University of Baltimore MFA student Ellen Hartley found her truest love affair in a most unexpected way — through an equally emotional loss.
It began with a phone call.
Ellen, I’ve got dreadful news. Helen died yesterday. It was Myra, the sister of my best friend from music camp 40 years earlier. I didn’t even know she’d been sick; over the years we’d lost touch. I knew only that she lived on Long Island and had four children. I was shocked and angry I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.
At camp Helen (nee Manheim, we called her Mannie) and I had been inseparable, both short and chunky, both flutists, both terrible tennis players. Mannie lived in Manhattan, went to exotic-sounding Music and Art High School, I was from DC and wished I could go to Music and Art. In 1966, I went to her wedding; she married a nice looking guy named Bob. Meanwhile, she’d switched to viola and was playing in a string quartet.
I had met Danny in college and married him in 1963. We lived in Philadelphia, where he was a med student and I freelanced on flute. Mannie and Bob used to visit; she and I would exchange the current musical dirt; the guys would argue about audio equipment. When my daughter was five months old, we descended on their Upper West Side apartment, stashed the baby in a padded dresser drawer, and left her with an outrageously priced sitter ($2/hour!), while the four of us did the town.
We kept in touch – sporadically, alas, after Mannie, Bob, and their first-born moved to Indiana. We’d get together occasionally at Myra’s house in Laurel, not far from Baltimore, where Danny and I had settled. Bob, who’d been teaching English in South Bend, had been denied tenure because his outspoken liberal views were seen as threatening to the nice Catholic girls at St. Mary’s College. By then Mannie had three young boys and was pregnant with her fourth (a girl!); Bob, who was not crushed to leave academia, found a promising job in editing on Long Island.
I never saw her after that.
Meanwhile, Danny’s career was flourishing – he was becoming a prominent ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Our marriage, sadly, was anything but flourishing, and in 1977 he moved out, leaving me on financially shaky ground with my six and seven year olds. I left professional music and went to law school. I ended up in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office (portrayed quite realistically in “The Wire”). Fifteen years passed. By day I put crooks in jail, by night I dated countless men. There were a couple of serious relationships. But nothing screamed Forever. My last date was New Year’s Eve, 1993, when a dashing lawyer named Tom left me stranded at a party to be with his mother. I swore off men.
Two weeks later I got Myra’s phone call.
At first I was reluctant to contact Bob; we hadn’t seen each other in years. Would he even remember my name? I called. Ellen, he cried, it’s so good to hear your voice! I remembered his voice. We both cried.
It was an extremely cold, icy winter. The memorial service was postponed to May. I spoke about Mannie, about her crooning Shake o shake the ketchup bottle, none’ll come & then a lot’ll! After the service everyone gathered at Bob’s house. I met all four children, who ranged in age from 10 to 19. Poor guy, I thought, a widower with a houseful of kids and an hour’s daily commute into Manhattan. My life suddenly seemed serene and wonderful.
How on earth did we end up in each other’s arms? Impossible, I told myself; he’s my best friend’s husband! Yet we kept in touch. Letters, more letters (the romantic days before email!), endless phone calls. I visited Long Island. Bob visited Baltimore. We realized we were falling in love. Quite madly.
That August we sat on the old creaky swing on my front porch. Marry me, he begged, I love you and my children need a mother. I didn’t know. How could I replace his wife of 27 years? I had two children of my own in Baltimore. They had the good sense to be grown and not need a mother. Bob offered me a deal: come live with me (on Long Island) and be my love (help raise the kids), then we’ll move to Baltimore and grow old together.
My mother adored Bob. She said we were “beschert” (Yiddish for kismet). That did it. I was lonely, sick of my job, and longed for someone to spend the rest of my life with. It didn’t matter that he came encumbered.
We married the following February. It was the coldest day of the year (I wore long johns under my wedding dress). Fourteen of us squeezed into a judge’s den; Bob and I said I do. We learned later that the judge had been de-benched for “impropriety” but still did weddings ($75 –cash only!) – we assumed our marriage was legal.
Myra stayed with the kids while we took off for a weekend honeymoon at an old country inn. Turned out the water pipes had burst and our wing was closed. We found a motel. We drank lots of Remy Martin and, giggling like teenagers, fell asleep in our clothes. Next morning I awoke with the flu. Bob brought me saltines and ginger ale from the 7-Eleven. He held me when I threw up.
The first four months of married life we co-existed with contractors from Baltimore, who slept in the basement. The kitchen was gutted; all seven of us ate pepperoni pizza in the living room – on the dining room table jammed between two sofas and the refrigerator. Bob and I crept upstairs and made cautious love on our nuptial bed strewn with cardigans and suit jackets (closets emptied for the installation of AC ducts), while outside our door kids were shouting, hammers pounding, plaster dust swirling. We played Symphonie Fantastique at top volume to drown out the clamor.
What on earth had I gotten myself into? I had dreamt of a grand “blended” family (though the term reminded me of fruit smoothies) munching bagels on Sunday morning. We munched plenty of bagels. There the dream ended.
Your turn to do the dishes!
NOW, they’re overflowing the sink!
F**k you, you’re not my mother!
One morning my new bath towel disappeared. I stomped down to the basement and counted 23 dirty towels on the floor (I didn’t know we owned 23 towels). Mine, the persimmon red one, lay crumpled in the kids’ bathroom.
Some time later the boys and I were in the kitchen arguing about who had left the front door unlocked. Lying bitch! one yelled; he picked up a steak knife and hurled it at my head. I screamed; I ducked (it missed).
I had to cut the kids some slack — they’d lost their mother. But I had no idea how to be a stepmom – was it unreasonable to insist they vacuum their rooms every week? No doubt they found me picky and intrusive. We went from hugs to tantrums. I joined a gym and sweated out my frustrations. I found a good therapist. I smoked pot and ate chocolate. Bob and I fought, made up and made passionate love. You’ll always be my best friend, he said.
Our wedding rings are inscribed with Browning’s lines, “Grow old along with me/ the best is yet to be.” I waited for the best to arrive.
The years passed; the kids grew; Bob and I stopped trying so hard. I wish I could capture a dramatic turning point, but it didn’t happen that way; we just gradually became a family. I recall an April Fool’s Day when Anna and I put salt in the sugar bowl — we high-fived as the others gagged over their cereal. The boys ribbed me about my shift in allegiance from the Orioles to the Yankees. One by one they got their drivers’ licenses and no longer needed me to crate them around. Mother’s Day cards appeared. They started calling my son and daughter step-siblings. They graduated from high school and college. They went to grad school and got jobs. They moved out.
Meanwhile, I carved a virtual rut in Rt. 95 by driving back and forth to visit my family in Baltimore. I was weary of Long Island, where everyone drove instead of walking (our neighborhood had no sidewalks); I was anxious for Bob to fulfill his part of the bargain. But his elderly parents lived nearby, and we cared for them until they passed away several years later.
Today, though somewhat overdue (Bob’s youngest is 29), we’re finally settled in Baltimore. We have a wonderful old house with a leaky roof, sloping floors and clanking radiators; five bedrooms mean there’s room for everyone to visit without strangling each other. Bob and I walk to the library, the post office and a couple of Starbucks. We’ve come full circle by reconnecting with my ex-husband; Danny and I are better friends than spouses. Last Christmas the whole crew – kids, in-laws, and siblings (blended to a fault) – squeezed into Danny’s dining room for a holiday meal which ingeniously bypassed gluten allergies, cholesterol concerns, lactose intolerance, and various degrees of vegetarianism.
I think Mannie would have smiled.
Ellen Hartley is a nonfiction writer, currently enrolled in the MFA program at UB. When her career as a professional flutist failed to pay the rent, she became a lawyer and served as Assistant State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. She has also taught at Towson University and written music reviews for local papers.