Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Parents' Marriage in 67K

Here is the one of the saddest sequence of photographs in the world, the story of my parents’ marriage in 67 kilobytes.
In the first image, with my paternal grandmother Rose on the left, and my mother’s mother, Celia Kaufman, on the right, we see my dad, as ever, reveling in the attention of others, hamming it up for the wedding photographer. What’s remarkable is that my mother has hooked arms with him, and seems to be pleased by her handsome young groom’s shenanigans.
My impression is that she ceased, in spite of the fact that they got pregnant with my sister nine years later, to be pleased with anything about him within a few weeks of that wedding party. They lived together in Washington, DC, with Rose and my apparently very passive paternal grandfather Louis, the butcher. My mother, a woman of fervent vengefulness, would hate Rose probably more than anyone else she ever met. 
In the blue-tinted middle panel, we see the happy couple in neighbors’ living room in the San Fernando Valley in around 1953. My dad, as usual, is being irrepressible. But note the expression of disdain on my very tanned (as she would take pains to remain well into her seventies) mother. Around this time in their marriage, I, at six, knew they would never go out for the evening together without my mother ravaging my dad the next day with her tongue for having either embarrassed her or been so intent on being the life of the party that he left her, terribly shy though she was, to her own devices. It wasn’t pleasant to listen to.
By the time I took the third photograph, in 1963, in back of the new tract house they’d managed to buy above Pacific Coast Highway, my mother had ceased to make any attempt to conceal how much she disliked having my dad anywhere near her. He was crazy about her, and remained so, but the more of her contempt he suffered, the more she detested him, and the more vocal she became about it.
I have, in the family archives from which the component of the above sequence of photos comes, a letter written by my uncle to my mother in the spring of 1962, imploring her to be a bit gentler with my dad, if only not to discomfit those around them. It fell on deaf ears.
There’s a photograph not represented here that made me burst into tears when I saw it at the convalescent hospital at which my mother died three years ago. It was taken in the late 1980s, in the living room of the house above Pacific Coast Highway. My parents are seated together on the love seat in the living room. As I was preparing to click the shutter, my dad put his arm on the cushion behind my mother, and my mother reflexively leaned forward, refusing even the slightest physical contact with him.
I have obviously wondered a great deal about what kept them in such a miserable marriage, beyond the fact that divorce was rare for persons of their generation. My mother had no marketable skills, and was generally terrified of the world, and must have derived a certain perverse pleasure out of ruling the household. But I honestly don’t think it ever even occurred to my dad to leave her. I suspect that in many ways my parents’ interaction mirrored my paternal grandparents’, and that for my dad, bullying disdain just felt like home. How to feel sorry for a man who never gave any indication that he had anything other than exactly what he wanted?


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