Editor’s Note: This essay briefly mentions childhood sexual abuse.
When trees turn the burnished colors of autumn, I celebrate love. In the autumn of 1977, I met the partner of my dreams.
Autumn begins the holiday season, lifting me up instead of letting me down. We save our Halloween pumpkin to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving, we close our eyes, make a wish, and snap our turkey wishbone in two. We wish for more years together. No matter who gets the shorter section, we both win.
When Christmas spreads coverlets of snow, our warmth sustains us. Our toasts on New Year’s Eve sing with memories of 45 years together — overcoming challenges that tested our endurance, grit, and devotion.
I’m 83 now, but when I was 25, my story did not ring in happiness. The backpack on my shoulders weighed me down with fear. I escaped reality every weekend, wheeling my son’s stroller through a semi-dark tunnel beneath a footbridge, my heels echoing off the stone walls. As I approached the opening leading to my safe place, my heart leaped like an air-brushed flame. I blinked at grass as green as a sunlit shamrock shimmering on the ground. Swans glided on the blue-green surface of a pond and clouds drifted through the cobalt blue sky like dreams through my head.
My three-year-old son rocked in his stroller the way he galloped on his rocking horse at home, laughing as a pair of swans entwined their curved necks and created a heart-shaped space. Longing sucked the breath out of me. I wrote another love poem in my head.
Will I ever find someone to share this beauty?
I was a pretend wife, a stumbling, new mother – a woman who had never known passion or completion. I ached for tenderness.
My parents had not known how to place me in their hearts. As a child, I hated dolls and dresses; I loved fishing rods, baseball bats, and comics with super heroes. I also loved the quiet of my room to read and daydream. I read to fuel my imagination, yearning to sail on clipper ships, hike through jungles, and hit more home runs than the boys on my stick ball team. I spoke frog, bird, and puppy language.
As I grew up, my confusion grew. When I was seven, my neighbor married. His wife smelled like the honeysuckle bushes on my uncle’s farm. She wore a tiny pickle pin on the navy lapel of her stewardess uniform.
Why did my heart flutter when she knelt down to my level, tweaked one of my long braids, and made me promise to have fun every day?
I fantasized about being the pilot of the airplane that flew her to Africa. Always the hero, I rescued her from gorillas and lions.
One day, my fantasy world shattered. I overheard my mother confide to a neighbor: “My daughter’s queer.”
Crushed, abandoned, I felt separated from her. What do you mean?
My father was too hands-on. He tickled me to see if I was growing breasts. He’d touch me in places that made me squirm and stop when my mother entered the room. The only time I felt safe was after dinner when he drank three glasses of scotch and fell asleep with my mother on the couch.
The Good Humor ice cream man dealt me another shock: “You’re so pretty. Why don’t you ever smile?wp_postsAgain, exposed.
And my high school English teacher, who stopped me in the hallway: “You’re a gifted writer. When you go to college you should major in creative writing.wp_postsExposed again.
Who is he talking about? These were possibilities which had never entered my mind. But curiosity forced me to explore his words. I took buses to the library to take out books by famous writers. I loved colors and doodled a lot. I used my allowance to pay for an art lesson at the Brooklyn Museum. But the shard of light my English teacher presented dulled. I was not ready to be exposed in the larger world of college.
I yearned to express myself, to talk without stuttering, challenges that followed me into my thirties.
I married because that’s what most girls of the post-World War II generation did. My husband laughed at my dreams and drawings. He slept with other women, some my former classmates. On our wedding night, he told me he could never be my friend.
When he said he was taking my children away because I overprotected them, hives hounded me. Desperation squeezed my chest, warning me to save myself. I saw a therapist and met with a lawyer. It took me five years to find the courage I had found in my fantasies to end my marriage.
I testified in a courtroom. The witness stand faced my husband’s table. I looked him in the eyes. The judge pounded his gavel and granted me a divorce. But I still ached to share my heart. I turned to alcohol and it turned on me. Another roadblock, more work on myself.
With another therapist’s support, I signed up for a college art course, a stepping stone towards finding myself and the lost child inside me.
In the autumn of my 39th year, that lost child saved my life. I discovered that I was fluent in portraiture and watercolor painting. I opened up and bloomed in the nurturing environment of like-minded students.
One day a woman appeared in the classroom doorway. My heart fluttered. Gathering her lovely self, she strode across the front of the room, her boot steps eating up the floor, heading for a table at the far end. I watched her shake hands, introduce herself, and begin a conversation with the students at her table. I dove back into my painting and lost myself. My heart slowed down.
What felt like an hour later, a melodic voice turned my head. She leaned over my left shoulder and looked at my watercolor scene of clipper ships docked at a faraway shoreline.
“Nice,wp_postsshe said. “Do you have a title?”
My mind jumped from her warm, brown eyes and smile to blankness. All of a sudden, the title of the painting I created over and over in my imagination surfaced: “The Harbor Where I Land.”
Her smile deepened. “Can I stowaway on one of your ships?”
A bubble of laughter rose to my throat. “You can sit at the captain’s table.”
She laughed. “And you’re the captain?”
I straightened in my chair. “You bet.”
She laughed. “I accept your invitation, Captain….when do we sail?”
We have been sailing through life together for 45 years. She’s my Heart Whisperer. I’m grateful that the sons who witnessed my fantasy years bonded with her and benefited from her devotion, wisdom, and love. It’s taken me 83 years to realize the depth of my good fortune, my patience, and my strength to change.
Happy Valentine’s Day.