|Jul/Aug 2007 Nonfiction
My mother had two lost loves. The first was Ivy. He was Jewish. To marry him, she would have had to convert. She said she would have done it, too. When she said the name Ivy, it was like a chorus singing, mostly an ah sound with a little tag of eye on the end to make the first syllable, Aaaahh-eye-vy. Ivy was the one who should have been my father.
Then there was John Tyler, who came after my mother's divorce. He was separated and ended up going back to his wife, "for the good of the children." My mother had thought her two kids and his three would all get to be friends and it would be like the Brady Bunch, but we were never introduced. They would have squeezed right in between us in age--one was a little older than I, one a little younger, and the third was a year younger than my brother. My mom pictured us playing hide and seek and doing jigsaw puzzles. One big, happy crew. She knew she would need an Alice to help take care of all of us. But guess what, John Tyler went back to his wife, so it turned out no Alice was necessary.
I am pretty sure that if my mother had married Ivy instead of my father, my brother and I would have had a swimming pool and bunk beds and all the things we wished we had when we lived in a series of crappy apartments in Rochester, New York. But of course, if my mother had married Ivy, then my brother and I would never have existed, so it's stupid to think about it. The swimming pool and the bunk beds would have gone to some other kids, probably better-looking kids than we were, certainly more popular, and possibly (though I doubt it) smarter.
My mother dated many other men before she met my father, including the baseball player Tony Conigliaro (before he played for the Red Sox) and a boy from her high school named Ben with whom she had sex (she told me eventually) on a college vacation and then had a pregnancy scare and practically lost her mind with worry because she wasn't sure if Ben or Ivy was the father and she didn't want to tell either of them. But then she got her period and vowed never to play around on any man ever again, a promise which, as far as I know, she kept.
I'm not sure exactly why I am talking about all these men in my mother's life. It's not very nice of me, because it points out for all to scrutinize the fact that the one my mother married, my father, was far and away the worst one of all. And that isn't going to make anyone smile or get this essay published in Reader's Digest. On the other hand, a story like this, the story of my mother's lost loves, might cheer someone up, if not my mother herself. Maybe you, reading this story, can't help thinking about your own lost loves, and how they tried to get back together with you, and how you turned them down, and how good that felt, or anyway it felt good telling people about it later.
I remember a circumstance like this from my own life, when Boris, the boy I lost my virginity to at age seventeen (and took his, at the same time), called me up in New York very late on a Thursday night. The ringing phone woke me, but I let the machine pick up, fearing some sort of bad-news call and wanting time to prepare. Instead I heard Boris's voice, a voice I had longed to hear on so many other occasions, so many years ago, and he was saying, in a slurred voice, that he was right around the corner at a party, and that we should get together some time and talk about things. I watched my hand reach out and hover over the telephone receiver. I wanted very much to pick it up and tell Boris to go to hell or to come over right away, one or the other, I'm not sure which, but something in my body--not my brain--would not let my hand pick up the phone. He never called again.
Do these stories have a point? No. Yes, yes, they do: the point is, it's only in retrospect that some men get to be the bad men and, if you're lucky, one man gets to be the winner, the groom, the husband, the life-long love. The lost loves are lost, they are safe from everyone's badmouthing, and you can make them into villains if you want, but at the time, if things had gone differently, any one of them might have ended up being the One, the mysterious One. And all your friends who said, "I didn't want to mention it at the time, but he was wrong for you"--you know they would say the same thing about the one you did end up marrying, if you divorce him some day. Because people who think they know who is right and wrong for you really only know who is wrong for you, because that description can fit every single guy that you ever date.
According to my mother, Ivy--Aaaahh-eye-vy--was the kindest and funniest of all the men she ever went out with. Plus he was handsome. I don't know much about him, just that when my mother talked about him she got that faraway look, like she was talking about a movie star or a fairy tale prince. He was so far in her past, you see--she could make him be whatever she wanted. I picture him tall and blond and freckled from the sun, someone who would know how to order wine in a restaurant or sail a boat or handle a rough patch in a conversation.
John Tyler on the other hand was kind, smart, funny, and also very sexy. Ivy was handsome but John Tyler was hot (my mother never said this, but I inferred it). She met John Tyler (he was always referred to by both his names because we had a baby-sitter named John, too) after her divorce from my father. John Tyler was also divorced, and he ran marathons. I was allowed to accompany them on one of their dates (I was about seven) and saw the movie Rocky with them at a drive-in. My mother told me to shut my eyes at a couple of scenes. John Tyler was my favorite of all her boyfriends--he horsed around with me and my brother and always brought us souvenirs from their dates, like cocktail napkins or paper parasols from exotic drinks. Of course, I never met Ivy, so I can't include him in the comparison.
Years after he went back to his wife and children, my mother saw John Tyler at a five-mile "Fun Run" in Genesee Valley Park. They were both dressed in sweatpants and were all flushed from the exercise. My mother told me about this later and got a bit shaky talking about it. She said that John Tyler recognized her and gave her a hug, and they stood talking for a few minutes. My mother could not remember a word he said--she could only remember standing there looking at him and wanting to touch his face. This would have sounded maudlin except that my mother never talked this way about anything--she never cried or screamed or laughed loudly; she was emotionally contained.
I don't know if she was always that way or if it was some kind of effect of her marriage to my father, who was an alcoholic and a drug addict and eventually, after their divorce, went to jail for a while for trying to hold up a hardware store. He was also an artist, for about five minutes, intelligent and strange, and everyone now agrees, mentally ill. When I was a teenager, my friends used to complain about the day-to-day stupidity of their dads; I had nothing to contribute, not knowing my father in a day-to-day kind of way. For a time, when they grew out their complaining, mine kicked in full force.
I know that my mother regretted marrying my father, except, she was always quick to point out, for the fact of me and my brother. But how could she have known in advance what he would turn out to be? Perhaps there were small clues--the occasional drinking binge, his love for motorcycles--but I'm sure that she figured no one is perfect and this is a good man and I love him and he loves me and we can make this marriage succeed. The same things everyone thinks. And sometimes it works and sometimes not, and I don't really see how you can know beforehand.
It's astounding, the leap of faith two people make when they get married. There should be a whole training ground for this--and maybe there is, maybe that is what high school and college and living together are. But still, no guarantees. My brother has never dated anyone seriously, and he is twenty-five now. I'm almost thirty and my boyfriend just left me. My mom and my aunt and my women friends have showered me with stories of their own bad break-ups and divorces, and it has become clear to me that they all have at least one lost love who they think was probably the One, but who, for some reason, they let get away.
Maybe in one or two cases they think their husbands or boyfriends were the right choice, but mostly they have a particular man's name surrounded by regret. And it seems so obvious to me now that my college boyfriend Ross is the guy I should have married, my Aaaahh-eye-vy. The question is, what should I do about this? Leave this certainty alone, but give Ross the place of honor in my heart so that one day, many men from now, I can speak of him with a faraway look to my own daughter or niece?
Of course, there is still plenty of time to make gigantic mistakes of my own. Burrow out extra room in my heart for the possibility of happiness. But it may be that part of the definition of the great lost love is that he remains lost--if my mother had gotten back together with Ivy, someone probably would have taken his place as her lost love. There will always be regrets--it's just a question of how much you can bear.
I wrote the first draft of this essay, which ended with that sentence, about three years ago. Soon after I set it aside, I visited my old college boyfriend, Ross, in Colorado. And reader, I married him. He became my found love, and all the ideas in this essay faded away, because I got happiness. Now Ross and I have a son who is just learning to walk. If he sees that you are watching, he will clap his hands together and almost fall down.
But the story doesn't end there. My mother called last night to tell me that Ben had died, suddenly, in a car crash. Ben, the high school boyfriend, the one in the pregnancy warning story. It seems that my mom got a call from her sister, who had heard the bad news from an old friend. This friend also told my mom's sister that Ben had once--no, not once, often--said that my mom was his one true love! In exactly those words! And that is why I have returned to this essay. My mother had two lost loves that I know about, and now I have learned that my mother was a lost love, also.
It makes me want to start a giant project, the Lost Love Project. I could track down John Tyler and Aaahh-eye-vy and question them, perhaps in disguise (though they could hardly recognize me as it is), asking them just which women from their pasts were really important, which ones would they want to talk to again. I could ask everyone, do an anonymous email survey or use one of those automatic telephone dialers with a recording. The purpose of the project would not be to link up the lost loves, but just to give people a chance to tell their own made-up romance narratives. I really made a mistake on that one, they would say. She was the one I should have married. He was the one I really loved.