Deeper Than Cleaver
Despite decades of disillusionment, we're all still encouraged to believe that everyone in 1950s America just stepped out of Leave It to Beaver. But my parents really did.
Whatever was expected of a bright, young, middle-class pair of newlyweds, they came through: My dad worked his way up the ladder at JC Penney (to whom he gave the kind of devotion nobody would dream of giving a major corporation today); my mom went through a variety of hairstyles while running an immaculate household; they both spent the rest of their lives raising four children. On their wedding day in the summer of 1962, they looked like what I imagine was the official mandate for couples getting married in the summer of 1962: Be sleek, be stunning, be full of a vibrant sense of your potential for complete and utter contentment—and don't forget the '50s.
Mom and Dad came into their adulthood in a time when the sight of a handsome young man with a naughty sneer swiveling his hips to a rock 'n' roll song was considered shocking. It was back when you could actually use the word "shocking" because, supposedly, not much ever was. And this, I think, was OK with my folks. I remember hearing some story once about how my dad and a buddy had ruined someone's science experiment in college by stealing their chickens and letting them loose in the dorms, but aside from that he was a very respectable guy. My mom drove across the country to San Francisco with her best girlfriend, which was carefree enough but culminated in her fateful meeting with Dad and falling in love while Tony Bennett's famous ode to the city played in the background. Life certainly wasn't meant to be shocking, and how were people supposed to stay hitched and raise a bunch of kids, anyway, if they had to constantly look over their shoulders for the threat of the unconventional?
They didn't have to look over their shoulders, because the unconventional hit them in the face. My older brother, Todd, was the child you want to have first—he was smart, funny, good-looking, well-liked, and excelled in gym, before faithfully joining the JC Penney ranks. Shannon was next, and she, too, was smart, funny, good-looking, well-liked, and excelled in gym; she also went through a variety of lean, sporty girlfriends before becoming a police sergeant and settling down with a very attractive woman on a ranch in Reno. I followed Shannon's birth two years later, told my third-grade teacher that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Farrah Fawcett-Majors (well, who wouldn't? She was a gifted young actress on a hit show married to the Six Million Dollar Man), and finally graduated from college after seven years of sleeping with anyone who didn't have a vagina. My younger sister, Leighann, as she'd always planned, got married and had three adorable boys of her own—after a few healthy years of exploring the kind of liberation that, purportedly, no woman in the '50s ever desired and that probably single-handedly caused my father's gray hair.
What has always struck me the most about all of this is how the perfect black-and-white snapshot of the perfect life faded so gradually, and how defiantly, how lovingly, my parents allowed color to come into the picture. I won't say that there weren't days and nights—oh, and many of them, my friends—of melodramatic proclamations and slamming doors; I wet myself when I remember I used to tell my mom and dad that I'd bet they wouldn't be proud of me "even if I won an Oscar!"
They survived the onslaught of a non-sitcom existence because, well, they so clearly stood by their commitment of love for each other and so determinedly proved to us that we were included as a part of that promise, however complicated it became. My parents honestly believed that the world was essentially a good place filled with good people, and unlike a lot of others who still blindly follow an ideal, they didn't leave the definition of "good" for anyone else to decide. Cleaver material though they seemed to be, they were real.
I've always identified very closely with my father; the apple does not fall far from the tree, and everyone who knows us can see that. It's not just that we have the same unusually large eyes or that we share the same questioning, analytic mind, or even that we both tear up over "Mr. Bojangles" and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—it's just that, quite simply, I have always been my father's daughter. And then eight years ago, he returned from a random trip to Southeast Asia and called me in New York to tell me he had a new wife and two young sons. By the time he got to the part about how he had been corresponding with this woman for some time prior to his trip—how he had "met" her through a magazine published with the intent of connecting Filipino women with American men, well, you could have knocked me over just by looking at me the wrong way. It just wasn't what I was expecting.
My dad is now a retired marine biologist who keeps one of the tidiest houses in all of Skagit County, and his wife manages the morning shift at the local McDonald's. They get up early together, and he drives her to work. When he gets back, he typically starts preparing dinner; these days he has the time to be grandiose with the evening meal. He makes sure their two teenage sons get off to school and then spends his days the way a lot of retired guys do: finding some sort of broken-down mechanical item and then fixing it. He likes to vacuum, too. Angelita returns from work in the afternoon fairly tired out, so she usually naps for an hour or so while the boys do their homework, and then they all sit down to eat. Their life together is very good, but judging from the "knowing" sideways glances they get, they're often misunderstood. She's not some docile housewife he ordered from a catalog, and he's not a macho, domineering chauvinist. And maybe, in the end, meeting that resistance is what does them the most good.
I know he enjoys teaching her new things, and I know she enjoys learning them. I know that it's OK with him that she likes to go out to the casino, and I know it's OK with her that he doesn't. I know they both love baby-sitting my nephews, at least when they're being good. I know my dad loves her complete lack of pretension, her wholly un-American ability to laugh at herself when she does something wrong. And, similarly, I think she loves it when he attempts to master, and then ultimately butchers, some Filipino phrase or food. It's hard to pinpoint why any relationship works, and these days I'm apt to think that the harder you try to define that kind of thing, the greater chance you have of watching it disappear.
Groovy Kinda Love
As far as I know, my mother hasn't worn a bra in 30 years. She lives in flip-flops, except for her one emergency pair of Chuck Taylors, and lives without standard health insurance, since acupuncture, she believes, cures everything from tumors to mild depression. She grows sprouts and avocado pits on her windowsill and meditates two and a half hours a day. She also has severe secret addictions to Classic Coke and movies about young gay men struggling to make it in the big city (Longtime Companion, Jeffrey, Love! Valour! Compassion!). In other words, she is a kooky lady, but she seems to have found a perfect match in her husband, a man who enjoys the simple pleasures of his annual haircut, vanilla Tofutti, and European downtempo, and who pretty much adores her. For the last 22 years, they have split their time between compounds in Fiji, Hawaii, and California (see, the flip-flops make sense), and though they stay together whenever they can, their No. 1 priority is leading what she calls "a spiritual life," which means the wishes and whims of their guru frequently take them in separate directions for as long as six months at a time.
They both seem to have great faith in a relationship that doesn't require constant physical proximity. At their home in California, they have two small bunkers set off to the side of the main house, about 10 yards apart; this is where they sleep, and it allows them to keep their own hours—she will sew crazy outfits out of crazy fabrics and watch whatever kind of video (gay or not) she likes, while he plays records at his preferred volume and messes around with his Nautilus equipment until early in the morning. They are always welcome to visit one another's spaces, which they do, and they are still, according to them both, completely in love.
I see them maybe once every year or two, and in those times, I've never seen them fight or hardly even bicker. They still hold hands, kiss, and look each other in the eye when they speak. They also never really look any older, so they must be doing something right; whether it is the sprouts or the meditation or the frequent separations, I don't know. Maybe it's just that they never had kids together. There are certain things about their lifestyle I won't ever completely understand, but they seem to have found real happiness with one another—which is more than I have seen in a thousand white-picket-fence families.
The Long Make Up
In the fall of 1974, my life was a total loss. Frank Lloyd, my lab rat in Reed College's B.F. Skinnerite psychology department, was a bitter anarchist who bit my thumb. My grade was partly based on how fast Frank Lloyd learned to press a bar to get food pellets; Reed's average grade point was said to be a full point below Stanford's, and we Reedies were desperate for grade pellets. A boot-camp-drill-sergeantlike school authority had barked the first week: "You're here to match your brain against the person sitting next to you!" Aiee!
Things were direr yet on the heart front. My first college girlfriend had given me the heave-ho. Though I wasn't as crazy as some of our classmates—one quit school after a week, having traumatically overidentified with Achilles in The Iliad—I was very like that character in the cartoon Li'l Abner who's followed by a personal thundercloud wherever he walks. This she needed, on top of her own freshmanic depression? She took refuge in art and an upper-class exchange student resembling Young Werther on steroids.
So it fell to another woman to endure the arduous, arguably unrewarding work of debachelorifying a guy so undomestic the Seattle Fire Department once filed an official complaint about my office as a fire hazard: "TIM'S OFFICE: REMOVE FLAMMABLE DEBRIS."
Another scene, another breakup: Manhattan in 1994. After seven years, she wearied of waiting for a wedding ring and gave me that old, familiar boot-in-the-butt sensation. I pulled my socks up and went out visiting.
One night I phoned my first college sweetheart. We'd chatted a few times since she'd relocated to Brooklyn, but we weren't tight and had different circles. Last I'd heard, she was basically engaged; but she was still living alone and said, "Sure, come on over." Turned out she wasn't engaged, though there was a suitor, an acclaimed composer she'd met at the MacDowell Colony, who wanted her to move to Boston. His bachelor problem was the opposite of mine—he was so neat he rearranged his cushions and vacuumed the house after anyone visited, and he didn't want her to move in with him, just to the neighborhood, but please, not too close to his cushions.
She was wowed when I arrived with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne, unaware that I almost never didn't bring Veuve Cliquot to social occasions. I stayed the night, and pretty much every night thereafter. She moved into my place after a ruckus with her malevolently mad landlady. It was a fabulous loft, dangerous: The day she moved out, a large chunk of concrete fell off the building and put a hole in the roof of the car just before she got into it. The landlord's lawyer argued in court that either someone carried the concrete to the roof and hurled it at her car, or the concrete wafted over from another building on the block. What are the odds?
Better than the odds that this would happen: We got married 25 years after we first met, almost to the day.
For Your Eyes Only
How many of us look to marry someone who'll make our lives easier? Someone rich or connected, someone who offers comfort, someone who balances what we lack? In some ways, Jackie and P.J. McCraw seem to fit the complementary pattern: Around the dining-room table of their North Seattle house, their personalities form a combined picture of warmth and humor, shared but distinct intelligence, modesty and bullheaded determination. But Jackie and P.J., both blind, took the farthest thing from the easy route, a marriage of different skin colors and common challenge.
"My family was real opposed" to the union, says Jackie, who grew up in Spokane, "because of the race issue and the blind issue. They wanted me to marry a sighted person, someone who'd protect me and keep me safe. It has been more difficult, I won't deny that."
In 28 years of marriage, Jackie and P.J. have lived in Australia (where they got married), traveled through Asia, and raised three sighted kids—two biological daughters and one adopted son. ("We'd pin bells on their backs when they were babies," says P.J., "and if it was too quiet for too long, we'd check on them.")
Fixed up by the owner of the Spud Nut doughnut shop in the U District in the late '60s—when P.J. was working on his doctorate in geology and Jackie was working for Washington's Department of Health Services, teaching old people how to cope with declining vision—Jackie and P.J. say that in some ways the blindness they share has saved them from some of the difficulties of a "mixed" marriage. "There's a lot of tug-of-war that goes on in sighted-blind couples," says Jackie. "The sighted person feels put-upon, and to some extent, that's true." "It's so much harder for people who go blind later in life," says P.J. "Very few marriages survive that. The roles change—it's a major social upheaval."
Yet the common ground of blindness only goes so far. "What makes our relationship work is we consider each other to be best friends," says P.J. "As long as we keep accepting each other as individuals, and as a couple, I think we'll be all right."
Mark D. Fefer