Fifty-three years ago today I stood in a garden on Osteopathy Avenue in Kirksville, Missouri and exchanged vows with the late Joel Alter. We didn’t care that only a thin line of bushes separated us from the goat pens nor that the music was a rented tiny organ—I don’t even remember what was played. A friend had made my dress, and I kept it for many years before giving it away. We honeymooned, with good friends, one night at the local Holiday Inn.
We were happy for fifteen years. He built his career as a surgeon, bought us my “doctor’s wife” house, drove fancy cars, and, best of all, adopted four children. I often think of those as my golden years. They were followed by two miserable years while the marriage was crumbling. A failed marriage is never a one-way street, and I’m not writing tonight about recriminations (oh, yes, I have a long list but, probably, so did he). We divorced in 1982.
This is not a letter about blame. It’s about gratitude. If I hadn’t married Joel, I wouldn’t have the four wonderful children I have. I wouldn’t be in Texas, where I’ve been for 52 years. And I wouldn’t be eating kosher food, which I love. Joel taught me a lot of things but probably none more important than an exuberant joy in life. He loved to dance; I was a lousy dancer, but I could dance with him. He loved animals, and I caught his love, particularly of dogs. He cared about people, and I am more open and concerned about others than I might have been if he were not in my life.
A friend looked at me today and said in pure astonishment, “If he hadn’t brought you to Texas, we never would have known each other”
But the biggest thing Joel ever did for me was to leave me after 17 years of marriage, 20 years together. He reduced me to tears one night shortly before by telling me he’d take the kids, the house, everything but me. Of course, I wouldn’t give up my children. At the time, I didn’t see his leaving as a gift. I was in my early 40s, with four children ages 12-6, and I was scared, no terrified, about the future. It turned out just fine, thank you.
I have come to appreciate that great gift. If he had stayed, my children probably wouldn’t be the well-balanced, happy people they are, family people, contributing to their world. I wouldn’t have had the career I did nor would I have become the writer I call myself today. And I wouldn’t have built the wonderful life I have—friends, church, a secure home, great memories of the last thirty-plus years.
So thanks to Joel, though he didn’t intend his leaving as a gift, and his life didn’t turn out to be the happy days he expected. I have carried Joel with me, all these years, in a small place in my heart, in too many dreams, in some of the better ways I react to people and the world.
When people moan about divorce or how hard it is on the children or some such nonsense, I just smile and say, “Not always.”