When I was a child, I assumed that when a man eventually proposed marriage to me, it would be the old fashioned way. He would have one knee on the ground, and the black velvet box outstretched in his trembling hand. He would have a speech prepared of course; and I would swoon with his declarations of ever lasting love. This scenario wasn’t my fantasy, really; I had just been conditioned to believe that this was the way things happened.
But when my marriage proposal came, it was me who was on my knees.
I was scrubbing the kitchen floor with a bucket of hot soapy water, a dab of sweat at each temple. The fact that the sight of me bent over, being a domesticated goddess, or a soapy slave, inspired this man to propose marriage might have been a red flag. Because I always knew that I could never be a traditional woman.
As early as I can remember, I didn’t want to have children. I remember boasting about this to my mother, to which she replied, “Oh, you’ll change your mind one day.” But I never did. I also thought it highly unlikely that I would ever be married.
But that day, as I rubbed a filthy washcloth over the linoleum, I agreed to be married.
I was only 19 years old.
My life changed overnight.
The life I imagined that I would lead would be one of a hedonistic writer. I wanted to live passionately; I wanted to live like the Beatniks did in the 1950’s. I dreamed of another literary movement, so I, too, could be a part of a sub-culture. I wanted to live in the bowels of an underground America, serenaded by jazz, sex, and poetry. I wanted the purple dawns and drugs that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty knew in Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and just like Jack I wanted my own cross-country bohemian odyssey. I wanted to drive a vehicle like an unguided missile, my one arm waving free toward the sunset, over prairies and desserts and cities; my mind ripe with lusty descriptions of all of it. I wanted to frequent coffee houses with my writer friends, and smoke cigarettes until the ashtray overflowed. I wanted to drink one too many cappuccinos, and have zealous debates while delving into intellectual conversations about William Burroughs. I wanted to be free.
But the day I accepted marriage, my life took an awkward turn.
Suddenly I was elbow-deep in china patterns and choosing invitations and flowers. I was thrust into the role of a pink fairy princess; something I never wanted to be. I knew that most little girls dreamed about that time in their lives, but it wasn’t my dream. And I felt I had to pretend that it was.
This idea of being someone’s wife perplexed me. I didn’t understand how it was possible to leave my soul intact, without metamorphosing into somebody else’s idea of what I should be. I was too young; I hadn’t even become fully what I was going to be, and already I had to bend my will to another.
The first order of business was to buy me an engagement ring. My husband-to-be didn’t want to pick it out; he wanted me to choose my own so that I would really love it.
I was glad he did. I had no use for diamonds; I felt they were bourgeoisie. I wanted a blue sapphire in an antique setting; a ring with history, a ring which fed my soul. So my fiancé’ took me shopping for just that. It took us all day, but finally I found a ring that I loved. The jeweler agreed to clean it and send it. I was excited about that ring, and could imagine wearing it for the rest of my life.
Two days later, my husband-to-be followed tradition, and did it “right.” After a wonderful dinner, he plopped down on one knee and brought out a little velvet box, and asked me to become his wife. But when I opened it, the ring I had chosen was not there. Instead I found a traditional engagement ring; white gold, with an enormous diamond that protruded so far from the setting that I was certain I’d put out someone’s eye with it. But worse, I had this dreaded feeling that there was a conspiracy going on, and someone was trying to drive me insane. After all, where was the ring I had chosen? And what was my expected response, was I to pretend I was happy and not mention that the ring had morphed into something hideous? It felt a little like the Twilight Zone.
“What happened to the ring I chose?” I asked.
“My mother thought it was improper,” he said. “She insisted you should have this instead. She said it was BETTER.”
Oh dear God. The MOTHER-IN-LAW.
The mother-in-law, as it turned out, didn’t like any of my choices.
The day I was sent out to register for gifts, a horrifying little ritual, I spent the day choosing practical arty pieces that I found aesthetically pleasing. I didn’t like the idea of telling people to buy me gifts, let alone dictating precisely what they should buy me. But this is what I was told to do, so I chose items I loved. My mother-in-law went back the next day, and changed every single choice I’d made; registering me for conservative china; something that might be found at a Presidential dinner. Ornate silver and ridiculously expensive crystal replaced my more moderate choices. And I didn’t know she’d gone behind my back until the gifts began to arrive.
I chose a rock and roll band for the reception that was to be held at a very hip location; the Bach Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay. Unbeknownst to me, she canceled the rock band and ordered a sedate quartet. By then I was learning; and without her knowing or finding out, I rehired the rock band. The look on her face when the band came to set up at my reception was priceless. She told me the music I’d chosen would ruin an otherwise perfect day.
But the most frightening thing was the MOTHER-IN-LAW insisted that we marry in a Catholic Church. I had been baptized Catholic, that much is true. But it was only because in the 5th grade, when we all had to announce what church we belonged to, I didn’t have an answer. So I went home and insisted that my parents baptize me. Most of the children were Catholics, so that is what I chose. My baptism was almost humorous; I was an 11 year old girl, all dressed up in a white frock, standing in line with a dozen infants.
But other than not wanting to be embarrassed at school, my baptism served no other purpose; I did not want to be affiliated with any organized religion. The prospect of being married in a Catholic church frightened me. Even more frightening, was that I was sent away to live in a nunnery with nuns for a week, a time I supposed they hoped to brainwash me. I remember lying in my bed that first morning; a little cot in a chilly little room, and being awakened by a nun in a black habit. She told me the first order of business was to meet with the Father, where I would promise to have children and raise them Catholic. I didn’t plan on having children, and I sure as hell didn’t want to promise I’d raise them in a faith I didn’t believe in. But I was brought to a dark room and I was forced to agree to a falsehood; and to sign away my soul. I was being buried by a dark blanket of deceit.
My life had turned into a lie. I was a fraud. I couldn’t fight the establishment. I was a mechanical wind-up toy. Like a Stepford wife, I was being sent down an endless corridor of conformity.
I did end up getting my way on some things. I rejected the idea of a receiving line; after all, I wasn’t royalty, and I found the ritual pretentious. I refused to wear a veil; the roots of this tradition meant submission to the man, and I wasn’t having that. I wouldn’t let the priest say, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” but rather “husband and wife.” And my bridesmaid dresses were hand sewn from five different materials and lace; and my bridesmaids wore strawflower wreaths with long colorful ribbons in their hair. They looked like flower-children of the 60’s. I tried to hang onto who I was, but those victories were few and far between.
My first bridal shower was like an episode from a horror film.
A half hour before the event was to begin, I was ushered into a back bedroom at my mother-in-law’s house. There on the bed was an outfit for me to wear. It was a gruesome little ensemble; a white pleated skirt, white blouse, white hose, and white high heels. I argued vehemently; saying I was fine in the new dress I had bought for the occasion; but she wouldn’t hear of it. I dutifully changed, and then was led into a living room that was all white; white carpet and white couches; fake flowers and horrific paintings, like you might see in a hotel; and a far cry from the colorful artsy interiors of my childhood. We drank punch that contained no alcohol. We played inane dreadful little games. But worse than any of that, was that I did not know a single person there. Other than my mother and sister-in-law to be, the room was full of strangers; older women dressed tightly in provincial suits, wearing corsages.
I almost choked. “Where are MY friends?” I whispered.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll have another party for you. But these are MY friends. And they’re WEALTHY.”
It was a nightmare I feared I’d never awake from. I sat there with a plastered smile on my face, as I opened present after present; silver tea sets and crystal candy dishes, monogrammed towels and napkin holders from Tiffany’s. “And this is from....Mrs. Baker?” I’d call out weakly, scanning the crowd for a woman to identify herself. And when she did, “Thank you Mrs. Baker, it’s very lovely.” But it wasn’t lovely at all; I wanted to smash it all against the wall, rip off my white pleated skirt, and go screaming into the suburban streets half naked.
But it was the stationary I received from my mother-in-law which nearly sent me into a tailspin. It read, “Mrs. HIS NAME.” It was his name. It read Mrs. His first name, His middle name, and His last name. I was Mrs. Him.
“You know, I hadn’t really decided to take his name,” I offered in a feeble small voice. “I was thinking of hyphenating it, maybe, so I could keep my name as well.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother-in-law spat back. “OF COURSE you will take our name.”
My entire identity, at last had been stripped.
After the marriage, it only grew worse. I remember coming home from work one evening, and when I opened my front door, all of our antique and funky furniture were gone, and had been replaced with a hideous living room “set” of matching everything. “Your mother-in-law is certainly generous,” my friends would offer, as a way to console me. But to me, these weren’t gifts at all; they were manipulations and controls disguised as presents. She was trying to slowly alter who I was.
My evenings were spent having dinner at the In-laws, or at Lyon’s Club functions. My father-in-law was the Governor of the Lyon’s Club, and I was forced to endure meetings, conventions, and banquets; and I was paraded around in conservative suits and corsages, just like the women wore at my Bridal Shower. It was utterly void of color, of intellect, and of art. I was a smiling mannequin, and the person I knew myself to be was dying. I was dying a little every day.
I believed, for a time, that pretending to be something I wasn’t was the right choice. I thought maturity was about putting my own desires aside, and opting what is best for the greater whole. And for a time, I vowed to sacrifice my own lusty perspective in favor of what was expected of me.
My husband and I separated seven years later. I found a special peace in telling my mother-in-law that the primary problem in our marriage was her incessant interference. And once those words were finally uttered, I danced into the unknown; following an eccentric beat that I recognized as my own. I left my husband and took nothing; I left the china and the crystal and the property and the bank accounts. In fact, I was homeless for six months.
I had a post office box, and my mother-in-law sent me checks in the mail for a full year. I never knew why she sent me money, and I was so impoverished at the time, I didn’t care why. At the end of that year, she called me on the phone and asked me if I was done being a silly little girl, and when I was returning to my husband. I told her “never,” and I felt I had sprouted wings. The checks stopped. And I was free. I started to remember that purple dawn I had dreamed of long ago; the one that served as a backdrop to my life of poetry and non-conformity.
I often muse about children and young adults who give up their hopes and dreams in order to fit in. They are socialized before they are even aware of it; and they are conditioned from a young age to live someone else’s truth. Sadly, this often continues throughout their lives until they stand up for themselves, and actively seek to reignite the spark that society has extinguished. I believe the dreams we have about our lives are signposts to our authentic selves, and happiness is found in pursuing them.
I never wanted to be a fairy princess, draped in pink, forced to endure coffee klatches and idle chitchat. I wanted to be wicked. I wanted to be drunk with profligacy. I wanted my soul to burst with everything that it longed to express.
And although I am constantly tested, I make a vow and a promise to myself every day; and this is a vow, unlike my marriage vows, I try to honor. And that is to never be a fraud again. If I can stay true to that, I know my life will find the right course.
"Let the beauty you love be what you do." --Rumi