That meal was a “point of no return” for my parents, but in faith, I know lines can be un-crossed

My parent’s marriage was rather a mixture of success and failure. On the one hand, their nuptial bond endured 44 years and brought forth a small tribe of persons now busy “subduing the earth.” On the other hand, the day-to-day they lived and shared, or tolerated, for 44 years was often fraught with disagreement and dissatisfaction, bits of bickering and bitterness.

The Dissatisfaction Begins

I’m just going to keep on driving!

Once, I was talking to my dad about the early years of their marriage. Pieces of the conversation (or perhaps it was more than one conversation over a span of time) have been seared into my memory. I remember him telling me, for example, that after buying the land and homestead that would be their home, he “spent every last dime [he] had” to buy mom’s (incredibly beautiful) diamond engagement ring.

Of the things he told me, one of the saddest was his explanation of how that persisting state of dissatisfaction between them began. Apparently it had much to do with my grandmother, his mother-in-law, who was a lonely widow probably eager to help her oldest daughter begin a new life as the wife of a farmer, pregnant since the honeymoon, and facing all sorts of new responsibilities in the midst of the getting sick and the growing large with child.

Now as a mom myself, I can well imagine how my mom would have felt a longing for her own mother’s companionship. At the same time, I can surmise that the rather ever-present presence of his mother-in-law was difficult for my dad, busy trying to figure out how to bring fruit from the land, stay afloat with the lack of funds, and shoulder on with the heavy weight of his new role as “provider,” even as his dependents multiplied.

It seems Mom and Dad were unable to find a way to respect and support their respective needs, feelings and longings, and bitterness began. Even many decades later, I could still sense the frustration, and perhaps too, the hurt, in my dad, when he recalled that he once thought to himself, “If I see her (grandma’s) car parked in the driveway one more time when I’m getting home, I’m just going to keep on driving!” Obviously, he talked himself out of that, but apparently didn’t find a way to talk through it all with my mom.

The symbol of this early-year strife is a chicken.

Nearly 60 years later, if Mom is asked about it, a sheepish (perhaps nervous) giggle is still her first response. The story goes that Dad had just bought some chickens to start a little flock for laying eggs. Grandma was over for lunch, however, and Mom didn’t have anything to fix for their meal. So she butchered one of the chickens, apparently before it had had a chance to lay even a single egg. Dad was furious. I think he was still furious, even when he told me about it dozens of years after it happened. And I don’t remember exactly how he explained it to me, but I was given the idea that it was that chicken that was the beginning of the “end” of the romance.

A chicken!!?!??, I thought, when he first recounted the story! You mean, all us kids put up with years of bickering and seeing you two “withstand” each other, instead of rejoice in each other, because of a damned chicken! Are you kidding me?

But, yeah, a chicken. The undoing of much of the joy between two people committed to spending their lives together, till death would part them. I hope that at least it was a tasty meal for my grandma!

Living in Fear of the Chicken

I’m actually a bit scared of that chicken.

But you know, I’ve realized that now as a wife, I’m actually a bit scared of that chicken. I’m sometimes scared of crossing some “line” that might mean my husband and I could never go back. Perhaps it would be saying something in an argument that I didn’t mean, but once it’s out there, there’s no way I can make him “un-hear” it. Maybe some angry put-down, or a ridiculous threat. I suppose for many couples, the first mention of the “D” word might be that line … the threat that destroys the unshakeable confidence that should be part of matrimony, by planting the idea that one half might be willing to back out. So, I live with this fear in the back of my mind that I must avoid that line, resist setting in stone some terrible precedent that can’t be undone.

That fear is tempered with a deeper certainty, however. I mean, I don’t think I should flirt with any red lines. It’s not that I should presume my husband and our marriage is some sort of bop bag that can bounce back from anything.

I once had the grace to offer a reflection on Benedict XVI’s letter for Lent of 2009.  That letter starts by quoting a prayer from the Vigil of Easter, where we hear proclaimed that God’s power “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy, casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride” (Paschal Præconium).

Did you catch that phrase? Restores lost innocence!

Restores lost innocence … but innocence can’t be restored. Just ask any mom: Once a child has seen or heard something he shouldn’t, there’s no going back. The vocabulary my son picked up from the neighbor boy has brought on many time outs, and still, it’s there, confounding me as I try to come up with some consequence that will make him finally stop saying it.

Nope, innocence can’t be restored.

But it can. In God’s power, it can.

God Can Overcome the Chicken

Innocence can be restored.

So there is no such thing as some disastrous chicken waiting to be the beginning of the end of my marriage! And the mistakes I’ve made, we’ve made … or those I will make, can be healed. Again, that’s not to say there’s a reason to flirt with the chicken. There’s no doubt that the hurt in my parent’s marriage was terrible for them, and it deeply, oh-so-deeply, affected each of their children.

Still, it might take a lot of work, or more precisely, a lot of allowing God to work, but innocence can be restored. There’s no need to resign to the regrets, to the lines that have been crossed, or might sometime be crossed in a moment of blind fury.

So, while I still am trying to avoid the chicken, I’m glad I am able to rest in the certainty of God’s power to fix anything. To restore lost innocence.