The first five years of my marriage I would ask my new husband things like, “What’s the hardest part of your life right now?” or “Do you remember your first broken heart?”
My twenty-something man would repeat the question word for word, and while I was thinking he was thinking of his answer, he was actually waiting for me to do what became our verbal two step: I ask, I respond. For Him.
We continued this dance because it seemed to satisfy both of our needs at the time. I got the answer I wanted and he didn’t have to deal with or articulate how he felt. About anything.
Years later when I started to read a lot of eastern teachings and it felt as if my heart were ripping itself open for the first time in my life I wanted to share my overflowing sense of wonder and love with everyone I met. Of course I practiced on my family first. I would say at dinner things like, “Let’s everyone turn to the person next to them and say one thing you love about them.” My younger son and I would immediately pivot and begin our hyperbolic praise, while my husband and my older son would roll their eyes.
A long around year forty, something shifted in my marriage. I finally didn’t need to control my husband’s answers anymore (I know, it took a long time) and he began having, identifying and expressing his own emotions.
The other night at his birthday dinner we were all making toasts. The last one to raise his glass was our six-year-old grandson. He’s used to making toasts. Whenever we eat out we clink and everyone says something. Since my husband is fanatic about the environment it’s never a surprise when Eli starts his little speeches with something about the planet. So it was understandable when he raised his seltzer and began with, “I’d like to make a toast to the universe and to water and clean air.”
I couldn’t help myself. I interrupted. Naturally, I love that he is conscious about the world but this time I felt I had to intervene. I said, “Eli, your words are beautiful but it’s Poppy’s birthday and we’re all saying things about our relationship to him.”
This next quote I swear is exactly what he said. I wish you could have heard the tone of his voice but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it might has well have been my husband speaking. Without skipping a beat Eli said, “Oh, we’re talking relationships now?” And then with the perfect timing of a great comic he said, “I thought this was just a normal toast.”
We all cracked up and had a delicious dinner and wonderful celebration. But later when I thought about it I wondered, is that need for privacy and boundaries and the reluctance to be emotionally mushy gushy programed into the DNA?
Yesterday when my husband and I were on a gorgeous walk in Lobsterville I asked him one of those early marriage questions. I know now it was way too intimate, way too much but I wasn’t thinking about protecting him. I just suddenly flashed on how I could be a better person in the new Trump era. How could I serve and not be resentful and frightened? I don’t know about you but how do you know who you are (the shadow side of you, the dark side, the stuff you want to work on) unless someone close to you who loves you will tell you. So I said (with regrets now in retrospect), “Joels, who am I? You don’t have to tell me the good stuff. I know the good stuff. I need you to be frank and a bit lovingly brutal.”
There was that Joel Aronie pause. And then he said, “I feel like Eli. I thought this was just going to be a normal walk.”
Nancy Aronie lives in Chilmark. She is the author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (Hyperion/Little Brown) and teaches the Chilmark Writing Workshop.