STRAWBERRY JAM – Marilyn Armstrong

I was 46 years old when my homemade strawberry preserves jelled properly.

Probably what broke the barrier was overcoming a longstanding aversion to putting sufficient sugar in the mix. Alternatively, I could have solved the problem by adding tapioca starch or pectin, but I’m a bit of a food snob.

I wanted my preserves made of just fruit and sugar.

The day the preserves came out perfectly was the day my first husband finally died. He had been dying for a long time. It was a Friday, a rare brilliant spring day in New England.

Jeff had been sick for almost a year in what we politely called a coma, but which was actually a vegetative state. Now gone. I had not come to terms with it though I’d had plenty of time. Probably no amount of time would have been enough.

Other than Jeff’s dying, it was a good time for us. Garry and I were happy. We were good together, busy with career and friends.

Yet there was an underlying sadness we could not avoid, the knowledge that death was near.  Happiness and sadness don’t cancel each other out. The good things are not a balance against pain. Feelings aren’t an equation. You can’t add columns of positive and negatives in your life and come up with a number in the middle. In the real world, joy and misery cohabit. We live with both.

Emotions are messy.

My head was a wheel of memories, a slide show carousel. Faces, places, good years, bad. Bittersweet, sad, joyous, funny. Strawberry jam that never jelled.

I married Jeffrey at 18 and thought myself very mature. He was almost 30, but he thought me very mature too. Both of us were wrong.  We muddled through. We were hard triers. When we had no idea what to do, we faked it.

Eventually, we became the people we pretended to be and it turned out, not the people we needed to be.

1965 in the WVHC office

Though we went in different directions, we stayed friends. No matter where on Earth I was, I knew Jeffrey was there for me. We had a better divorce than most marriages.

Decades passed.

Jeff’s health deteriorated. He survived things that should have killed him, so what a shock he should die of the thing that was supposed to extend his life. The heart surgery should have given him years, maybe decades.  When Sue called late on an August evening it upended reality.  His body wasn’t dead, but his brain was. The future world would be without Jeff.

I would never call to tell him something funny that happened, hear his sarcastic, drawling response. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Someone rewrote the script when our backs were turned.

Fall passed and winter too. Jeff remained in a vegetative state. Someone who looked just like him was wearing his body and that shell remained alive through the seasons. We visited. I stayed for weeks to help care for him. Finally, as spring was nearly summer, the piper played. Now, the ashes were scattered.

Just the other day, Garry glimpsed someone in a crowd who looked exactly like Jeff.

HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY, JEFF – Marilyn Armstrong

I married Jeff in 1965. I was 18, he was 26. I was still finishing my B.A. Both Jeff and I needed to get out of our parent’s homes and make a life. It was a  classic “jailbreak” marriage and for a long time, it worked well.

But time marched on and I wanted to move on. He wanted everything to stay the same — and so we parted. I went to Israel and he stayed where he was.

Graphic Jeff, Studio A

When I was sad, Jeffrey used to sing to me. This is the song he sang.

For one birthday, I bought him a wind-up snow globe. It played “You Are My Sunshine” and had a big green frog on a lily pad in the water. When you wound it, it played that song. He kept the globe as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough.

Happy birthday, Jeff. You would have been 80 years old today and I wish you were alive so I could tease you about your age.

You should still be here.

RECKONING REALITY TIMES THREE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Reckoning

In a quantum physics sci-fi universe, a three-way choice creates three parallel realities or worlds. One is the current universe where the “me” I am today lives. This is my known reality.

At one point in my life — when I was 18 — a three-way choice presented itself. I picked this path, but as a result, two parallel universes exist based on the choices I didn’t make.

I wonder what became of the other two-of-myself?

Our road is full of side trips and detours. We reckon the odds and make choices. It isn’t the more or less traveled path. All paths have many footprints. We go where we think we need to go or for sentimental or mental reasons. More often, we reckon the best path is the one which will take us most effectively where we want to go, at least as far as we have figured out where we want to go.

Most of us reckon we can change our mind later. Which is true. We can change our mind … but because we are in a different place and time when we decide to change courses, it’s yet another course leaving another two worlds in parallel to the one we know.

At 16, I started college and was required to choose a major. Clueless, I chose music because I liked playing the piano. I thought maybe I should pick something practical too. In an elegant compromise, I became a music major with a comparative religion minor.

Religion, the practical career alternative.

Except, I was really majoring in hanging out at the college radio station. Music was okay, but I wasn’t sufficiently dedicated — or talented — to make it my career. Religion was the intellectually “fun” choice. I knew I was going to be a writer. The radio station gave me an opportunity to write and eventually led to real writing work.

Not to mention I met two out of three husbands to be at that radio station.

Dodging and weaving through the first two years of school, there came an unavoidable day of reckoning. Even a dedicated procrastinator ultimately gets gored by the horns of a dilemma. The summer between my junior and senior year, I wound up at a three-way crossroads.

My old boyfriend — with whom I couldn’t have a civil conversation, but with whom I had exceptional sex — sent me a train ticket to join him at his summer stock theater on Cape May. A sexy summer by the sea was an attractive offer. Not a career maker, but it had perks. Meanwhile, back at the radio station, the guy I’d been dating asked me to marry him.

I liked him. Smart. Educated. Employed. Good-looking in a waspy way. I could do worse.

And then there was Boston. Almost on a whim, I’d applied to Boston University’s Communications program. In 1965, Boston was as cool a town as a kid could want, short of San Francisco. Joan Baez sang at Harvard Square and the comedy clubs featured men who would become the future kings of late night television.

Against all odds, Boston accepted me into the program. Nothing could have surprised me more.

I had a lot of deciding to do.

I married Jeff who was (coincidentally) Garry’s best friend. Four years later, there was my son, Owen Garry, because Garry is not only Owen’s step-father but also his godfather.

Don’t over-think it.

The old boyfriend refused to stay gone. Like the proverbial bad penny, he would keep turning up for 15 more years. He would follow me to Israel when I dumped everything and emigrated there in 1978. Another story for another day.

Marrying Jeff gave me a son, a career, a chance to finish my B.A. and find my feet in a reasonably secure environment. I made friends, got a career going and figured out what I wanted to do.

But there are two other universes from that first triadic choice. In one world, I went to Boston and probably stayed there. Oddly enough, that’s where I wound up eventually anyway. Worlds within worlds.

In the other, I went to Cape May — and I have no idea where that would have gone.

If I should, by chance, encounter either of these other versions of me, I’d love to know what happened.

I bet all of us married Garry. Destiny is unavoidable.

HERESY OR HILARITY? by Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Heretic

We are lucky to be living in a time when heresy is a personal, private issue rather than a constitutional one.

When Garry and I got married, we married in his Lutheran church because my husband still believes that stuff. I never believed it. When you are raised sort-of Jewish, you generally don’t believe that stuff. I was a lot clearer about what I didn’t believe than what I did believe … but Garry wanted a church wedding.

I wanted to get the mayor (who was a friend) to marry us on the steps of city hall. Invite our whole world. Get a lot of pizza for dinner then grab the next flight to Ireland.

While we were discussing the service — who was supposed to do what and when — they said I had to kneel.

I said, “My people don’t do kneeling.” Everyone cracked up.

But that’s the thing. MY people don’t kneel. I didn’t mind the ceremony because Garry wanted it, but kneeling? Not only do Jews not kneel but if I had to get to the floor they’d have needed a grappling hook to get me back up. It was a narrow skirt and I was wearing heels. Down I could get because there would be gravity working for me, but up? Wearing heels and a snug white dress?

In another time and place, my attitude would have landed me in a dark, damp dungeon. Followed by having my head lopped off. I sure hope they kept the axe sharp.

This being “modern times,” I didn’t die for my religious preferences or for wearing a snug dress and heels.

Times change. This is a change of which I definitely approve.

KEEP IT SMALL, KEEP IT SIMPLE. BETTER YET, ELOPE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Abstain from Ceremonies

If you survive the wedding, marriage is a piece of cake.

When Garry proposed, I was shaken. He was 48 and I was 43. I’d been married twice and my first husband (still alive) was Garry’s best friend. Don’t ask for details. As they say in modern RomComs, “It’s complicated.”

I had finally managed to get unmarried to number two which was complicated by requiring a board of Rabbis in Jerusalem to agree and you’d be surprised how complicated that can become. They are not modern guys.

Photo: Debbie Stone

Garry proposed. Once I got over the shock, I realized there would be a wedding, about which I wasn’t enthusiastic. I’d never been enthusiastic about weddings.

But Garry wanted the whole thing with flowers,  music, and his pastor from childhood (retired, but drug out of retirement for the occasion) … and of course, me. It had to be in New York, not Boston.

Having told me what he wanted for a wedding, Garry retired from the fray and let me get on with it. At some point, he figured out I would do everything and he could show up in a tuxedo. Voila! Done and done.

Somewhere in Ireland

It’s a blur. I don’t remember the details though I have it on a CD and that helps. When you are a bride, you get moved around, told where to stand. You wear shoes so painful you need the jaws of life to remove your feet. Also, the gown had no shoulders, so I had to wear some kind of corset thing. It was a warm September and beneath the corset, it was sweaty. Then there were stockings and a veil, flowers, hair, and makeup. Sheesh.

As for the date, it was simple. It would be when Garry’s baby brother, the honorable Dr. Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf’s Choir wasn’t going to be on the road with the choir. We wanted him to sing — and HE wanted to sing — but he’s a busy guy. Then there was a bagpiper (my former first husband insisted). My Maid of Honor wanted to sing (lovely voice) … and another friend was going to sing too. NO way we were getting away with simple music and anyway, Garry has a streak of Hollywood director in his soul, so we made almost no plans for the party, but staged a big show as the ceremony.

On September 15th. Today. In 1990.

When people asked if they could bring their kids, we said NO and they brought them anyway. Garry’s mother invited all her best friends because she was Garry’s Mom.

Happy anniversary!

I wanted to go to city hall and have the Mayor marry us. He was a pretty good friend then — still IS a friend, though he’s long out of office. We could have had a nice little ceremony on the steps of city hall, grabbed a plane at Logan and headed for Ireland. But we had to have this wedding. I think we were the ONLY people to invite 86 people and end up with 110 people. No one refused.

Everyone came.

“You mean — GARRY is getting MARRIED? I’ve gotta BE there!” He was Boston’s longest known bachelor, so this was an occasion for all and sundry.

It was a great wedding which I know because we had it taped. A couple of years ago, we transferred to DVD. It turned out mylar tape corrodes over time. Who knew?

With a few exceptions (mostly due to death), we know all the same people today we knew then. Funny how that works.

Photo: Debbie Stone

I suppose we stayed married because we were determined to make it work. We really cared about each other. Love is important in a marriage, but I have to say it is the friendship that keeps it going. When the flush of romance has been crushed under the pressure of two full-time jobs and Mr. Romance just wants to sit around the apartment watching baseball, being good friends matters.

Ireland

Love is a grand thing, but a deep and abiding friendship is forever.

Personally? Call an abstention on the wedding and spend the money on a fabulous honeymoon.

THURSDAY’S SPECIAL WITH TRACES OF MY PAST – Marilyn Armstrong

THURSDAY’S SPECIAL: TRACES OF THE PAST Y4-07

From Paula: 

After a month’s break, I decided to challenge you again with things from the past. What Traces of the Past have you found near you or on some of your travels?

Are these remains of things built and now in disrepair, the remains of natural occurrences, or items from your personal past?

Whether they provoke admiration or make you nostalgic or even horrified, here’s an opportunity to showcase them for this photo challenge.


There’s a story that goes with these two chairs.

Adirondack Chairs

I ordered them from LL Bean when we first moved into this house, 18 years ago. I had images of long summer afternoons spent lounging in the yard, relaxing in those chairs. I also bought a big wooden table, big enough for us and anyone who came to visit. A table for the deck and matching chairs and even a side table and a lounge chair.

We built a teepee — and I wrote a book about the teepee and spend some lovely time there, too.

But life didn’t go quite the way I expected. I got sick and stayed sick for years, one thing after another. And Garry lost his job. The economy crashed and by the time it came back, we’d been out of work so long, it didn’t matter. I physically couldn’t … and Garry was burned out. Finished.

The teepee was up for 6 years then finally had to come down, worn out by those winters and summers in the valley. I found those chairs were lovely to look at, but shockingly difficult to get out of. I needed a skyhook and a winch to stand after sitting there. So while they are still out there, they are rarely used. It turns out, almost no one can get out of them without help. Something about the angle …

Our third vow renewal.

We don’t spend nearly as much time outside around here as we expected. Partly, it’s the weather and the rest are the bugs. Steamy hot in summer, bitterly cold and waist-deep in snow during winter, autumn is about the only really comfortable time. Even that depends on the proliferation of black flies and mosquitoes, and not counting two-years of gypsy moth infestation.

And yet, I have the happiest memories of the backyard. It’s where we were married (the third time, to each other) and where we had barbeques and where I slept in the teepee.

I may not spend many hours outside, but it has inspired me in many ways. It’s full of inspiration, even if the chairs don’t really fit and the teepee has moved on.

jupiter najnajnoviji

LOVE AND LOSS – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Love

Before I left for Israel at the end of 1978, my best friend for a long time was gay. It started out casually and eventually got to be an intense friendship. He’d never had a straight female friend and I’d never gotten close to a gay man. We both learned a lot about each others’ worlds … and eventually, each other.

He would call me every night. He could tell by the sound of my voice if I needed company or felt bad about something. Even when if I said everything was fine, he knew. We were best friends and spent pretty much all our spare time together.

When I finally decided I needed a divorce, R. asked me to marry him. It took me a while to realize he wasn’t kidding. Married?

I told him I didn’t think it could work. Not only was he gay — and had always been gay — but he was a serious Roman Catholic who wanted to be a priest. If we could leap the sex hurdle (highly unlikely), I was pretty sure we’d never get past religion.

He said he could change.

We can all change … but how much? I asked him if he’d ever had sex with a woman. He admitted he hadn’t. I asked him if he had ever wanted to have sex with a woman and he said “no,” although he thought I might change that.

Then there was his fascination with Catholicism versus my skeptical Jewishness. It wasn’t only that he was “born a Catholic.” He went to Mass several times a week. He was serious about it. Religious differences between friends is not an issue, but between a married couple?

I said I didn’t think he could change that much. I didn’t think anyone could. Religion isn’t like that … and sex isn’t a choice. We are what we are; we need what we need. Despite what some misguided people believe, you don’t get to “pick” the sex you prefer.

He said we could do our own “things” and we’d still live a fantastic life. That was true, but it was not what I wanted from marriage. I wanted a marriage that could be the center of my life and I wanted it to include physical closeness.

I thought about it long and hard for several weeks. I tried to figure out how it could work. Was I ready for a marriage that was, in fact, a close friendship with vows?

For him to ask me to marry him was a giant leap. I was touched, flattered, and a bit haunted by it. It was not a casual suggestion.

In the end, no matter how many ways I looked at it, I was sure it would not be successful. For either of us. It wouldn’t matter how hard we tried. It would not work. So, I said no.

That he had asked had already changed our relationship.

He seemed to take rejection well, but he was hurt and angry. I don’t know if he was angrier with himself for asking or at me for saying no. Probably both. For him to ask me to marry him was remarkable, generous,  and heartfelt. To be refused was more than he could handle.

It’s not like the rest of my life was going to be perfect. I did a lot of things wrong before I finally got it right.

The problem was simpler for me. Everything I understood about gay men told me being gay was not a choice. Not optional. There was no way he could decide to not be gay. Moreover, there was only so much Catholicism I could stomach.

I was already in a failing marriage.  I didn’t know I had another one waiting in the wings, too. Even if I’d known what was awaiting me, I could not see the point of starting another impossible relationship. I’m convinced I was right, but he was the closest friend I ever had. I have missed him for all of these years. We loved being together and no one ever took his place.

Sex and religion can really get in the way of life, you know?