Irreconcilable Differences

Irreconcilable Differences

Irreconcilable Differences 1920 1280 Kim Magowan

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

My parents used to play a game, which they may have invented. Over the years I’ve asked people “Have you ever heard of this game?” No one has. I don’t remember it having a name, but in my head I call it “Contradictions.” One person says a motto, the other person counters with a conflicting motto. If you can’t come up with a second motto that contradicts the first, you lose.

Birds of a feather flock together. Opposites attract.

When I was a child my parents seemed to me a romantic odd couple, like Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were. Although they both grew up in Manhattan, my father lived in a brownstone between Park and Madison, went to boarding school, and was as preppie as they come, while my mother was a middle-class Jewish girl. They met in Tahoe, when my mother and her friend Suzy, on a weekend ski trip during their freshman year in college, got their car stuck in the snow. My mother, the brave one, approached two young men digging out their own car, and asked to borrow their shovel. “Can’t you see we’re using it?” said one of the men. The other one said, “Oh, let her have it.” That one was my father. In retrospect, the oddness of their match seems more calamitous than ordained—friends of mine invariably say they can’t picture my parents having ever been a couple—but I can’t watch the ending of The Way We Were, when Barbra Streisand tenderly brushes Robert Redford’s hair from his forehead, without feeling nostalgic and moved.

Actions speak louder than words. The pen is mightier than the sword.

In 1981 I found a long letter, at least twelve pages in cramped handwriting, that my father had written my mother in 1965. He had broken off their engagement that February, and this letter, written that April, was the way he lured her back, asking her to meet him in England (he was doing graduate work in Oxford) and elope. The reasons he broke their engagement off are unclear to me—or rather, they were once clear, but now have become subject to distortion. That is, I had thought of my parents as star-crossed lovers because my father’s parents vociferously disapproved of my mother, who was Jewish. They didn’t accept her until long after I was born. But from something my father let slip, many years later, I now think there was another woman involved, someone whose name began with an R. I know nothing about her except that first letter; she’s quicksilver. But she casts an obscuring shadow over my father’s romantic letter, precipitated by a phrase from a letter that my mother had sent him, where she claimed “I love you a little less every day.” He took umbrage at that. He was writing her while lying in bed, he said, and he couldn’t lie there without thinking of his fantasies of her beside him. One thing that struck me about this letter was his confidence: it closed with him saying it was still too early to call her dormitory (the middle of the night in California) but he knew in a few hours “I will call, and you will come to me.” I remember being struck by the force of his phrasing; I’d never thought of my father as a writer. I refolded the letter and put it back in the linen closet. It was obviously precious to my mother, who had saved it for sixteen years, but to show it to her now, a month after my father had left her for another woman, would only cause humiliation and pain, and make her feel foolish for marrying a man who eventually abandoned her. I don’t know if the letter still exists.

Look before you leap. He who hesitates is lost.

Though my mother’s parents, her father in particular, had liked my father very much, they judged him harshly for breaking off the engagement. He had done this in a gentlemanly way, flying from England first to New York, to meet my mother’s father and warn him about his intention, and then proceeding to California to end it with my mother in person. Or at least when I was a child, hearing this story, it seemed gentlemanly to me, though when I reconsider it there’s something patronizing about these two men conferring, about my grandfather knowing hours before his daughter would that she was about to shatter. Perhaps that’s why my mother, who was very close to her father, lied to her parents about her requested graduation present, a solo trip to Europe. She didn’t tell them she was planning on eloping, didn’t let them know until she sent them a telegram after her civil service wedding in Oxford: “PETER AND I ARE MARRIED STOP PLEASE UNDERSTAND.” My father, after much dithering in the telegram office (my mother describes him chewing his fingernails, a habit he hated and censured, which showed his distress) wrote his parents a nearly identical telegram: “JILL AND I ARE MARRIED STOP PLEASE TRY TO UNDERSTAND.”

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind.

My mother is scathing about ex-boyfriends. She doesn’t understand why I want to stay friends with anyone I used to love, particularly my ex-husband. After she and my father divorced, she dated a string of men, none whom she considered marrying. She tells sharp, funny stories about batting them away when they presumed, after the break-up, to contact her. To one ex-boyfriend who wrote her a letter, she wrote back a postcard with this compact sentence: “So you’re still pretending that you exist.” But I think two things when she berates me for continuing to be on civil terms with men I once loved: 1) The reason she has no space for any former lover is because my father, a black hole, occupies all the room that a vacuum can fill 2) The reason I stay friends with exes is overcompensation for the way my parents could not, for nearly forty years, be in the same room together. Entirely on my own, I had to map out how to have a caring divorce.

The more, the merrier. Two’s company; three’s a crowd.    

Though the Myers-Briggs personality test would unequivocally categorize my mother as an introvert, she was also, when married to my father, extremely social. They had dinner parties where my sisters and I passed around hors d’oeuvres on Italian platters. Our dining room was the fanciest room of our house, decorated in my mother’s style, which was eccentric and whimsical. She had a menagerie of malachite animals on the side board, and fake food, which she thought was funny and my father thought was tacky. (I never realized how different my father’s taste was from hers until he moved out, though perhaps the monumental shift in style of his new house was less an authentic expression of his aesthetic, and more a reflection of his capitulation to a new alpha, my stepmother). Before dinner parties, my mother would spend all day making one of three desserts: raspberry Bavarian cream, chocolate mousse (the Julia Child recipe, with Grand Marnier), or Ile Flottante. My sisters and I carefully handed out the dessert plates, using both hands, as if they held something priceless. I think my mother saw herself as a keeper of a salon, and felt it was her job to ensure my father, who worked very hard, had his leisure time populated by charming, interesting people. In Jacksonville, Florida, on a business trip in 1980, my father met my future stepmother at a dinner party.

The best things in life are free. You get what you pay for.

My parents divorced in California, which, long before most states, had progressive “no fault” divorce law. The primary reason for divorce (every state requires a reason, as if there is one disease to which to attribute the death of a marriage) is “irreconcilable differences.” I remember my mother, who loves words, objecting to checking this box. She said to me, “But I don’t think our differences are irreconcilable!” I was fourteen then. I replied, “But Dad does, Mom. In and of itself, that’s an irreconcilable difference.”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Better safe than sorry.

For decades my parents had not communicated at all. Regarding this, the fault is on both sides, but I judge my father more harshly, since as the one who left, he should have been gracious and kind. He once wrote on a letter she sent him, “Deceased, return to sender,” an action which shocks me every time I reconsider it. At the few public events they both attended—funerals, their daughters’ weddings—they avoided each other. But shortly before my father’s death, my mother wrote him a postcard. She had heard from my sisters and me how sick he was, though we were still hopeful that he would recover. One of the last times I saw him, he said to me, “Your mother wrote me a very nice note.” I was taken aback, not that she had written it—I knew she had, she’d told me first that she was considering it, which I applauded, and then read me over the phone exactly what it said: “Peter, I’m sorry you’re suffering. Bon courage! Love, Jill.” What surprised me was that he told me this in front of my stepmother, who for nearly forty years had regarded my mother as her adversary. He smiled, and his blue eyes—the whites gone yellow from jaundice—watered. That moment, I realized that my father would die soon, and that he and my mother both knew this, and understood that it was time, not to reconcile, but to reconcile their differences. Or rather, to allow their two versions to exist side-by-side, like those mottos that would assert, with such efficient confidence, competing claims.

Header photo © Sonnet Mondal.

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