Mine was to walk hand-in-hand through a snowstorm with the woman I loved. For almost 40years, nothing close to this happened: Not the right snow, not the right woman.
By late 1977, Linda and I had been bouncing off each other for a few months. “Dating” didn’t really exist in the late 1970s for divorced parents in their thirties living in the artistic underbelly of Philadelphia. I was in love with Linda, had been since September, following an incomprehensible experience I’ll talk about another time. We went to the art museum, to orchestra concerts, traded dinners that included my daughters Morgan and Erin and her son Ben.
I had met her the year before when I moved into the room she was vacating in a massive Italianate West Philadelphia twin that served as a commune (3311 Baring St., about which you will hear much more). We didn’t register on each other initially, but later I took to dropping by her apartment a few blocks away: She wasn’t at all sure what to make of me at first, and later admitted to hiding from me when I’d come by to sit silent as a log.
Linda was laser-focused on her acting with an excellent repertory theater downtown – no pay, of course. I was part-time maintenance man at my daughters’ private school in the suburbs – close to no pay.
When December rolled around (the second straight year of horrendously cold winters), I asked her if she would join me for Christmas at my brother Rod’s. No, she said, she couldn’t make that kind of presentation-commitment when she didn’t love me, or didn’t think she loved me. So I offered New Year’s instead. That, somehow, was OK (a distinction I fully understood).
Rod and his absurdly wonderful wife Ginny lived in a mid-19th century millhand’s house, one of a row of three at the equally absurd intersection of Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads. (I never write that address without an ear-to-ear grin.) The house had two-foot-thick stuccoed stone walls and heavy Italian roof files that slid off and smashed under winter snow loads.
By another of the ridiculously lucky coincidences that fall on me like old tiles, Rod’s place was half a mile from Pendle Hill, the Quaker community that had drawn Linda and her first husband east from Kansas 15 years earlier. Linda offered to give me a tour of Pendle Hill on the way to Rod’s from the train station. (Over time, we learned that the house Linda and Rusty had lived in at Pendle Hill had once been owned by Ginny’s grandfather.)
It was overcast, as it had been all day, when the SEPTA commuter train pulled into tiny Wallingford station. As our boots touched the steps to the platform, the first snowflake fell. I know such things don’t happen, but it did – exactly like that. Hand in hand (glove in glove) we wandered through the falling snow, visiting Linda’s past at Pendle Hill, then mine at Rod and Ginny’s, where I’d spent nearly every holiday over the past decade.
Ah me, ah me, if things could always be that good….
Actually, they got better.
Ten days later, as I was washing dinner dishes in the Baring St. kitchen, Linda called and invited me to join in a second dinner at her place, along with some of her theater crowd.
More food? More Linda? My god.
Seated at her round table, I felt vastly out of place, as I often do. Linda was paying particular attention to Tom, one of the younger actors, and I wondered why in holy hell she wanted me there.
I decided to leave early, but Linda stopped with me in the vestibule to talk. And then … somehow … we grew into each other. Technically, we were making out, but I wouldn’t give it a limiting term.
An hour later, she called and asked me to spend the night.
I ran the seven blocks to her place making strange meeping noises, something a cat might release if stepped on by a large dog. Was that the best night of my life? Yes. I don’t pretend that I fully remember the what of it, but I clearly remember the how, the overwhelming intensity, the sense of having reached beyond.
Linda moved back to the commune to be with me, and we lived together for two and a half years before getting married. I celebrate January 10, the night of her call, as our true anniversary. And the first snow of every year reopens that magical doorway.
Linda and I became as close to a single being as I think is possible. But marriage? she wanted it, I resisted. It wasn’t a matter of my lack of commitment – just that “marriage,” to this worn-down ’60s sorta radical, meant another meaningless ritual. I was sick of religion, of gussied-up ceremony, of everything that forced observance into a mold.
But one day it struck me: If “getting married” had no real meaning, then so did “not getting married.” What the hell, mehitabel. And I was tired of trying to figure how to introduce Linda – she wasn’t my “girlfriend,” and “significant other” may be the most repulsive term ever coined for your heartfelt companion.
Marriage comes in more sizes and shapes than you generally see portrayed. Most would likely view Linda’s and my “ceremony” as off-the-wall; we found it then – and find it now – not only delightful but the epitome of who we are, of how we gather the world.
Neither of us wanted a wedding associated with a church. For a civil ceremony in Philly, you could select a judge from the city’s roster and ask him/her to legalize your life. We chose Lynn Abraham, the feisty Jewish momma who later served almost two decades as the city’s DA. I’d been her fan since the days when she headed the Philly redevelopment authority and regularly shafted bullyboy-mayor Frank Rizzo.
Linda delved into European folk traditions to design wedding blouses for each of us. Hers was sky blue with a crocheted lace insert. For mine, to a muslin sheath she attached a collar she’d embroidered – golden Celtic knots that fused into a flaming dragon’s head at sternum level. We looked like no other couple who had ever gotten married. Oh, we were glad.
We spiffed and polished our three combined stepkids – my Morgan 10, her Ben and my Erin 8 – and towed them downtown, wondering what a City Hall wedding would be like: What sort of pomp and ceremony or laissez-faire joinery would be involved?
We took our place in a small courtroom, along with a complement of minor officials and other couples waiting to be spliced. Within minutes, Judge Abraham entered, regally attired in … a brilliant floral dress.
She sat behind the low judge’s bench and called for the first case. Escorted by a bailiff, in walked a sad-sack fellow adorned in a grey shirt and a pair of handcuffs. After some quiet chiding, Judge Abraham shook her finger at him and announced: “I told you if you violated your parole I’d send you to jail. You violated your parole and I’m sending you to jail.” The prisoner exited, sadder still.
After a couple more minor cases came time for the marriages. Only then did Abraham don her black judicial robe, which left me touched, though I can’t say just what it signified – this transformation from flowered dress of justice to official robe of life-altering ceremony.
We were scheduled for the first wedding slot, but I suddenly realized that the quarter I’d dropped in the parking meter down the block was about to expire. We existed so close to monetary oblivion that a simple parking ticket could be our undoing. So I apologized and loped out to save our financial buns.
From Linda I learned that in my absence an Hispanic couple took our place. An interpreter provided translations to the obviously dithered groom. The translator rendered “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife” into Spanish – silence. He repeated. The silence repeated. In exasperation, the groom’s mother expostulated, “Si, o no! Si o no!”
“Ah – si, si.”
Our turn. Abraham seemed delighted that we’d brought along our brood of younguns. She smiled throughout the standard rigmarole. When she intoned “for richer or for poorer,” Linda and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Abraham waved her hand: “Oh just say it, it’s only words.” I did, and Linda and I were officially united.
No other event in my life more thoroughly delighted me than that absurd and deeply, deeply human morning.
Outside, rounding the southeast corner of City Hall’s marble immensity, we stumped along, a recognized family, to a celebratory snack at the Market St. McDonald’s, conveniently located between the Apollo adult movie theater and Going Out of Business Inc. (the actual name!).
Along the way, Erin seemed (even for her) unusually grumpy. Why, I enquired. “Well, Linda isn’t my favorite person in the whole world, you know.” Those words put an end to her gloom – maybe because Linda was and remains one of Erin’s favorite people in the whole world.
Back home, we arranged our own brand of reception: a potluck, with the guests supplying the meal. Karen and Wesley brought an immense ham that could have fed the Mongol hordes. That’s the only item I specifically recall, but I know we ate as few have eaten since Adam and Eve shared their first fig.
Upstairs, Linda and her female friends danced tribally to Olatunji’s “Drums of Passion”.
Some view marriage as an irrevocable commitment, no matter what. My parents were married for 37 years, each of those years a disaster. My own first marriage often felt like a slow ride to the guillotine.
Not long ago, two couples joined us for dinner at our place up here in the mountains. Each of us six individuals, it turned out, had been partner in a calamitous first marriage, yet our three second-time fusions had, if not cured all ills, raised life from barely bearable to long-range satisfaction.
All of us should be entitled to the correction of at least one major mistake. Neither this life nor the afterlife can pay a reward for misery.