November Blues

Remember Me Tonight
Photo by Aldo Delara

November’s dreariness often drives me to salute it with an equally bleak piece of writing.  The grey skies, the disappearance of October’s brilliant foliage, and the consistently misty mornings followed by damp, rainy days trigger my saddest memories.

As it is, I expect, with a lot of you, ruminations on failed romance and loss of love are frequent contributors to these blue moods.

While I can’t claim that my past is littered with love affairs gone awry, there were relationships that when they fell apart, ripped my heart in half and left me filled with such a depth of remorse, regret, and guilt that I couldn’t see any reason to keep living.

As this year’s somber November squats in my soul, I remember Ed. Edward was my last great love before I met my husband.  Even though Jay and I have been appreciatively married for fifty-five years, there’s still a piece of my heart that belongs to Ed.  It’s his forever.

Never Quite Prepared

Following high school, I attended St. Mary’s College on what was called the “Staff” program.  It was a wonderful opportunity created by the Sisters of the Holy Cross to help young women in financial need to earn their bachelor’s degree.  In return for thirty hours a week of dining-room service, we received room, board, and tuition.

Photo by Chuttersnap

At that time, meals at St. Mary’s were a very formal affair.  A nun sat at the head of every table and those of us who served set the table beforehand.  Once everyone was seated, we served breakfast, lunch and dinner family style.  When “sister” rose from the meal, the girls at her table were free to go – and we could begin to clear the dishes to take them back to the enormous dishwasher in the kitchen.

And that is how I met Ed.

Ed worked the dishwasher. This floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall contraption ran on a conveyor belt that poured out enormous bursts of hot steam.  To clean the dishes, you fed trays loaded with dirty plates, glasses, and cups in one end and lifted the steaming, spotless dinnerware out from the other. The nuns firmly believed that working the dishwasher was much too demanding for young women in their “CB” (the sisters’ delicate way of referring to childbearing) years. Mind you, they would have been horrified if any of us actually became pregnant!

The school administration hired local young men to run the dishwasher. Ed, the son of a local family with five boys to raise, had started working on the dishwasher in high school, which was before I entered St. Mary’s.  With his big, blue eyes, curly, sandy hair and wide smile, he quickly became a favorite with the older girls with whom he worked.

Photo by Hunter Bryant

For them, he was more a little brother than a romantic interest. When I started at St. Mary’s, Ed who graduated from high school that same year, left South Bend to go to the University of Indiana in Bloomington. So, it was nine months before I walked into the kitchen one morning to find all the seniors very excited that Ed was back for the summer.

Something Is Starting

I’ve written before about “love at first sight,” and I’ve tended to play it down.  But that June day it happened to Ed and me. Cupid not only shot us with his arrows, Venus smiled on us as well because I had already decided to stay at St. Mary’s for the summer.  Thus, Ed and I were thrown together daily and soon getting together as often in the evening as my curfew allowed.

Couple sitting by river
Photo by Justin Groep

Romantic was Ed’s middle name. He brought me daisies for breakfast.  He bought me books of romantic poetry and inscribed poems to me on their inside covers. We spent long hours sitting on the banks of the St. Joe River, discussing our philosophies of life.

He loved jazz and gave me one by one an enormous collection of jazz records to play so we could talk about the artists.  Sadly, there was no place we could listen to music together.  Guys were forbidden entrance to dorm rooms.  His mother wouldn’t hear of him entertaining me in their home.  His school was 400 miles away.  And jazz clubs only seated the over-21 crowd.

Still, our affection for one another grew steadily and our sheer happiness in just being together blossomed like a wildflower garden.  Summer ended, but our love did not.  We wrote one another almost daily. We phoned each other weekly despite how outrageously expensive that was. Whenever Ed came home, we spent every spare minute together.  We plotted a future – living in New York City.  He would be a poet and I would be a journalist. We’d live in Greenwich Village, true Bohemians. Perhaps, we’d even move to Paris or Barcelona. Our dreams had no boundaries.

In January, I took the bus to Bloomington to bunk with a girlfriend there and spend the weekend with Ed. It was then I met his roommate Phillip.  Phillip was a dedicated philosopher and something new to the naïve Catholic girl I had been until that time – an atheist. Phillip expounded at length on the reasons God couldn’t exist and the foolishness of religion.  He frightened me because I could see Ed really admired him.

Ed came to St. Mary’s for Valentine’s Day – with a ring.  It wasn’t a diamond.  He and I would have disdained such a bourgeois tradition.  The ring’s stone was a lovely oval opal that shimmered like a rainbow.  It had belonged to his grandmother. When he asked if I would accept her ring and be willing to become family with him, I, of course, vowed I would.  Suddenly I was engaged.  There was so much excitement in the dorm and the kitchen the next morning.  All our friends were elated.

Blow the Whole Thing Up

At Easter, the ax fell. Home for the spring holidays, Ed joined me that Sunday after his family dinner.  He led me to our favorite place by the river. There, he explained to me that he had become convinced that Phillip was right.  God didn’t exist and only fools believed such nonsense.  If Cupid’s arrow had pierced my heart sweetly, this arrow hit with such pain, I almost doubled over.  I tried to convince him he was wrong.  He couldn’t throw away a lifetime of faith.  I mounted every argument I could.  (I had after all received an “A” on my paper, “Proof That There Are Angels.”)  He remained firm.  We parted uneasily.

For the next week, I brooded over our encounter.  Could I marry a man who didn’t believe in God? I talked it over with some of the girls who’d known Ed for longer than I had.  Some thought he’d change again someday.  But I wasn’t sure. Others didn’t believe religious differences were important enough to trouble a loving committed relationship.  I, however, felt this went deeper than “religious differences.”  But I yearned to be with Ed.  I loved how I felt when I was with him.  He made me feel like the most special woman who had ever walked the earth.  He was kind, affectionate, passionate, and smart. That should count for more than this question about God.  Shouldn’t it?

But, in the end, it didn’t.  When I thought about having children with a man who would refuse to allow them to live a life of faith, I could not fathom such a future. My claim to Bohemianism fell apart in the face of my rock-solid Catholicism.  I give up not only on a relationship, but on a version of myself.

I called Ed and said I was coming to see him.  The bus ride down to Bloomington seemed like the longest trip of my life.  He was stunned. He begged me to reconsider. But after weeks of arguing with myself, my heart and mind were set.  Only Phillip understood – and that was no consolation.

The trip back I cried the whole way. I had broken two hearts.  I had ruined a beautiful relationship, and maybe for reasons that didn’t make any sense.  My heart still aches when I remember that journey.

Couple letting go of each other's hands
Photo by Brooke Cagle

Some of life’s heartbreaks I chose and had to live with. It didn’t make them any less shattering.

“How I wish to fly with the geese away from dreary November days, the “freeze-up,” and cruel winter. Away from loneliness, isolation, and anxiety bred by blizzards. . . . The geese contaminate us with this strange depression on their southbound flight and cure us with their northbound. In between, we try to tolerate winter, each in his or her own way.”
 Anne LaBastilleWoodswoman I: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness