Swing and a Miss
There are serial numbers, serial films and serial killers. I’d like to add “serial monogamists” to that list. Serial monogamists, like me, are people who marry more than once, with benefit of divorce. We don’t take multiple spouses simultaneously; we take multiple spouses in succession. I’d put serial monogamists right after serial films, but before serial killers, in a list of ascending offensiveness. Based on the looks I get when I mention not one, but two, ex-husbands, my list differs from the norm. This would not be true if I lived in Hollywood, CA instead of Nowhere, NJ. The latest trend in Tinseltown is to take vows with expiration dates. “I promise to love, honor and obey until I just don’t feel like doing it anymore,” or the like, is pretty standard in celebrity ceremonies. So I hear on my favorite TV show, “Entertainment Tonight.” The stars call it Zen detachment.
But I don’t live in Hollywood, and never have. So how did a nice Catholic girl from the sticks become such a degenerate? I wasn’t raised to be a serial monogamist. I didn’t plan to be one. I didn’t take the class in college. It just sort of happened.
One day I was a jubilant 20-something waltzing up the aisle with a big white dress, a small, but flawless, diamond and high hopes for my long future as Mrs. Steuernagel.
Six years later I was deciding whether to keep that distinctive, but difficult, moniker after I shed the distinctive, but difficult, Mr. Steuernagel. For the sake of the two little Steuernagels we’d produced, I dropped the name legally and professionally, but kept it at home and school. I might be a loser, technically, but I could still play the winner in certain arenas.
At the time, I was devastated. No one in my family was divorced. Miserable, yes. Divorced, no. Everybody stuck it out and put on game face at the latest wedding, or funeral. We are a family of succeeders. Pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps succeeders. Good educations, good jobs, good marriages. And a good marriage lasted forever, never put asunder. In fact, when I told my mother that I was divorcing, she said, “Don’t divorce him; wait for him to die.” I’m not kidding. My mother, and society, let me know loud and clear that my marriage was a failure and so was I. Not one to accept defeat gracefully, I took my sorry self out there and tried to do it again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It was on our family crest.
I dated many men and hoped to marry almost all of them. It was the goal, the prize, the brass ring for a little Italian girl from working class roots. I finally exhausted one of my tortured beaus. I waltzed jubilantly up the aisle, a 40-something in a ball gown off the sale rack at Loehmanns, a bigger, still flawless, diamond and high hopes for a long life as Mrs. McKeon.
Four and a half years later, without question, I went to the Social Security office again to shed the “Mrs.” and become an old Miss (not to be confused with Ol’ Miss). It was the third go-round for “Waters,” the fourth visit to that office. The friendly clerk there greeted me with a cheery, but leery, “Oh. Hello again,” as she winked at her co-workers with a mixture of horror, pity and pleasure. Even civil servants, stuck in walless offices with eternally dull No. 2 pencils and little desk fans that blew ever-growing stacks of paperwork onto the linoleum floor, thought I was pathetic.
I was embarrassed by all this negative reaction and, for some time, I was ashamed. But, down deep, something told me that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I had taken my vows very seriously. I had two beautiful, brilliant children, with hearts sweetened and humbled by the sadness of early loss. I had the required good education, good job, and a good family. I also had good friends, the kind who don’t make you feel bad about being different, even from them. So what if I didn’t have a current good marriage. Those relationships had been good for some period. It just wasn’t the elusive “forever.” And their harvest had been fine. Fine indeed.
I like who and where I am today. Would I have been the same person, in the same place, had I done “until the end of time,” even as I prayed for the end of time (think Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”)? I don’t think so. Like the very successful Mr. Brad Pitt, I can honestly say that I had a good marriage. While it lasted. I can even beat Brad and say it twice.
So, don’t look surprised, scandalized or sorry when someone tells you that they’ve loved and lost. To love well is always success. And to lose is not always failure.