Liz Smith: Philosophy 101 From an Octogenarian!

Lessons learned from an unlikely marriage.

“Be ye not unevenly yoked together!” says the Bible. This was one of my darling mother’s favorite axioms. I suppose she had good reason to be saying it; she herself was “unevenly yoked” with my adorable crazy father.

They had met when she peeped under the window shade of her older brother’s house in the little town of Ennis, TX. She was trying to see “the new young man next door” and she saw him – feisty, almost scrawny with abounding energy. He had come to Ennis to trade in cotton futures.

So when she saw him jump on a motorcycle and throttle away down the street, her beautiful, Mississippi-belle, genteel self was a goner. They were soon dancing at local outings but were mocked as “Mutt and Jeff” because she was the taller. But as she took pride in her father, the doctor, and her college education and the refined manners of her own mother, the school teacher – what in the world did she want with the young 5’7″ “roughneck” that was my father?

He had grown up in the plains of West Texas in a family of eight brawling brothers and sisters who were hotheaded and continued that way. (Their family reunions were always marked by someone throwing a punch or having to be “separated.”) And he, the little roughneck, had to quit school at grade four, gone to work at age eight, delivering Western Union telegrams on horseback, and ended up educating himself. (He could do long division in his head.)

So, my friends, opposites attract and although she finally climbed on the back of his motorcycle and let the hairpins fall from her long, flowing hair as they roared through the streets of Ennis, she did not really embrace his ardent, energetic take on life. She was just being compliant until the wedding when she never got on the motorcycle again and he had to sell it.

She wanted to worry about what the neighbors thought. He didn’t give a damn, disliked most of the neighbors and often gave vent to his opinion that “most men aren’t worth a damn; it’s the women that count.”

He craved experiencing “culture” – trying out new foods – forcing his children to high adventures for which they were unprepared – gambled away fortune after fortune, and thought religions were “crap.”

She craved everything bourgeois that he despised. She adored the preachers of her churches. She cared what the neighbors thought to the ultimate degree. She hated adventure, sports and thought gambling was a sin. She wanted houses with mortgages and good insurance policies. In short, she was a cowardly realist, refined, repressed and middle class. He was a wild adventurer who thought he had nothing to lose so he rolled the dice.

He was for high living, trying odd things out and taking chances. He bought a polo pony once though he didn’t really play polo. He was a sucker for anyone else’s hard-luck tale. Money squirted through his hands. He liked sports and drama and never stopped telling of the one time he’d been to an opera in New Orleans where the great Galli-Curci sang. (She felt such theatrics were just substitutes for true religion.)

She wanted to rouse him out of bed to go to church each Sunday, mostly because of how it looked to go without him. He steadfastly refused. He wanted to go in the kitchen to experiment in making candy, which his children adored. She wanted never to go near the kitchen if she once got it spic and span. He took chances. She never did.

This push-me, pull-me union was hard on their three children who literally stood in the yard sobbing as he gunned the motor of his car and dared them to take a chance with him and go without knowing where they were going. She stood in the door with her favorite weapon – the broom (she loved housekeeping) – begging him not to “tease” the children.

And then, later, she recommended to her children that we be not unevenly yoked together. It is good, she said, for two married people to be alike, to want the same things, to march to the same drummer. Well, I saw her point and it’s the same advice I would give anyone who was foolish enough not to stop before they leaped in love. That’s when nobody’s advice can be taken.

Were they unhappily married? I remember his pulling her forward by the arm begging her to hurry and take a chance crossing the street. I remember her hanging back, throwing him off his balance and refusing to dare to be lucky.

Yes, they were unevenly yoked. So what happened to their children as a result? A mixture. We were tiresome little cowards at heart, but always took the dares he threw at us even with hearts in mouth. He was more “fun” but she was always “there” for us, cuddling, soothing us and making us feel secure. We were doomed by fate to sit more in the psychiatrist’s chair than in the church pew. I guess we ended up getting a little bit – the best and worst – of everything.

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