesman, was a social, extroverted being; Vita, a poet and novelist, was the product of mingled Spanish and English blood, once described as “romantic, secret, and undomesticated.” They both thought marriage “unnatural,” but realized that, “as a happy marriage is ‘the greatest of human benefits,’ husband and wife must strive hard for its success. Each must be supple enough, subtle enough, to mold their characters and behavior to fit the other’s facet to facet, convex to concave.”

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Robbie’s marriage was neither as open nor dramatic as the Nicholsons’.  By comparison to the English couple’s sexual adventures, high-living, fame, and wealth, his was ordinary and conservative.  Yet given the precariousness of marriage, it is hard to criticize either one or any one.

The fact that few men would want to be married to Robbie’s wife – a life of pipes, curtains, and grouting sounds very unappealing– most applauded Robbie for his evasion and his commitment.  Marriage was not to be dismissed lightly; but avoidance of the worst sequelae was not only necessary but expected.

Robbie and his wife stayed together until the end.  Admittedly once Robbie had accepted the hay, feed, and stable he was not as happy as he once had been; but he adjusted. He kept out of his wife’s way when she was involved in one of her projects.  His daughter was particularly sympathetic and welcomed him; but once the dust had settled, he returned, not exactly with enthusiasm, but a return nonetheless.

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