Love & Sex

Before You Were Born: Marriage Interrupted

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Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth: They got married, split up for a decade, and reconciled just in time.

My parents, Margie and Jack, were married for twenty-nine years, but spent over a decade apart in the middle of their marriage, which also happened to coincide with my formative years. They were opposites who attracted, and they prove the adage, "If you love someone, set them free; if they come back, they're yours." I recently interviewed my mom about what drew them together.

So how did a homebody Italian girl like you meet a hard partying Irish guy like Daddy?
When my family moved from Upper Manhattan to the Bronx, I became friends with Edna, a girl in the neighborhood. We used to take the same train to work. Your dad was her younger brother.

Did she introduce you, like a set-up?
No. She invited me to her brother-in-law's bar. I met the whole family and their friends. Your father was fun — life of the party.

So his big personality was the draw for someone as reserved as you?
Yes. That and he was good-looking. He looked like Victor Mature.

You once told me you'd be hanging laundry on the roof and he'd come up and suggest a drive to Rockaway and you'd end up staying there for three days.
My clothes would be all over the roof. I'd have to rewash everything.

You went along with his spur-of-the-moment behavior, though. On some level you must have liked being spontaneous.
I did, in small doses. It made life seem a little more exciting. But I was always really a home person. I liked to cook. I sewed. I liked to have company over. Your father's problem was he found day-to-day life boring. If he saw he had nothing to do, he just couldn't sit and watch a show or read a magazine. He had to be on the go. So we'd end up in Rockaway or down the Jersey Shore where people we knew were staying. He liked to be where the action is. Most the time, I couldn't wait to get home.

Was there spontaneous behavior that perhaps wasn't as exciting?
I'd open the drawer to put on my rings, and they'd be gone. He used to hock them when he lost a bet, then get them out again when he won. At first he used to ask me for them, but eventually he just took them.

That makes me sad.
Water under the bridge.

So after nine years of marriage, I came along.
I thought I couldn't have a baby, so when I wasn't feeling right, I went to the doctor thinking you were a tumor.

Thank you.
What can I tell you?

So the three of us lived as a family for the first two years of my life. Then what happened?
My life changed. I'd had a baby; I quit my job at the phone company to stay home and take care of you. Your father's life didn't change. The gallivanting, the gambling. You can't live like that — you know, bar-hopping, coming home late — with a baby in the house. At least not in my house.

NEXT: "Is it fair to say you loved me more than him?"

Let's not forget his motto: [both simultaneously] "It's only money!"
He had a nice job when you were born. He was a manager for a guy who ran commissaries in all different types of companies. It was the perfect job for your father. He wasn't cooped up in an office. He went from place to place to make sure each cafeteria was running smoothly and had enough supplies. But then the company went out of business, and your father lost his job. He couldn't bounce back. Your Uncle John gave him work as a bartender, but I could see we weren't going to be taken care of the way we needed to be, so it was for the best he wasn't around.

I didn't want to be a single mother, but I had Grandma, Aunt Evie, Uncle Joe, Aunt Rosie, Uncle Mike. It pays to have a big family.

I appreciate that and have never second-guessed you, but why no contact with Daddy? I didn't see or hear from him until I was about to turn thirteen.
Look, we weren't divorced. There was no custody or alimony thing. We just went our separate ways and decided between ourselves. At that point he wasn't at his best, and there was no reason for a little girl to deal with that. He wasn't participating when he was with us, so what was the point of keeping in touch?

Is it fair to say you loved me more than him?
No. I just did what needed to be done.

Right before I started high school, he asked to come back, and you said yes. Why was it okay for him to be around me then?
You were older. You were already who you were, if you know what I mean. He was older, too — too old for shenanigans.

He still gambled though.
Yes, but it wasn't with my money, so it wasn't my problem.

So he wasn't too old for shenanigans.
I guess not, but he'd slowed down.

And you? You weren't quite fifty. What did it mean for you to be older as well?
I was settled in my life. We had a house. I had a job. We didn't need him. So I could just enjoy his company. He was still fun and handsome.

How come you wouldn't let him move in with us?
By then I was too independent. We went out on the weekends and talked at night on the phone. It was enough.

While I was growing up, you never spoke badly about him. I'm not a very forgiving person by nature, but I was able to put the past behind when it came to Daddy, because you didn't hold a grudge. How did you keep from becoming bitter?
I didn't speak badly about him because I didn't think badly of him. He made mistakes like everybody — used bad judgment. When it was just me, I was willing to live with it, but like I said, you shouldn't have had to live with it.

Are you glad I got to know him?
Yes.

Me too. I liked him. He was affable and he was nice to me. Plus, I finally got to go to a father-daughter dance and use the phrase, "My dad says…" in everyday conversation.
He wasn't a bad guy. In fact, with the exception of Grandma and Uncle Joe, I'd have to say everybody liked him. He always knew lots of people. Anywhere we went, he always bumped into somebody.

He could have really parlayed those people skills into a career, like sales or public relations.
And who was going to help him do that? He was a great bartender. And very creative when it came to house painting. He painted all our apartments. He could do dark to light gradation from the crown molding down the wall to the baseboards. But he really never had any direction. When his parents got divorced and both got remarried, they started new families. The kids from the first marriage… what can I say? The three older ones were already out of the house. The two youngest ones got taken care of because they were so little. Your father was on his own at fifteen. He really never had a chance to be anything. Hence the desire for easy money.

He had a massive coronary when I was nineteen. It took me by surprise.
He always had a bad heart. I think I told you that wasn't his first heart attack. He had one when you were in about fourth grade. I got a call from your aunt. She gave me progress reports so I'd know he was going to be okay. But I knew when he went, that's how he would go. He liked to eat and drink, and he smoked cigarettes without the filter.

Camels.
What's the difference?

This sounds funny, but as sorry as I was that he died only seven years after I finally started a relationship with him, I felt like there was nothing left unsaid or done. I got my father back, even if it was for little while. It was enough for me.
Really? I was hoping to have him a little longer.

You were a single mother before it was chic or acceptable — as well as an older mom, since you had me at thirty-six — and when you went back to work at the phone company in the mid-'60s, you were elevated eventually to an executive position. You were ahead of your time. How does it feel to have been a maverick?
It wasn't the life I planned on; it's the one that happened.

Do you regret anything?
No. I did all right for myself.

How about marrying Daddy?
If I had to do it all over again, I would have married the same guy.

I guess you just loved him.
I did.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel Fat Chick and a freelance writer in New York.