It was a lovely, bright-sunny day for my morning walk today, save for the fact it was about 10-degrees too cool. It was 38 and there was just enough of a breeze out of the north to chill my thinned-out Florida blood. There was frost on the rooftops and as I walked my thoughts flashed back to a frosty spring morning in 1983 or 84.
What I saw in my thoughts was six green upside down feed-buckets covering six tomato plants–placed over them to save them from the frost. I was married then and my wife, stepson Jeremy, and I lived in a mobile home on five acres out in the Black Hammock, near Oviedo. We were always broke–and sometimes bored with life in the boonies, I would do things to amuse myself and save a few bucks–like plant a vegetable garden. We lived there because my wife had horses, and we were always broke because she was a student at UCF, I didn’t make much money, and we had horses. Horses are very expensive pets and we had several. It was supposed to be a business; we always boarded at least one horse, and my wife gave an occasional riding lesson. She was a genius at all things equine, and there probably weren’t three people in Central Florida who knew as much about horses as she.
But the image of the feed buckets and my little garden out in the woods caused me to well-up a bit in a sort of joyous nostalgia. That era, the mid-80s, was about the best time in my life–in spite of always being broke, having a terrible job–and to say nothing about the challenges of life with Tiffany.
In a nutshell, my wife was very emotionally damaged. She was adopted at age two into a wealthy, privileged but loveless home in Seattle. Her adoptive father died less than a year later and her adoptive mother was pregnant at the time with her first and only biological child. Tiffany was Eurasian–mixed white and oriental blood, but the couple who adopted her were Japanese. Thus, she didn’t look quite like the rest of the family, and if you know anything about the Japanese culture you know they are ethnocentric to the extreme. She was a mischievous, hyperactive child and was basically resented by her adoptive mother and younger brother. She ran away from home at age 16 and never looked back.
The story of how she and I met and eventually got together is a romance of sorts and quite improbable–worthy of a true-story novel in itself–but undoubtedly “a God-thing” as they say. We started living together at Halloween, 1977, and split up a week before Halloween, 1986–and there is some sort of irony or metaphor there concerning the season of the witch that I can’t quite articulate. I’ve thought about writing that book about our relationship, but I won’t because it would be one-sided and it might sound in parts like I was trashing her, and I don’t want to do that as I’m sure she was the only woman who has every really loved me, and at least for a few years, made that apparent.
Our first year together was exciting but tough in a getting-to-know-you sort of way. Though I was in my early 30s, I had very little experience with relationships and was basically a selfish bachelor. Jeremy was age-9 at the time, and as far as I was concerned, just part of the baggage along with the horses, the dog and her assorted debts. Of course, in the long run, he was probably the greatest blessing for me. In the beginning I wasn’t all that interested in being a step-dad, but we spent a lot of time together as I was the one who drove him to school, took him to practice, and attended all of his soccer and baseball games. The amount of time I invested in him was worth it as today we are closer than he is with either of his biological parents. Save for a couple second-cousins, he is pretty much all the family I have.
During our second full year together, in the autumn of ’79, both Tiffany and I had “born-again” experiences. They occurred within a month or two of each other but were seemingly unrelated events. Coming to know the Lord was life-changing for both of us, yet oddly enough didn’t impact our relationship that much. That latter fact may have been due to while each having relationships with the Lord, we didn’t have that relationship together with Him. In nine years we only attended church a few times, had very little fellowship with other believers, and whereas we both prayed and read scripture, we didn’t do that together. So in some sense the Lord was part of our lives but not our life together. I haven’t fully figured this out yet, but there might be a cautionary lesson there for some readers.
Our first five or six years together were the very best years of my life. I enjoyed being a family. Tiffany made every holiday special. She would set aside her anger, her abandonment issues, and dark moods at Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and our assorted birthdays and defer to the better angels of her nature. And though we were always under the gun financially we scraped together enough to go out to dinner or the movies once a month–we even did the theme parks a couple of times. She would show me she cared by hiding little love-notes and origami animals in unlikely places where I would discover them weeks or months later. Several years after we had split up I found a little origami elephant that she had hidden in a box years before–a gut-wrenching discovery for sure. She was also the most intuitive and observant person I’ve ever known and I learned things from her about human dynamics that can’t be taught in textbooks.
An old friend, Bob Howells, observed when he came down to visit us, “Carl, I didn’t know you had the capacity to be that happy. I didn’t think you had those responses in you.” Coming from Bob that was impressive. He was a rather dour, hypercritical character himself and his statement about the effect of marriage impressed me. I’m an only child and was raised by a single mom. I believe that all my life I’ve felt somewhat lonely, and I think one of the pitfalls of being an only child is becoming very self-absorbed. And so it was sweet respite to have someone to worry about other than myself; the welfare of Tiffany and Jeremy became my focus, and for the first time since puberty robbed my sanity I felt “normal.” My needs for emotional intimacy were being met and for the first time in my life, both before or since, sex was a normal part of life.
Like many males, sexual desire was the axis on which my life turned for far too many years. Totally unprepared, puberty crashed into my life right at my 12th birthday, and it was such an unpleasant, life-altering, all-consuming intrusion that by my 13th birthday I was calling myself an agnostic. I was basically a “good” kid who didn’t lie, steal or cheat and was generally respectful and obedient to my elders–but lust changed all that. Everything I knew to be true about life, my place in God’s universe, and my basic decency was turned on its head. Like many young guys of my era I became obsessive about sex, and sadly Playboy magazine became the arbiter of my morality. My loneliness and longing for intimacy was made more acute due to my extreme shyness, and so when I found satisfaction for those impulses in marriage God’s universe finally righted itself–Paradise Regained.
But around the seventh year of our marriage things began to unravel. I’m not certain but I think my wife’s abandonment issues may have been provoked. I know I have a depressive nature and that at times I can be distant. Perhaps she took my dark moods as abandonment. I’m not really sure, but the intimacy stopped and her rages, and verbal abuse increased. The last two years felt like one long emotional battering. I prayed every day and I continued to feel hopeful that the Lord would work things out–but then suddenly it was over and it felt like a deliverance.
Had I stayed married I probably would not have had a very interesting life–stressful yes, interesting no. I would likely be living on acreage and living a life revolving around horses. I doubt that I would have traveled to Europe four times, gone on mission trips or written four books. I would not know many of the interesting people who today I call friends. I now have 299 Facebook friends and several dozen of those folks are real friends whose lives I care about and in some sense feel a part of. This past week two of my friends, the Honey Badger family, had a 7-lb addition–and that was pretty exciting. I almost feel like an uncle. I probably wouldn’t know them–or any of my very interesting circle if I were still married. But I still long to be part of a family.
And I’m haunted by that dilapidated mobile home out in the woods and swamp of Black Hammock. I’ve dreamed about it probably 50 times in the past 20 years. Sometimes it looks the same, sometimes not–sometimes, it’s a two-story mobile home. Sometimes Tiffany is in the dream but usually not. Often I’m waiting for her to come home. It’s okay to be called “trailer trash” if there is warmth in that trailer–and in our case there was. Several years ago they built a new home on the property and towed the mobile home away and for a while the dreams stopped–but after a year or two they returned–and it’s okay, they’re not nightmares, just strange and haunted.
So like the taste of blueberry muffins catapulted Proust into his seven volume Remembrance of Things Past, the crisp morning and the lingering vision of upside down green feed-buckets sent me off on this meditation on family–my family.