Packing Up a Household Brings Sadness


Havre de Grace. -- Not long ago, a friend I'll call Michael asked if I'd bring my old flatbed truck over and help him move. He'd sold his house, which has a barn and a little acreage, and was moving to a smaller place about 15 miles away.

The move had been in the works for some time. It made sense Michael's kids were grown and gone, and he and his wife, Helen, had decided to pull the plug on their marriage. She had already moved away, and the old house was clearly too much for a man living alone.

It was a pretty morning when we moved. Michael's dogs stood by, perplexed and worried, as we loaded the truck with boxes of books and Christmas-tree ornaments and pictures, toasters and spatulas, cognac and doorstops and old college sweat shirts. These are the commonplace goods and chattels that every family has, yet are always different, like thumbprints. Each item has a story, and all the stories together make a pattern that can never be duplicated.

It has always seemed to me that with all its most intimate artifacts exposed, a family undertaking a major move appears pathetically vulnerable, like a turtle upside down. This is true of individuals as well as families, but not so much. In any case I took it as a compliment that Michael had asked me to help.

We didn't talk a lot as we worked, and we didn't talk at all about personal matters. I didn't know exactly why Michael and Helen had decided to go their separate ways, and I would have been surprised and perhaps a little embarrassed had Michael started to tell me. It may be a New Age ritual for men to tell each other everything, but Michael and I aren't very New Age. To me a good friend is someone who doesn't expect me to tell him everything, and who certainly doesn't try to tell everything to me.

I don't even know if Michael and Helen, in their hearts, are sad or exultant about their parting. Probably they're not sure themselves. But I do know their friends are sad. They'd been married 30 years, and the marriage, while no doubt as imperfect as all human alliances, had seemed a model of stability. If it had been an illusion, it had been a comfortable one for those who beheld it.

As the last boxes were stacked in the truck, I noticed one filled with family photographs. On the top were several of Michael and Helen's kids. The quality seemed unusually good, and then I remembered that my wife, Irna, had taken them -- almost 20 years ago. She had developed the film and worked hard on the prints. They were outdoor photos, filled with life and sunlight, for the day on which they were taken had been a glorious one. I wondered if Michael would unpack them or leave them stuffed away in the boxes, and if he were to look at them in years to come, how he would feel about them.

We drove the 15 miles in the rickety old truck without incident, and unloaded all the boxes. Michael's new house is pleasant enough, though darker than the one he was leaving behind. It will be better after it's been lived in a while. Michael explained the remodeling he was planning -- a wall out here, a bathroom expanded there. There would be room for the kids to stay when they came to visit. It sounded fine.

Then he remarked that he wanted to be able to live on one floor in case the day arrived when he was no longer able to climb stairs. How practical, I thought, and drove home in the empty truck feeling less than cheerful.

Marriage is certainly a complicated institution, and the way we look at it is more complicated still. Accepted attitudes toward marriage keep evolving, and for many of us the process of evolution is so fast it's hard to keep up.

When my grandmother was divorced she was so mortified that she moved to another city. From today's perspective, that's absurd, but she had been brought up to see a marriage as something to be kept intact at almost any price. Divorce to her, though it may have meant escape as well, meant failure above all else.

With marriages falling apart all around us, we know today that the married state is at best ephemeral. With the children successfully raised, and different interests beckoning the parents, is there any good reason why marriages such as Michael and Helen's shouldn't be amicably dissolved? Of course not. But why then does the breakdown of a 30-year marriage seem so sad?

I suppose it's because, like it or not, a marriage remains a symbol of something as permanent as we are likely to find in human affairs. It's designed to last, and when it doesn't that's disappointing. Our concern, I guess, is more with the principle than the principals.

Some dour soul once wrote that marriage isn't just a lot of words, it's a sentence. In our society, however, it's a sentence that can be readily suspended. On the whole, that's a good thing. If divorce were suddenly abolished in America, marriage would be in a lot more serious trouble than it is now.

Realistically, I ought to be happy for Michael and Helen and the thousands of other couples like them, glad that they can so freely end a life together and go on to two new lives apart. They're doing what they want to do. So why is it that the loss, for no intellectually defensible reason, so often seems to outweigh the gain?

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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