They were married on December 2, 1958, after a relatively short courtship, which started with a blind date and landed them in a church less than six months later. She was barely 20, he a few years older, and they were both feeling the pressure. “You’re getting too old, you’ll never be able to start a good family if you wait around forever… your brothers and sisters are having kids, and now it’s your turn… do you really want to be an old maid?… do you really want to die a bachelor?”
This was deep in the heart of The Middle of Nowhere, that hilly sprawl of Central New York that many New York City residents envision if they hear about anything happening “upstate.” Their church had a population of about 250 congregants, and the whole town, spread over a couple hundred acres, had a population of about 300, altogether. Not counting livestock, which could trigger quite the heated debate between Neil, the bachelor farmer who had an unexpectedly intense and loyal relationship to his cows, and anyone who harbored suspicions about what went on at Neil’s farm in those pre-sunrise hours when the lights were on in the barn.
To call their environment (and the attitudes of its inhabitants) “small town” would be severely overenthusiastic in scope. Many of them had never seen a town, and were vaguely – or sometimes outright – distrustful of anyone who saw it to go down “off the hill” for any reason.
She had been born and raised there, and was related by blood or marriage to all but two families in the area. And, though her surroundings were steeped in poverty and life was simply accepted as a drudgery from which there were very few variations, she knew well enough that marrying into either one of those two families was just unthinkable. “Those people,” she explained, “were just as poor and dirty and sheltered as the rest of us. But they were also stupid, and you just can’t fix stupid.”
When she decided to go down off the hill and learn to be a secretary – of the old school variety, that which hosted classes in shorthand and typing on a non-electric typewriter and proper posture and preparing coffee – she, who had been viewed as somewhat quiet and shy all her life, was suddenly labeled proud and “too big for her britches.” Her parents and six siblings were encouraging and supportive, though, so she relied on them and learned to drive a car just to get herself to school. She knew they were supportive of the fact that, as a secretary, she would be meeting lots of eligible men and would therefore marry quickly and return to a life as a proper, subservient housewife. But support was support, and she found that she did well in school. So well that she actually started to suspect that she might be (though she never said so out loud) smart.
At school, she was able to put on a totally new persona. She could say witty things without having to explain the punchline, and she could try out her brand-new, never-out-of-the-wrapper flirtation skills, always in groups of friends and safe surroundings. One of her new girlfriends at school told her, after a few weeks’ acquaintance, that she simply had to meet this new neighbor of hers, just moved in with his mother after some time away for training with the Army.
Thus a blind date was set up, her first-ever one-on-one date, and the relationship progressed quickly. By Christmastime, she was married and expecting her first child. Rather than meeting the expectations of her family and her classmates, she decided to finish out the school year and get her secretarial course finished. She had three kids in four years, and within a few years after that, she went to work. Years later, she confessed, “I had this little glimpse of the life I could have if I went off to work and kept being myself, and a bigger glimpse of what would happen if I just stayed home and disappeared into family life. And I just liked that little glimpse so much better than the big one.”
From the start, their relationship was unpredictable. He had been suave, and smooth, and charming during their brief courtship, and his pursuit of her was nothing if not dogged. It wasn’t until after the wedding, while they were living with her new mother-in-law while her new husband built their new house back up on the hill, that she realized just how driven he really was to find a mate, and why. Her mother-in-law was a battleaxe, intense and stern and aggressively right about all things to all people. (Many years later, when professional wrestling stopped being a sport and started being scripted entertainment, she jolted and nearly choked on an ice cube when she realized that her mother-in-law acted just like Jimmy the Greek… and looked uncannily like him, too.) Newly home from basic training and searching for work, having been relegated to the Reserves due to bad knees, it took him only a few weeks to realize that living with his mother was not something he could continue to do – and even less time to realize that men weren’t supposed to do nonsense like cook or clean, so he needed to find a wife. Any wife. The sooner the better.
He had inherited many of his mother’s habits and attitudes, and shared those with his wife from the start. To this day, he continues to reveal his ideas about the ridiculousness of women in the workforce, the utter stupidity of the concept of homosexuality, and the fundamental inferiority of anyone whose skin wasn’t lily white. The difference is, he has learned to act as though he’s joking, and to find more subtle ways of showing his thoughts; early on, he was loud and outspoken, and she was embarrassed.
He micromanaged the care and maintenance of the house, but didn’t actually do that which he dictated. He had certain tasks around the house that were men’s tasks, men’s work: mowing the lawn, tinkering with engines, burning trash in the barrel out back. There was no reason on earth for him to listen to anyone else’s suggestions about any of the ways he chose to spend his time – those manly chores, or his bowling league, or his job at the gun factory – because clearly he knew the very best possible way to do it all, and he was already doing it. But he routinely – and repeatedly – imposed his ideas on others, in a forceful and intense enough way that very few people had the courage to disobey.
He laughs at people, not with them. He likes sarcasm, but even more he enjoys the chance to cluck his tongue, raise his eyebrows, and shake his head in a manner which couldn’t have more clearly communicated judgment and ridicule if he’d had “I can’t believe you can be that stupid” tattooed on his forehead. He is bossy and unpredictable, sometimes shrugging and walking away and sometimes reacting to the slightest perceived affront – “Don’t you give me any lip” – with aggression. He never struck his wife in a way that would have been, in that place and time, considered abusive or even inappropriate. Women simply needed a little extra discipline, sometimes, too. But his kids caught a much heavier dose of his anger, in the form of belts, paddles, and verbal abuse. If anyone dared question his style, he would retort, “They’re just weak, too sensitive. Gotta toughen them up.”
She daydreamed of divorce, or a call-up to war, or a car accident coming back from a beer-laden bowling game some night, but those dreams were entertained with just as much belief as the dreams about becoming an executive in Paris or being the lead singer in a country-western group. Simple fantasies. You simply didn’t get divorced, in those days and in that place. You stood by your man, and in return he brought home the bacon. When she went back to work, she was strictly forbidden to ever tell anyone that she earned more money than him, and he made her open a separate account in a separate bank so that the tellers couldn’t compare their paychecks. He would have preferred to just order her to remain at home, but those years when she was home with the babies were long, lean, hard times, and he didn’t want to have to give up his bowling league again.
So they stayed together, raised their children, built a life. They did develop a true affection for each other, and learned how to enjoy each other and head off the worst of the fights and annoyances. It became clear to everyone around them that, if (and, as time goes on, when) the worst happens, it had better be him that goes first; she could live quite comfortably without him, but he couldn’t make it a month without her. They raised two of their grandchildren, when their middle daughter came unhinged in ways people refused to talk about, and eventually sold the house on the hill and moved into town, before the house became more than they could handle.
She does love him, and he loves her. But she also hates him, and he shows blatant disrespect on a daily basis. He insults her taste, intelligence, and driving skills; she spits in his Cheerios and writes, “You’re such an asshole,” on her shopping lists, in shorthand, just for the satisfaction of hanging it on the fridge for a few days before she goes to the grocery store.
They are, simultaneously, perfect and toxic for each other. There’s not a big enough daisy in the world to keep track of all of the ups and downs in this marriage, in which the word “divorce” was never uttered aloud, but nor was the phrase “I love you.”