Sunday, January 6, 2013

Picking Up Where Mary Left Off

     Spartacus and I are spending the weekend with my father-in-law, Bob, who lives about a six hour drive from Atlanta. The last time we came down was six weeks ago for Thanksgiving. It's a trip we've made numerous times over the last five years we've been together, the first time being Thanksgiving of 2008, when we announced our engagement. That was the first time I'd ever met Bob or his wife, Gwen. Prior to meeting me, Spartacus had been involved in an eight year relationship with a woman, ironically named Chris, that Bob and Gwen really liked and thought he might marry one day. He swears marriage never crossed his mind. After eight years of dating, Chris issued an ultimatum, "You need to figure out if you want to be my boyfriend." Spartacus was in the midst of preparing for a long drive to Michigan to help his older brother, Greg, move his girlfriend, Becky, down to Atlanta. "Think about it while you're on your trip; you can let me know when you get back." Although he waited to tell Chris, Spartacus knew his answer before he even pulled out of the driveway. "I was happier single, and I felt I was wasting her time. She was a good chick, ya know, but I wasn't giving her what she deserved. I'd just started slipping away. I couldn't give her a long term commitment, even though she wasn't asking for one." Personally, I enjoyed being single after both my divorces, so I can totally dig why giving up 46 years of bachelorhood wasn't something he took lightly. His world just hadn't been rocked by the right woman yet.
     In contrast to his perennial bachelor son, Bob spent the majority of his life as a married man, tying the knot for the first time in 1948 at the ripe old age of 23. In 1966, his wife, Mary, who bore four sons between 1950 and 1961, told Bob she felt a lump in her breast. By the time she had her mastectomy, the cancer had already metastasized extensively. Nine months later, when Spartacus was six, Mary died. This was the first intimate thing I learned about Spartacus, and it explains a lot about why he never settled down. His recollection of Mary is so poignant, conveyed through the tender heart of a little boy who adored his mom's warm hugs and laughter and bright blue eyes--how kind and loving she was, how he cried every day in kindergarten because he couldn't bear to be separated from her, and how he knew something was wrong when she was too tired to help him dig for clams on their last family trip to Nova Scotia. Although Spartacus married his stuffed yellow bunny in a secret ceremony when he was five, Mary was the first real love of his life. I can only imagine how hard it was for her to die, worrying that she was abandoning her husband and children, and how left behind they all must have felt.
     Bob's job required him to make frequent out of town trips, necessitating a series of housekeepers to care for the boys. According to Spartacus, a couple of them even fell in love with Bob. After three years of single fatherhood, Bob remarried, this time to a woman named Sue, who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Spartacus says living with Sue was pure hell. His brothers were much older than him, and two of them already lived away from home. His brother, Brian, was in high school at the time, and he and Sue didn't get along at all; they bickered constantly. Initially, she was on her best behavior when Bob was home, and managed to keep her drinking under control. When they moved from Michigan to Alabama, her drinking escalated to the point where she'd drive Spartacus to and from school drunk, relentlessly criticizing him, even making him eat outside on the back porch because she thought he ate too sloppily. Because Brian had stayed in Michigan to finish out his senior year, Spartacus who was now 12, was alone with Sue most of the time. He remembers how she'd pass out with a cigarette still burning between her fingers, and how terrified he was that she'd burn their house down. Eventually, she was no longer able to conceal her behavior from Bob. Despite psychotherapy, she continued to deteriorate, and during their fifth year of marriage, Bob filed for divorce. In an attempt to extort alimony, Sue contested the divorce, fabricating allegations of Bob's infidelity. It got so ugly that Bob's neighbors, and even Spartacus, were set to testify against her in court. Upon learning that her own step-son was going to serve as a witness against her, Sue recanted her accusations, collected her belongings, and drove back to Michigan in the car Bob had given her, bringing that nightmarish chapter in Spartacus's existence to a close.
     Overnight, Bob became Decatur, Alabama's most eligible bachelor. Spartacus, who's a bit more shy and introverted than Bob, recalls the next three years of their lives as being heavily punctuated by buxom women callers knocking at the door, bearing man-pleasing casseroles. Interestingly, it was the wife of Sue's psychiatrist who introduced Bob to his third (and last) wife, Gwen. They met on a blind date. "I called Gwen to ask her out, suggesting that we have a drink and get acquainted, and that if everything went well and there didn't seem to be any problems, she could come over and I'd cook her a steak." Things went so well that she took him up on his dinner invitation. "Apparently, she was hungry that day." Gwen, who was the divorced mother of two teenage boys close in age to Spartacus, was kind-hearted and cheerful, much like Mary had been. She treated all of Bob's sons as if they were her own. Bob and Gwen married when Spartacus was 16, and spent the next 34 years together. She was a terrific lady, a real steel magnolia. Although Gwen survived her bout with breast cancer, the experimental chemotherapy left one of her heart valves so badly damaged that she underwent two valve repair surgeries in the decade that followed. In December of 2009, she developed terminal congestive heart failure. She died of complications from placement of a left-ventricular assist device on August 6, 2011, and I know that every last moment of her conscious awareness was spent worrying about Bob living alone. To be honest, we were all a little concerned about that.
     Although Bob says that "living alone isn't all it's cracked up to be," he's doing surprisingly well on his own. Lucy, his Silky terrier, keeps him on his toes. He's in good shape for an 87 year old, still driving his red sports coupe, meeting friends for coffee, and swimming laps every other day. He's slowly gaining back some of the weight he lost after Gwen died, thanks to Ensure. Last night, I asked him if he'd ever consider dating again. He's already being chased by the Scotch-sipping widow who lives two doors down, but he has no interest in her mainly because "she's bossy and shaped like a spark plug." He says he'd be open to dating again, if the right woman came along. I think Gwen would approve. As for Spartacus, he's adjusting to life as a married man. I've made a conscious effort to respect and preserve as many of his bachelor habits as possible, from his occasional use of Tupperware as a drinking vessel to having three sock drawers to being glued to the TV during hockey season, the only exception being his forgetting-on-purpose to take showers on the weekends. From what I hear, he was a low-maintenance kid, and he's no different as a man. He's certainly easy to love, but making it safe for him to feel loved has been a mutual challenge. It takes courage to love and be loved after the losses and insults he's endured. I want to protect that innocent little boy. In that sense, you could say I'm picking up where Mary left off.
Mary, embracing Brad (aka Spartacus), with brothers Greg, Jeff, & Brian, circa 1965

   
Bob & Spartacus, January 5, 2013

     

27 comments:

  1. What a touching story, Kris. Losing wife and mother must have been so devastating. I'm glad Bob found love again. Still, I'm saddened by what Spartacus had to go through with losing his mom and dealing with that witch. I'm so glad he had a happy ending with Gwen (and you. ;) )

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    1. Bob has proven that he can fend for himself, and I'm really proud of him. I think that Spartacus's innocent and undying love for his mother is one of the things that attracted me to him. Gwen was such an amazing lady, and I'm so glad that she gave him so much love when he needed it the most.

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  2. It can take great courage. Especially when, like Spartacus, the heart has already been through so much. But imagine Mary's delight that someone loves her son the way you do and that he is brave enough to accept/return it. Of the many hopes we have for our children, this may be the greatest. Thank you for another moving story.

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    1. Gina, as the mother of two boys, I have certainly thought about that. I've delighted in the loving relationships my sons have experienced so far, and hope that Mary thinks I'm doing a good job with her son.

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  3. Kris, sounds like you and Spartacus have found something in each other you both have been looking for a long time. I can feel the deep mutual respect and to me that, even more than love, is the real cement of a relationship.

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    1. I think you're right, NP. I've often wondered whether that Beatles' song, "Love Is All You Need," is true because it hasn't exactly panned out for me. There are other elements at play in creating and reinforcing the bonds in a relationship, and respect is definitely essential.

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    2. I think you're very right about "respect". In fact I think its even more important then love because if there is no respect between two people then there is no love.

      Besides all that, I think the most interesting thing that struck me about your story is that at 87 years young the man still drives and meets with friends and still swims laps every other day?
      Makes me wonder if he's related to the Kent family.
      Clark Kent

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  4. People like Bob are hard to find these days, so I'm not surprised he's got women knocking on his door. I'm sure that his second wife Sue is regretting every action she did against him. 'You never know what you've got till it's gone' comes to mind.

    Spartacus did the right thing by Chris, because in reality it sounds like his his heart wasn't in it, so her time was being wasted when she could have spent it with someone else. Chris must have known that, women aren't stupid so she gave him an opportunity to 'leg it'.

    Helena, it's like music to my ears to hear you say that you've tried to preserve Spartacus's bachelor habits. Simply because most women try to change a man into what they want him to be, usually after the wedding ring has been slipped on. It's always important to allow someone to be themselves and relaxed in their own home providing it's not causing damage to a relationship.
    A sad and but lovely post all at the same time.

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    1. Bob's really got balls, RPD (he cracked up when I told him that the other night!). He has no problem standing up for himself in situations, and the thing I admire about him is that he can do that without making it personal. He lets people know how he feels about things, right then and there, and then, it's done. By the time I met Spartacus, he and Chris had been broken up for nearly two years. Unfortunately, she thought they were on a hiatus, and I think she was pretty devastated to find out that he was getting married. What's odd to me is that his relationship with her lasted longer than either of my previous two marriages...go figure! RE: preserving Spartacus's bachelorhood, I can't imagine trying to take the bachelor out of him...that's part of his appeal :-)

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  5. People like Bob are hard to find these days, so I'm not surprised he's got women knocking on his door. I'm sure that his second wife Sue is regretting every action she did against him. 'You never know what you've got till it's gone' comes to mind.

    Spartacus did the right thing by Chris, because in reality it sounds like his his heart wasn't in it, so her time was being wasted when she could have spent it with someone else. Chris must have known that, women aren't stupid so she gave him an opportunity to 'leg it'.

    Helena, it's like music to my ears to hear you say that you've tried to preserve Spartacus's bachelor habits. Simply because most women try to change a man into what they want him to be, usually after the wedding ring has been slipped on. It's always important to allow someone to be themselves and relaxed in their own home providing it's not causing damage to a relationship.
    A sad and but lovely post all at the same time.

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  6. But a beautiful, and hilariously told story. "Although Spartacus married his stuffed yellow bunny in a secret ceremony when he was five" and "Shaped like a spark plug" have made my day! :)

    That's quite a lot of divorce in one post! I've been married for 22 years to the same dear woman, and I love her dearly, but there are days where I dream of living alone in a nice wooden cabin in the middle of the woods .... I feel disloyal for thinking that, to be honest.

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    1. Don't feel disloyal Robert, she might be having the same dream, ha ha ha ha ha (I just couldn't resist it).

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    2. I love the story about the yellow bunny. He loved it so much, he decided to marry it! Bob uses some interesting descriptors from time to time, and "shaped like a spark plug" really fits this particular neighbor-widow. There's one woman in the neighborhood that he recently asked out for coffee, but she responded really nastily to his invitation: "I'm still not over my divorce from 10 years ago! And, I don't even like coffee anyway!" The next day, he saw he out walking her dog, and told her that the way she responded had hurt his feelings and that he thought she'd overreacted to his invitation: he was just asking her to have coffee, for goodness' sake! Re: living in a cabin, maybe what you need is a man-cave, Robert...no women allowed! :-)

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    3. typo: "he saw her out walking her dog"

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  7. The internet is my man cave. :)

    @RPD Heh-heh. I hope you fall over and break something. :p

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  8. It would be so easy for Bob to have ended up damaged. That they are no, and are trying to live their lives as best they can, is glorious.
    Ps. Thumbs up to the "Not changing him" thing. There's that old cliche about women spending years changing their husbands then moaning that they aren't the man she married. All too often true in real life.

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    1. Big D, that's a sad cliche, isn't it? Given that, it's not surprising so many marriages end up in divorce.

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  9. This was a touching story Kris. The heart is a delicate organ. If one thing isn't try to kill it another is trying to break it. Love is always there, sometimes we even find where "there" is, sometimes we can even get to hold on to it. If nothing else, we get to remember love.

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    1. Where "there" is is often much closer than we think.

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  10. It is a wonderful love journey. Childhood certainly had its' most impact in a person's life. I totally understand Spatacus and I am so happy that he found you in his life.

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    1. I agree, Yunyi, I think childhood experiences can greatly impact us later in life, especially with regard to trusting others. Getting to know another person for me has always included gaining an understanding of what they were like as kids.

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  11. We are such a composite of genes and experiences - and those early ones have the power to cement what we think about ourselves and our place in the world. A beautifully told epic story, Kris. I love how you are mindful of who your Spartacus is, and who he can become with you...

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    1. I agree, Melody. As I responded to Yunyi above, I've always felt that I don't really know someone until I have a sense of what he or she was like as a child. The child inside reveals so much about who we are now.

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  12. Truly kismet that you and Spartacus found each other. Yes, it takes courage for him to love and be loved after the heartbreaking loss of his mother at such a tender ago and the awful nightmare of his abusive alcoholic stepmother. It also takes courage, a deep love and compassion for you to open your heart to understanding what he has been through and wanting to protect the innocent little boy inside him. You are truly a kind, loving person. Wonderful photos! I love Mary’s bright, open smile and Spartacus was a little cutie. Great photo with his father, too. Handsome guys! It’s beautiful that he has retained such poignant memories of his mother. Clearly, you have picked up where Mary left off. Bob sounds like quite a guy. I love the image of him driving around in his red sports coupe at 87! Very touching post with bits of wonderfully placed humor. Kris, thank you for sharing this with us.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Madilyn! Bob is definitely a character...and the apple didn't fall far from the tree :-D

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  13. Gwen sounds like one hell of a woman, and Bob sounds like a great dad. Spartacus seems to have found his perfect match in you...cheers to many years of marriage to you both. Wonderful post as always. Great photos.

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    1. Thanks, Emily! Happy New Year to you and Slade!

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