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Both of Us, Part 3 by Dick Weinman, The Thin Edge of Dignity
As summer term came, and my senior year moved closer to its end, our lives became more entwined. We were out of the dorms and could live in town. We both got apartments, in different houses, of course: gender separation was still prevalent, and in loco parentis was taken over by landladies, who carefully scrutinized and watched over their renters’ “gentleman callers.”
I spent a lot of time hanging out with Ginny on the front porch of her house, talking during the day and making out at night. We swam and sunned and swilled beer at the “quarries.” Once the source of Indiana limestone, the quarries were high rock formations towering above pools of water. You can see the “quarries,” the playground of undergraduates, in the movie, Breaking Away, which was filmed at IU and Bloomington.(A picture of me and Ginny, a can of Schlitz in her hands, lolling on a rock sunning, is framed even now on my wall.)
But we continued to live our lives apart, too, following our individual interests and needs. Ginny worked as a receptionist at a local physician’s office. I had my radio and TV jobs; rehearsed nightly for summer stock plays and performed them on weekends at the University Theatre’s summer tent-playhouse.
Then, our last term at Indiana arrived, Fall, 1954. Actually, it was my final semester. It only was the beginning of Ginny’s junior year. I would graduate in January, 1955. In those days, a woman would follow her man. In the quiescence of the fifties, within the cultural paradigm of a patriarchal society, a woman’s path was dictated by her husband’s.
Many women came to college in order to find a husband. The standard procedure was to join a “good” sorority, which, in turn, would lead her to a “good” fraternity, which stabled the proper man that her parents would favor as a husband. The goal of such a woman student was cynically called, a “Mrs.” degree.
Although Ginny’s goal was to receive a Ph.D in Psychology, she left with me after completing only two years of college.
Before leaving, Ginny converted to Judaism.
During the Christmas vacation prior to my final term, I had taken Ginny to my home in New York to meet my family and see the City. Both must have been unsettling events for a
nineteen year old from a tiny town in the mid-west who had no extended family. As I expected, she was warmly embraced by my many aunts, uncles, and cousins who swarmed around her at introductory get-togethers. A lifelong love was formed with my mother, Hilda. Ginny visited her daily in 1984, as she lay dying in the Heart of the Valley nursing home in Corvallis.
While we were at my home, Hilda told us she had long cherished the image of her son’s marriage under a canopy before the arc of the Torah. That meant a temple wedding. That meant a visit to our rabbi, who told us that meant conversion. Ginny’s lessons began upon our return to school for our final semester. Before the term ended, she earned her certificate of conversion. This family-forced Christian fundamentalist and currently free choice Episcopalian, became a Jewess.
Her mother didn’t like that. I visited Ginny’s family during the previous Thanksgiving holiday. It was a stiff atmosphere. Her family didn’t know how to react to me – a non-Protestant, a Jew. Ginny was raised by ultra-religious female kin, her mother, aunt, and grandmother - her father had gotten out when she was a child. Unlike Ginny in the warmth of my extended family, I was an unwelcome, tolerated visitor to Ginny’s household. At least I wasn’t Black.
Ginny had to fashion her life in spite of the harsh atmosphere, but like her father, she got out, too. She graduated high school at sixteen and left for Indiana University under the guardianship of one of her high school teachers and his family; he was attending IU for his doctoral studies.
The University didn’t hold a ceremony for mid-year graduates. I had my degree. Ginny had her certificate of conversion. We boarded the train from Indianapolis for the fifteen hour trip to New York, and what lay ahead - our marriage We both needed jobs in preparation for my graduate school at Columbia University. Ginny’s had to last until I received my M.F.A., if nothing intervened.
A baby did.
The birth of Daniel, the first of our twelve children, gave fulfillment to the latent strength, courage, and humanity that was the persona of Ginny. She transformed from how I first saw her when I looked at her face as we sat in the car at the drive-in: her tiny head (throughout our adult lives together, I called her “little head” at intimate moments), her pert snub nose, the ringlets round her eyes; she looked like a teenage Shirley Temple, staring wide-eyed out at the world. And at sixteen . . . she had been.
As time passed and she grew from being a girl to womanhood, her inner beauty revealed itself - giving and caring - as she aged and nurtured a family. Ginny was created to love children. And to be a mother.
I didn’t know that at first. Who would have thought such things back then? Not this nineteen year old. Now, as I look back, and piece together the jigsaw puzzle of our lives together - our conversations, our intimate revelations, and our experiences, I see that we came from two different worlds creating us as two different persons.
Ginny’s childhood was spent in a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a recreation area of forest and lakes, of hunting and fishing, and playing in the outdoors. An environmental paradise.
I was from a city, glamorous and huge, the world center of finance and business, the media, the arts – a city of eight million people.
We both wanted to leave our homes: she to escape -- to find freedom and independence from the harsh rule of family; to stake out a role for herself, excised from her previous life and the low expectations held for her. Me to enlarge my knowledge and discover a career; to make my parents proud and live up to their dream of my success.
Not only were we from two different worlds, but those worlds made us two different people.
I appeared suave, but was uncertain and shy inside, posing as cool on the outside. She was uncertain and shy outside, but strong and confident inside.
I was cynical and world-wise. She viewed the world purely.
I was going to be an actor – Broadway bound. She was going to be a psychologist.
And our cultures added to our differences.
I was Jewish, a liberal reformist. She was being crushed by the repression of Christian fundamentalism. My family was rooted in the stetls of Eastern Europe - my father from Romania, my mother from the Ukraine - creating a loving circle of tolerance, compassion, and openness. Ginny was raised by a bitter, divorced mother, a spinster aunt, and a bible thumping grandmother; a closed, repressive family of Scottish/English descent from the rural swampland of Southern Georgia.
Despite our differences, through the hesitant years of discovering who we were, influenced by the generational cultures of our families, we were tied by the thread of love.
This journey on the road of our life reached a cross road in the fateful year of 2005. Our individual lives, and our life as the single unity of married couple, was stopped and battered; Ginny, with no remembrance because of the degradation of Alzheimer’s disease, me with my mind intact but my body devastated by an automobile collision. Ironically, it was the golden anniversary year of marriage. Although our togetherness of fifty years changed dramatically and suddenly, and we continued our lives in opposite directions, we continued, as best we could – together.
But, in December, 2013, overcome by the fifteen year occupation of her mind and domination of her person by Alzheimer’s -- true to the fierce power of will that was always within her -- she chose to end the struggle. She had had enough. She separated our long life together on December 13th, one month shy of our fifty-ninth wedding anniversary.
Sixty-one years since that blind date.
Dick Weinman's blog, The Thin Edge of Dignity, is published on the 1st and 15th of each month.