Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Long and the Short of It: A Valentine

When my husband and I go out in public—daily, many times a day—we’re assailed with stares, bemused looks, as well as rude, crude, and crazy comments. My favorite after twenty-one years of marriage: “How do you …kiss?” Let me explain. My husband Michael stands six foot, eight inches, while I am five, four…okay, in truth, five, three, which leaves a gap of seventeen inches between our respective statures, or so you can picture the discrepancy, about a foot-and-a-half.

These days, with busy lives up here in Montreal, my work as a novelist and teacher of creative writing, my husband’s as a biotech consultant, a teen and pre-teen, as well as a Hollywood star of a Bernese Mountain dog to look after, I don’t have much time to dwell on my husband’s height. (About that dog: I guess I do like big males.)

In the early days of our courtship and marriage, the gazes and gawks of strangers bothered me terribly, invasions that left me feeling furious and exposed. What struck me was how stunned, though not dumb-struck, alas, people were by the unusual, particularly the physically different. It was as if they stared, not at a person--but at a statue--deaf, blind, and insensible.

Back in the day, my MO for these uncouth intruders was to rush up into their faces and give them as good as we got: I stared, I made faces, I spewed out my own outrageous comments. They came to, as if from a fugue state, realizing with horror that this freakish couple were, in fact, sentient, alive, human.

Michael, a gentleman to the core, did not care for my manner of dealing with rude strangers. He preferred to hold his head high and go about our business. Throughout our years together, he’s remained kind and patient with the artillery of stupid questions, asked again and again, with so little imagination. “Do you play basketball?” How tall are you?” “How’s the air up there?”

Though I met Michael on a blind date during my New York City days, I was prepared for his unusual stature by his sister. (She is tall, too.) Helene and I shared a country house in the Berkshires with a bunch of other singles one summer. She told me her brother was a “super fellow” and asked permission to give him my number. I later found out that she’d also slipped him the numbers of two other women in our house. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why he took so long to call.

Time passed. The tall super fellow didn’t call. I gave Helene a nudge. More time passed, but eventually, a rather shy guy did ring my apartment in Brooklyn and we set up a date to meet at a cozy bistro in the West Village on the corner of Grove and Bedford. This was 1986. I was thirty-one, Michael, thirty.

The novelist in me could not wait to meet this giant in a fairy-tale. Despite my rich imagination, I simply could not wrap my mind around six, eight. I’d dated my share of guys, but no basketball players.

When I entered the restaurant, there he stood in an elegant suit, a midnight blue shirt, a tie adorned with swirls of mauve, apricot, and purple. A handsome man with large dark eyes, a full and expressive mouth, silky black hair falling over his collar, and lovely fair skin. He reminded me of a British boarding school boy all grown up, which in fact, he was. I noticed his extraordinary hands-- manly, well-shaped, and expressively carving the air as he spoke—they looked as if they’d been sculpted by Michelangelo. And I loved his voice: deep, calm, and soothing. He listened with a concentrated focused attention I had not experienced with other beaus and his dark eyes took me in.

Over a good French wine, we told each other our stories. Apparently, I babbled for the first hour until Michael interjected, “Okay, I’ve heard a good deal about you, let me tell you about me.”

I was dumbstruck. Later, after our first anniversary, I said, “I couldn’t believe you said that to me!” And he replied, “I was smitten and didn’t want to be a cipher. I wanted you to know me.”

I confess I fell in love with Michael’s story before I fell in love with him. I’m a devotee of Victorian literature and Michael’s life might have been penned by Dickens, had Dickens written about Jewish orphans.

He and his sister were raised in England. They never knew their father. Michael and Helene lost their single mother when my husband was only sixteen, his sister, twenty-one. They looked after one another, and later, moved to New York City, Helene to take up the jewelry business, Michael to go to Columbia.

Michael’s mother, Brana, a Holocaust survivor, died at fifty-two, a legacy of the camps. (She was imprisoned in Terezin, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald.) She was a loving, self-sacrificing mother fiercely devoted to her two children, in fact, her life was in them.

At our first dinner and many subsequent ones, I learned more about Michael’s lost and extended family. His mother, Brana, was one of nine children born to a Hasidic Jewish family in Solotvino, or Slatinske Doly, as she called it, a small rural village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in Czechoslovakia. Her father, Mehel, and mother, Chanca, lived in the front room of Grandfather Yankel’s house on Synagogue Street. Her father was known for his extraordinary height, six feet, five inches. In fact, the family’s last name, “Hoch,” means tall in German.

Michael, named for the grandfather he never knew, inherited the legacy of tall stature, as have our two children, Tobias (who at fifteen is six foot, three and growing ) and Rosamond (who at twelve has bigger feet than I do and is inching up fast). I suppose, in a way, we are the march of the living tall. That is, except for me.

During my single years, longing for a life partner, my beloved physician father
advised me to “keep it light,” a glimmer in his gem-green eyes. And my psychiatrist mother—and many well-meaning friends—admonished me that if I was really ready to marry, I would see my rag-tag bunch of beaus in a different light. Any of them would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been the one.

Many of my past boyfriends shared my father’s perspective: they were allergic to my intensity. I had to make myself small, be that smiling floaty woman, light and bubbly as champagne.

Over that first memorable dinner with Michael, I knew he was different. My giant in a fairy-tale didn’t shy away from telling me his story and didn’t flinch when I shared mine. I felt he could take me in and contain everything I had gone through, and though moved, not be shaken. He would come out the other end. And so would I. At long last, a mensch.

This was a man who would later accompany me to a mental hospital to visit my schizophrenic brother, staying by my side, and helping me to rebound and go on with daily life afterward, though my heart was breaking for my brother and I was wracked with guilt for being the one who got away. A man who could stay strong and calm during financial difficulties and uncertainty, ugly fights with family, the tsuris that is part and parcel of raising two talented, feisty children.

Which brings me to my understanding of what keeps our twenty-one year marriage going strong. Though we have much underlying commonality--a love of literature and the arts, travel, hiking-- our temperaments are complimentary. Where I am a worrier, quick to lose my temper, Michael is calm and steady. I fear the worst and Michael maintains a sensible optimism. At times, I take myself too seriously and Michael has taught me to see the humor in most situations and people.

What have I taught him? To get organized, to figure out what you want and need and not be afraid to ask for it. To trust intuition and the wisdom of the imagination. To give up the burden of being, Saint Michael.

The strength of our union lies in its resilience. We’ve both managed to grow and change over our twenty-one years together, and our marriage is stronger for the evolution, fertile ground to grow further.

Six months after we met, we returned to that the West Village bistro and Michael got down on one knee and proposed, sliding an engagement ring on my finger, a Deco mosaic of diamonds he’d found in an antique jewelry store. I was seized by a fit of convulsive laughter, but managed to catch my breath and accept. (He eventually forgave me for laughing, but it took time). His sense of humor was not that good.

We tried to return to our bistro on an anniversary and found a different restaurant had taken its place. Later, the corner of Bedford and Grove Streets became the site of the fictional home of the F.R.I.E.N.D.S characters. What lives there now?

I often wish my mother-in-law Brana could see us now. How happy she would be to see her beloved son settled. Michael always tells me that she and I would get along famously, both of us believing that life is too short for anything but the truth. And what a joy to meet her grandchildren. If only.

I miss Brana. Even though, we’ve never met, I feel as if I know her. Through the many stories and memories Michael has shared with me over the years. Through the few albums and memory books she lovingly kept and managed to preserve. And most of all through her voice.

Brana left behind a cassette tape that she made for family about her childhood and life. Listening to her voice, I felt she was right there in the room with me. Though she had passed on, her voice was very much alive. I was struck by how powerful voices are, stories, they maintain enduring life, beyond corporeal life.

Today, I don’t notice Michael’s height much, at least when we are home with our family. Though not terribly observant, I do feel blessed to have put down new roots. These days, the grown up British boarding school boy now looks almost rabbinical, with a dark black beard, the proverbial male compensation for an almost bare pate, and those dark flashing eyes that drew me in the first place. Here’s to the next twenty-one years. That’s the long and the short of it.


peacelovesweetness said...

Happy Valentine's day! However I'm not as big on the "love" stuff, as I am about the chocolate stuff!

MatthewP said...

What a beautiful story! If only I could write my wife something like that....then I would have an even better Valentines Day!

Anonymous said...

21 years is a long time. It's the gap between being a minor and an adult; the time you wait before being able to legally drink. 21 years is definitely an accomplishment. Now, just keep it goin' steady!

Leonard said...

What a wonderful story. I am 5"4' and my boyfriend is 6"1' feet. He worries that I may hurt my neck when he kisses me and bends his knees, which makes me laugh, so our kisses ofent end in laughter which is wonderful.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Leo said...

Pardon my delay in providing comments - it's been a busy three days and most of that was the weekend.

Speaking of which, we went skating in the Laurentians. St-Sauveur to be exact, where they have laid out a series of wonderful skating loops inside a copse of trees. It's an amazing feeling to be skating within the trees, even trees which are bare and denuded of foliage.

And it was there, skating with my spouse, France, who is also on the short side (5 feet even to my 6 feet even) that I realized that it had been almost 20 years since I first met her . . . skating on the Rideau canal. We had met though some common friends, and in that awkward time when people are trying to know each other, and when a language and culture seperate you to boot, it still was a very pleasant day, skating for what seemed like an endless time along that canal.

When we finally arrived at the foot of one of the downtown streets where her old Renault 5 was parked, she turned to me and offered me a ride home. What a thrill! I got to spend another half hour with her, and the bonus was, she would know where I lived.

And so this February 15th, as I skated around that forest, I gripped her hand a little tighter, told her of that memory and bathed in the sweetness of the moment.

Carrie said...

Just like you said...a post worth reading.You are certainly not alone in experiencing the gawking of people who can't imagine how you "manage" the height difference...May we be as strong and united as the two of you are in 21 years. It was lovely to meet you this evening. Hope to see you again soon.