Looking at my life since my divorce 19 years ago, I realize I have been doing things backwards. Travelling around Europe, living in new places, meeting new people, learning a new language, living in an attic apartment with the minimum is something to be done at 18 or 25, not 68 (and I would ask: Is that true?) Stopping to think about this earlier this morning, a scene came to mind so clearly it might have been yesterday.
I was standing in the library of my parent’s house (at that time mine too) with my father. I was crying. I had been crying for two days, having broken up with the young man I was dating because I didn’t feel “in love” enough. My father had finally tired of looking at my swollen eyes and asked what was wrong. I told him I had broken up with my boyfriend because I didn’t feel I loved him enough to marry him.
“Oh, God” he muttered shaking his head, “I certainly hope you are not going to become a nun!”
Today, as I contemplate that answer, it seems so absolutely strange and medieval to me. Why in the world didn’t he say something like: “Don’t worry, you’re young. Study, travel, go to Europe, practice a profession: you’re barely out of your teens. There’s plenty of time to meet men.” I can’t swear that his answer placed in my mind the idea that there were only two paths for me to follow (marriage or a convent) but the following day I made up with my beau and we were married at the end of that year. I was twenty years old.
I know now that there were reasons for my father’s answer. For one, he was Spanish and in the Spain of his youth women had only those two choices. Adding wood to the fire, I had suddenly “found” religion and, as youth tends to do, was going all out for it with confession, communion and mass as an almost daily practice. The other reasons I wouldn’t figure out till much later, upon learning things about my father’s life that I then ignored. For one thing, his brother’s favorite daughter had just entered a convent (in Spain marriage to a man or to God was still quite the custom for young women). He probably saw me going in the same direction. But the real reason undoubtedly was that the two sisters that followed him in age (he was the eldest of 14 children) entered a convent in Madrid and died aged 24 and 22 during a typhus epidemic because they worked ceaselessly with the sick in the Saint Martin hospital there. It must have been no consolation that they were considered martyrs of charity in the local papers of the time. How this affected my father I can never really know; however, during a weekend of Family Constellations, when I constellated my family, the young man who took the role of my father, upon seeing the two women stretched out that represented his dead sisters, began howling with a grief that was so intense it is hard to believe it wasn’t real.
What was real was the fact that apart from marriage, I don’t remember other options being mentioned. Many times I heard that I had been named “Brianda” so that if I married a Mr. Smith my name would still stand out. I was encouraged to go to college so that if for some reason my marriage ended or I was widowed, I would be able to work. Now I find that my memory of myself as a young girl doesn’t seem to contain any possibility other than marrying, having children and becoming a housewife. I know the idea did not thrill me but it never seemed to occur to me that I had another choice. So in my mind I wrote a novel about the best wife and mother ever and set myself about acting it out.
The romance with housewifery and motherhood lasted about as long as the romance with religion, and two years after marrying I was well on my way to Freud’s couch where I spent the better part of my 30 years of marriage. When my second child started first grade, I went off to the University to finish my career. After that, I began to write (it was something I could do at home and during hours when my presence was not required by the family). For a while, I even earned enough money doing translations to allow my husband to set up his own X-ray cabinet. But over and above all I continued being the mother and housewife I believed I was destined to be.
What I do remember perfectly, however, was the exact moment when my “lost” youth caught up with me and I began to yearn for all that had been missed. The year was 1990 and my son had returned from the United States to live and work in Mexico. He was 26 and single so that living at home rapidly became uncomfortable for him and for us. He needed a bachelor’s apartment. I helped him find one. It could have been any day of the week when he called and asked me to come see a small place he had found. I met him there. It was in Polanco, a upper class neighborhood with mostly apartments and boutiques, on a small tree-lined street. The building was attractive with narrow balconies and big windows in front. I think the apartment was on a second or third floor. It was tiny, with a long, narrow entrance hall that contained an ample bar served by a small kitchenette and ended in one not-too-large room that would serve as bed and living room all in one. There was a closet and a bathroom. I remember thinking: ‘It’s perfect; I want one.’ I fell in love with the place and the simple bachelor’s life one could live there (compared to my enormous house on the golf course, my husband’s tribute to the Taj Mahal). I was overjoyed for my son and dying of envy. I longed for the bachelor’s apartment I had never had and remember mentioning to my husband not long afterwards that I would like to move back into the city, perhaps to an apartment now that our children were both married, and receiving the answer that the only way he would leave his Taj Mahal was feet first (something obviously untrue, because he moved out two years later when we divorced, and so did I).
So even though at eighteen I did not do the Europe thing on a motorcycle like my brother did, nor did I throw myself into a profession until the age of twenty-seven and begin the climb to the top, or have the bacheloress’s apartment while I was still young and beautiful, I seem to be doing all that right now.
So as I snuggle into my comfy little attic in France, I begin to understand what unconscious forces began sculpting this move over 50 years ago. And, as the saying goes, “better late than never”, or maybe I should add: even better late because it is enjoyed more consciously.