Constructing

 

by Barbara Latham

 

D

espite having grown increasingly incoherent, she said clearly, “one simply has to get over the inevitable disappointment of love!”
She told me this, turned over, then died that night.
If these are your mother’s last words they should be considered. I presumed she spoke to me, referring to my recent irritation with Geoff. Not that he seemed to notice if I twitched crossly.
My mother hadn’t previously drawn attention to this. The subject of love only ever came up between us in her long ago attempt to dissuade me from moving in with Geoff. Back then, in the grip of passion, there was no question of my taking the slightest notice of mother’s words.

Before Geoff it hadn’t seemed likely that longing might be coiled out of sight, yet lie in readiness to burst through each vein and artery.
It was a surprise to find myself ardent.

I had ceased my shrugged “whatever,” when asked if I wished to do anything, but polite answers were a learned decorum, until suddenly I found myself skipping along in public. I slid into hankering after an attractive dress, then a better haircut.
I must be in love with Geoff, though it was absurd and he was married, if only just.
Geoff told of his painful separation. I listened attentively, then began offering him my faulty parents, speaking as it had not occurred to me to do before. It was astonishing to find so many words at hand as I conjured conviction that they should have parted, if only they’d had Geoff’s courage but didn’t add that they were religious and considered a divorce a serious sin.
At this stage I had no hope of recognising where repeating theme tunes were shaping how I made sense of things. Grievance failed to come through in lyrics I could register. But as I look back it’s easy to see how whatever I said of family reflected conviction that I’d been let down – that I reached out as lovingly for attention as any child, yet look what happened!

One thing was certain, I felt undervalued.
My friends agreed. They seemed kinder than a busy family of four competitive children, a fraught m other and largely absent father. I’d been impatient to get out in adolescence and continued shut down on those childhood connections.

While filled with the excitement of loving Geoff, it did not occur to me to wonder whether it would be safer to give my heart this time.
Falling in love danced right through me, there was no sipping at it cautiously. I got drunk on it and while light-headed it was unimaginable any un-acknowledged theme tune could resurface.

I kept so few memories of feeling intensely for my parents that specific painful incidents were largely erased. I could not ask if opening to Geoff was liable to take me back to hurt.
This entirely different heart-stirring had nothing to do with early history, so how could anything replay?

As I lay with an ear against Geoff’s chest and heard the pounding beat, I didn’t think about his weakness.
If I only considered strength came from the flow of our union, was I constructing certainties, like Geoff’s bridges, hoping mine also had solid foundations down in deep water?
It was years before I began to wonder whether falling in love had been as magical for him. How had he felt, apart from enjoying being loved? After all, unlike me, he had been in love before, though at the time it was another certainty that his wife had not loved him well; it must have been nothing compared with the fullness of my love.
In my version it was meant to be since it seemed to be beyond either of us. This was the man for me and we would marry as soon as his divorce was complete, despite my disapproving parents.
Sure we were pure of heart and that nothing could restrict the pulsing attraction which carried us along, I sank into him, not seeing ahead to that slow journey back upstream to un-snag long blocked tributaries.
While I lacked understanding of my own limits, there was little chance of helping Geoff to give more of myself.

I assumed that loving him should be uncomplicated.

Dogged persistence is not my strength, Geoff is more solidly enduring. He is not unreliable but where love is absorbing and central to me, for Geoff work is vital. The task of constructing and understanding a project grips him and keeps firm hold. With me he took care not to repeat the mistake of his first marriage where, taken up by young ambition, he was far from home often, accepting any job without considering the cost. Once we were married he was better established and had more choice to be less absent. Although he no longer threw himself into work, forgetful of all else, I started to feel short changed after our daughters began pulling away.
Both girls did it with less conviction than I had done. They still curled close at times, the older one continued to want her long hair brushed, the younger asked to have her back scratched, even as they asserted being separate.
If I expected Geoff to fill the gap, he did not. He had an impressive bridge to build elsewhere.
For fifteen years we had said we were lucky to be satisfied with each other and our shared life.
If having his babies confirmed and thickened our bond, it also began the branching of that apparently single current carrying us.
Geoff must have held divided interests together all along, but I was in my forties before bursts of irritation began to increase and complaints were passed onto friends.

I baulked at finding myself in an everyday marriage of two distinct people, rather than soul mates. Geoff, unbothered by this, would just say, “I love that you are such a romantic.”
“I want my man back,” I found myself thinking as I looked up to where he sat over plans, oblivious of me. He could be so matter of fact when I hoped for a loving gaze, or seem pedestrian about sex, yet had appeared a suitably romantic figure as he spoke of his wife taking lovers while he was off working, asking in low tone of anguished doubt whether he could forgive this.
Disappointment grew.
Not that I called it “my disappointment”.

It wasn’t “my” anything, it was Geoff not paying sufficient attention, it was Geoff not being as desirable. It was his fault and after I’d given everything, now look!
It was only when Mother put down the word “disappointment” that I was left holding it.
Was it true that I felt put out love did not seem to be carrying me as I’d thought it must?

It was my sister who suggested Mother had not been speaking of me
.
Might her statement be the nearest she could get to admitting her own shortcomings?
What if Mother’s sharpness grew out of finding love brought too few answers? Our father’s sins were made clear, he put the wrong jacket on us, or inappropriate shoes and was generally not as competent a parent, though sometimes he was fun.
Mother, on a short fuse, was readily hectoring. To make matters worse her sister, who visited each year, appeared to be living out a tale of romance. Having falling in love on first meeting, this aunt and uncle had no children and lived in New York. They continued playing up to their story and that he turned nasty in drink was kept between them, mother having no idea until a prolonged visit after father died. Through earlier years she only witnessed displays of jewellery and photos of glamorous holidays. Whenever mother said “those two got all the luck,” I somehow felt to blame.
It was all very well for the frail, dying woman to speak of gracious acceptance of disappointed expectations, but what did it look like? She had definitely not shown by example what it might mean.

As I headed into middle age most women I knew traded dissatisfaction with their men. Few wanted divorce, they simply shared frustration.

“Yes, but you still know how much Geoff loves you,” a friend said one day.
Did I know that? True, he wanted to live with me and didn’t seem open to sensing the availability of other women. Yet I hesitated, as I didn’t hesitate to claim love for daughters, though they, too, had drawn back. The girls returned to base more to refuel than for intimacy, but of course I still adored them., despite sadness at the loss of that skin to skin closeness.
Unlike them, Geoff continued wanting my body. If sex wasn’t as appealing, it hadn’t gone off the agenda. But I didn’t just want intermittent lust. I longed for was some return to melting tenderness.

As far as Geoff was concerned the matter of having a woman was long decided. He’d found a good, lasting solution. My no longer distracting him from concentrating was no bad thing.

He failed to comprehend what seemed upsetting to me. If I protested at being taken for granted, he said he treasured being able to rely on me, as he had not relied on his parents considering himself fortunate in his solid marriage, my ratty bouts barely impinged.
He was the kind of man who woke to the morning eager for his day.
His work drew him on as soon as his eyes opened while, though I had a job to get to, it was just another routine shaping the week.

Apart from those years of being in love, I often experienced a hollowed pit in the belly and a fear that I may drop into despair or sorrow might swamp me.
I knew the recipe – get up, get busy and consider other people. It worked well when there were small girls waking me.
Because wanting Geoff and reaching out for him had banished that hollow I struggled to get back to it.
Then something changed.
A new flatness began, like a clean, blank slate across me. This posed less threat than the hollow.

It was dreary rather than agitated and, if seeking intimacy with Geoff was subsiding, I complained about him more with friends.

Whatever version did I put out for others to see? And did this actually make me author of myself?

Too little seemed under control once my capable mother grew vague and worryingly forgetful, during the final years of her life. I saw a lot of her by working part time and Geoff proved a sturdy son-in-law. He tended to put any tension in me down to Mother’s disconcerting vacancy.
After her deathbed words I became uncomfortable joining in easy husband disparagement. I didn’t stop but wondered if shaping a version of the marriage for friends set thoughts on tracks.
Having Geoff as a focus for dissatisfaction foreclosed difficulty, keeping it bounded and manageable.

Not one friend helped me recognise my complaints might be replaying an old theme. I had to wait for the accident to see it for myself.

When the decisive phone call came I was at work and bored.
Even before the first ring I was on full alert, in readiness for the news.
I didn’t panic or make a scene and was quickly at his side in the hospital. As we gazed at one another, much love was in our eyes.
But it was through his long convalescence that I began finding ways out of the impasse.
Along with profound gratitude for Geoff’s survival, was a humbling at the now obvious patterns in what I had been putting down flat on the table with friends. It thickened and encrusted, then barnacle hardened – the discarded shell of exchange with other women. Having put this across the subtleties of loving and rich living with Geoff, it was not difficult to believe myself and fail to hear any echo of that long ago “I gave everything and just look!”
In waves of relief I began seeing how, through Geoff’s sudden fall from one of his constructions, I was gradually being rescued a few of my own.

•   •   •  

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