Hallowed or Hollow Marriage?
FRUITFUL OR DESERTED GARDEN?
This year the garden patch I pass by daily lies deserted. For years I have admired that garden: tulips and herbs and tender young salad greens in the spring; peppers and tomatoes, basil and beans, bright zinnias and nasturtiums in July; and in autumn, heavy-headed sunflowers nodding over squash and pumpkins. On many a summer day, the couple who made the garden would sit on two old garage-sale lawnchairs, after their weeding and watering were done, enjoying in the cool of the evening the lush colors and fragrances.
This year there is no garden. The house is vacant and up for sale. The couple, whom I have known casually since before they were married a decade ago, have separated and are getting a divorce. The separation was a surprise to many of us who know them in this small town, but perhaps we should have seen the signs. He is from a strong Catholic family and she is from an equally strong Protestant background. Like many young people, each had drifted away from church during college, and neither of them practiced a faith at the time of their marriage. There was no indication to neighbors or acquaintances that God found a terribly welcome place in the home they established. They were a successful, upwardly mobile pair, pursuing careers and the good life: food, books, and music; the Sunday morning ritual of The New York Times and cappuccino; an annual trip to New York or Europe. They chose not to have children — actually, more her active choice and his acquiescence.
As mid-life approached they discovered that their marriage was dry, fruitless, voluntarily made sterile. He began to wonder why he kept knocking himself out at his job, why work and save and build, if not for a family, if not for something more than a paid-off mortgage and a patch of cumin and mint. But she was comfortable with her career, her house, her pets, and her garden, and couldn’t quite understand his deep longings. These basic and profound differences in viewpoint, dormant perhaps at the beginning, took root and grew, and cracked their thin foundation.
No hard feelings, they said, no bitterness. They put away the trappings of 10 years of marriage. No garden now, no shiny Mason jars filled at the end of summer with the colorful bounty of their shared labor. Their breakup rippled out beyond them. No longer are they “aunt” and “uncle,” “sister-in-law” and “brother-in-law” to the other’s relatives. A decade’s worth of relationships, shared affections, and experiences has been severed. Friends, coworkers, and family readjust, accommodate, realign loyalties. Life goes on. But something profound has happened. Something precious has been broken. And both walked away from the ruin of their marriage with a sense of failure.
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