Sunday, November 13, 2005

Marriage and Mystery

The Arnolfini Marriage, painting by Jan Van Eck, 1434

My 17-year-old stepdaughter is asking us questions about love and marriage. Why do people divorce? Why are some couples unable to live without each other? Why do some married people argue every day? As we talk about these matters, I remember when, at 15, I was filled with the same questions.

And I remember a moment that felt like magic, when it seemed the answer to all those questions was right in front of me, in a very ordinary home, in the most unromantic of cities…..

Mrs. Levinsky picked me up after school on Friday. She drove me and five other girls in her station wagon to Baltimore. There we were met by our host families who took us to their homes. I don’t remember which Shabbaton this was – NCSY? Bnei Akiva? In high school, I was heavily into group activities. I signed up for most every Shabbaton that came along.

The young couple that picked me up were from a different community than mine. He wore a black suit and, significantly, a black hat. She wore a longer dress than the women in our neighborhood and not a stray hair escaped from the kerchief on her head.

They were very, very young. No kids yet, recently married. And they glowed. There eyes were locked on each other. Without touching, they gravitated into each other’s sphere and moved in harmony. Love. It was the mystery I most wanted to understand. And here it was before me, for my observation all weekend. It was almost too much. I could hardly look.

I didn’t mind being excluded from this magic circle of husband and wife. In fact, I was treasuring the opportunity to observe, first-hand, the very miracle I sought for my own life. I’ll never forget that Friday evening meal. As her husband walked through the door, she became infused with light. I believe she radiated. At the dinner table, he chanted “Eshes Chayil.” Each word rang out, respect and love pouring into those ancient verses.

Back at home the next weekend, I asked my father why he never chanted that song to my mother. He said because there was no such thing as a "Woman of Valor" and continued on with some further misogynistic ramblings. Oh well.

I wonder if that couple (who must be in the 30’s now) had any idea of the strong impression they were making on their young guest. I carried that image in my mind long after I left their house, remembering a young man, a young woman, and a home filled with light and warmth. What would I see if I dropped in on them now? Perhaps a table rounded out with children of all ages. Perhaps the same respect and warmth in his eyes as he looks towards his wife. Or maybe not. Life wears us down, often. Did the daily chores of diapers and bills slowly erode that diamond-like brilliance? Did the necessary tragedies of life pull them closer together or become a wedge between them?

At fifteen, the beginning of love fascinated me. But at 45, I find the long road of love more interesting. What happens over time? What survives and what is lost? Despite my father’s refusal to acknowledge the Woman of Valor by his side, he and my mother are still together after more than 50 years. And, to his credit, he did have us present her with a “Best Balabusta Ever!” certificate after she hosted about 25 houseguests for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. (I remember drawing the certificate, thinking “Balabusta? What the heck?”)

The couple I saw when they were just nineteen or twenty was wordless in their love, but I imagine that now, in middle age, they are comfortable and conversational together, reflecting on a shared journey through life.

(crossposted at Mirty's Place)


Chaim said...

Great post Mirty, really well written. It's always inspiring when you see a couple that just screams, two perfect halves formed into one beautiful being.

PS- you writing here, motivates me to as well. I really need to put something down on paper ... uch ...

Anshel's Wife said...

When we started "coming around" to the Chabad community, I was struck by the "no touching" rule. I thought it so strange that husbands and wives didn't even bump into each accidentally, let alone give each other a hug or kiss. Yet, in most cases, the couples seemed to have at least some of what you describe the young couple as having. And now they we are shomer mitzvahs, I see the same in my marriage. It doesn't matter whether we are in the middle of the two weeks on or off, my husband still has a wink for me and we still sit at the table and talk about what's going on with the both of us.