Archive for December 2021


So now I am free to share it with all of you — the entry that didn’t win..


I didn’t know it then, but it was the day I doomed our marriage.  It was a sunny mid-afternoon in 1958 and I was dressed in the black skirt with a stretchy belly designed for expansion with a cover-up top intended to protect onlookers from the sight of my pregnancy. The living room of our new – to us – three-bedroom ranch house was comfortably furnished in used-in-law period and I had happily entertained my colleagues traveling from Boston to New York to present a paper resulting from our study of “The Role of the Nurse in the Outpatient Department.” Funny the things you remember. Arthur, one of my fellow PhD candidates, complained on emerging from the bathroom, “You put the paper the wrong way into the holder.” (Guess where I remember you several times a day, Art, and I don’t recall what you thought was the right way.)

We were all ABDs (All But Dissertation) at various stages of completion of the last obstacles to the Doctorate in Psychology and I missed the meetings we had enjoyed around the table in the gathering room at Boston University. It would be a few years, two children, family-and in-law-entertaining, a clean house, and soul-gratifying part-time college teaching before I would make my final trip to Boston to pass my orals. But on this day I was still one of them and excited to say “See ya’ soon” as we waved goodbye. I would be joining them the next time they presented a paper.

Until, that is, my husband declared “No wife of mine is ever going to a professional convention.” I retreated to our bedroom, rolled into a fetal ball, and cried, before emerging to serve dinner. It was twenty years later and one divorce initiated by me before I went to any professional meeting not directly related to my local academic career.

“It takes two to make or break a marriage,” I knew, but what had I done? I had kept the house clean because he didn’t want anyone but his wife doing that. I had prepared the meals he wanted for seven days a week. I had accepted that he didn’t particularly like going out to eat, drink, dance, or see a movie. I had managed a teaching schedule that allowed me to be home when the children were because he didn’t want them in the care of outsiders. I had waited through weeks of his not speaking until he could tell me what had offended him. His mother and I had established a loving relationship [that lasted until her death from ALS many years after the divorce.] And his father too. Through it all I loved my work, my children, my neighbors and friends, — my life, really. “Yes, I’m always busy, but the two sides of my life balance out giving joy to each” I used to say.

But the house of deception finally broke down. Two years of therapy later it was over. But what had I done wrong? He knew he had done everything expected of a husband and I knew I had done everything expected of a wife. In everything I knew I had been the person he wanted me to be to make him happy. Then came the day he explained two things. First, no man wants to be married to an executive professional. Second, there’s a right way to be when you’re dating, a right way to be when you’re engaged, a right way to be when you marry, and a right way to be when you have children. The first point evoked that sense of guilt that my conscious self had overcome. The second point was a clarification of what I had known at some level but never fully grasped. Rule-guided restrictions are a terrible way to approach life.

Now, in my final decades, it has finally dawned on me. That was my fault point. Hadn’t I believed the same thing? Hadn’t I believed that marrying meant I would do all I could to please my husband? Hadn’t motherhood meant that I would – no, should – put parenting above all else? Hadn’t I believed that following my career could be justified only by pretending it was unessential self-satisfaction – a little like a hobby for which I was surprisingly being paid and otherwise rewarded?

I had cheated my husband, myself, and my marriage of the person he had dated and married. I had redefined myself as his obedient attachment. Sure, it was the 50s and the culture supported it. But I’m the one who didn’t stand up and say, “Of course I’m going to professional conventions. That’s who I am! I’m sorry you’re not happy with that, and we’ll have to work it out. But I’m not about to give up you, or the baby-on-the-way, or the psychology I love.”

“After all you put us through to marry him” said my Swedish Lutheran mother when I divorced my Italian Catholic husband. (A mixed marriage in those days.) But that wasn’t the fault. Compromising myself was the fault.

Why now am I finally getting this simple point? Love and Hate, that’s why. Trying to understand the hate that currently seems so powerful finds me exploring the depths of its opposite — love. Love was so powerful in our early years together, pouring out like an invisible contagion filling us with joyful though often painful energy? Was there an unspoken love contract functioning as we worked at making a life together? What I give I’ll receive in return? But no, love, like marriage, is too complex, mysterious, and wonderful to be bartered.

So now, forty some years later, where did our love go – my husband‘s and mine? It’s there. That intangible thing that survives the years and shows up in unanticipated, even unbelievable places. Purgatory. The place where Catholics believe – as I understand it – that one is purged of life’s sins in preparation for the entry into heaven. Purgatory. The creed that was never part of my belief system. Purgatory. The place where I unexpectedly visited him in the middle of one night several years after his death. He was happy, contented, relaxed as I had rarely known him, anticipating the heaven ahead after his life in a dirty little hovel surrounded by garbage, road dirt, and trash. Happy to be overcoming his lifetime obsession with order, propriety, and cleanliness. And he was happy to see me. It was a good visit.

So was it a good visit more years later when, in my dream, he knelt down beside me in my garden to help me clean up the soil by pulling weeds. He who had grown up with a handkerchief of a lawn and little interest in digging in the soil. No words were spoken. Don’t tell my scientific colleagues, but I know he was on his way to a better state of being.

But then, as I always taught, no good scientist ever believes that the last and final truth has been discovered. For me, I am serene in our atonement.








Posted December 18, 2021 by Mona Gustafson Affinito in Uncategorized

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