On a cool and gray December day in 1985, just a few days before Christmas, I was gathering up the gifts I received from my bridal shower, which had been hastily planned and executed so my mother could participate in the shower, as well as be present for my wedding, both held that same week. She had come from Tarpon Springs, Florida to Stillwater, Oklahoma to see her oldest daughter get married.
The bridal shower was a foreign and unknown concept to my mother and me. Where we had come from, no one had bridal showers. We did not understand the questions pelted at us by well-meaning friends of my soon-to-be in-laws who learned of the wedding, “Where are you registered, dear?” or “What are your colors?” We did not understand the women’s laughter as I broke the ribbon on the first four gifts, instead of sliding them off. Apparently, according to the group of women I barely knew at my bridal shower, for every ribbon broken the couple will have a child. When they explained this to me, my doe-like brown eyes widened at the thought of having four children, and they erupted in more hideous laughter. Momma just sat across from me, looking small and unsure, between my soon-to-be mother-in-law and sister-in-law, her brown eyes matching mine. I carefully slid the bows off the rest of the gifts, just to be sure. Four children were four more than I had ever planned to have, though I was already pregnant with at least one. I silently cursed the women beneath my breath for not letting me in on this little nugget of wisdom before I began to open gifts.
No, back in the hills of Tennessee, in the Tennessee Valley, when one was married, the event most often occurred at the courthouse. At least, people in our family did it that way. My mom and dad were married in Ringgold, Georgia. I still have a grainy photo of the two, dad in his brown tweed jacket and dark slacks, mom in a blue dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, showing off her tiny waist. Dad’s arm is wrapped around her as she leans into him, both smiling for the camera as they posed before the courthouse, on a sunny and unseasonably warm November day in 1965.
The one exception I can recall was when my dad’s younger brother, my uncle Steve, married Cynthia Couch. If my aunt had a bridal shower, I don’t recall hearing about it. My mother was either not invited or, more likely, did not attend. They were married at the First Baptist Church in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia on Christmas Eve. At the tender age of nine, I sat next to my dad and watched as my uncle, resplendent in his tuxedo (I cannot remember the color), stared into my aunt’s eyes as he said his vows. She wore a beautiful white dress, with a long train (I did not learn what this was until I was getting ready to be married ten years later) and she held a bouquet of daisies. I gazed at their obvious love for one another and wanted THAT for myself one day.
The day of my first wedding, I was just barely nineteen years old, my birthday being in September. Up to that time I believed I had a pretty firm grasp on this thing called LIFE and how to navigate through it. Who does not think she has it all figured out at this precious age?
Although I had come from a humble background, I believed I was somewhat enlightened because my parents divorced when I was thirteen and my dad moved to the Tampa Bay area, where my mom and sister and I also moved a couple of years later. Leaving my home near Chattanooga, I found the world a strange and scary, yet thrilling and novel place. The high school I attended in Florida was composed of many different people: Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Greeks. (Forgive me any political incorrectness, as it changes with the wind). The people in Florida were so different from anyone I had known back home, where I had mainly lived since I was eight years old.
I wanted to fit in, but I could not find my niche. This was nothing new. We had moved nearly every year, or every other year, of my life. I attended a different school with each move. We moved where dad could find work, or when he was in the Army. I attended schools in Clearwater, Largo, Lutz, New Port Richey, Gulfport and Tarpon Springs—all in Florida—at various ages. I also went to school in Columbus, Chickamauga and Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and Hixson in Tennessee.
Mapping out my residential history is as complex as mapping out my family tree. To say the least, it was only consistent in its inconsistency.
Therefore, when I married my first husband, I thought I was open-minded. I was some mixed-breed, on the road with Kerouac, flying with Richard Bach and seagulls and reluctant messiahs, yet carefully maintaining my highly precarious foothold on my Southern roots as a closet Elvis and Margaret Mitchell fan—looking for new adventures and observing, as well as documenting, along the way. Long before I became Mrs. Barry Lee, I had written my thoughts and ideas, in journal or poem or story form. My unspoken longing to write and create, to follow the artistic impulse I neither understood, nor knew how to cultivate, had been with me since I was a little girl.
Therefore, it did not seem strange to me that my new husband was Jewish, college educated, and on his way to acquiring his doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. The foreign landscape of Oklahoma, with its miles of open and seemingly flat horizons meeting skies bigger than I had ever known, was strange but new, and yet another exciting muse for my pen and paper.
Even so, I could not articulate what I saw or felt. I was in a strange place, with a strange man I barely knew, who held strong beliefs about love, friendship, religion and life that I could not wrap my mind around, despite my efforts. The more I got to know him, the less I knew him. Looking back, I don’t think he ever knew me. It is something I cannot hold against him, however. I did not know who I was, either.
He encouraged me to go to the university and apply for admission to start classes as a student.
At a college.
No one in my family had ever done such a thing. I was out of my element. My fear was only eclipsed by my lack of faith in myself that I could get into college, much less attend classes and succeed.
I attended my first college course, Political Science, in the summer of 1986. I was eight months pregnant with my first child. I listened carefully to the professor as he lectured, read and re-read each assignment, memorized dates and times and terms, and fretted to the point of exhaustion. My baby was due on July 12th and I went into labor a week early, just in time for the Independence Day long weekend. I missed one class, the week after I gave birth, and my ex-husband went in my stead and took notes for me. I returned to class with a donut on which to rest my sore bottom (aching and on fire from the violation of an episiotomy as I gave birth) while I picked up where I had left off. My breasts engorged, I would rush home and nurse the baby, change diapers, and rock us both to sleep. After the baby was down for the night, I would sit in the study and furiously try to absorb my lessons. Failure was not an option.
I passed the class with an A-. Not bad for a girl who dropped out of high school in her senior year. This gave me the courage to believe I could be a college graduate someday. I talked it over with my ex and his family many times. The resounding theme from them was: You go to college to get a degree where you can make money, not to do something you love. I wanted to be an artist and a writer. These dreams were scoffed at by my new family, as they had been by my old one.
Only, my family of origin didn’t believe you could go to college to make a lot of money, either. They had settled for working at the factories and the mills, as a carpenter or as a clerk at the Golden Gallon or driving the school bus. Most of my family had dropped out of school as early as the sixth grade. It was not unusual. It was their norm. Even though I had not finished high school, being a drop-out was not what I wanted, either. When I spoke of dreams about going to art school or to learn to be an author, and they were pie-in-the-sky as far as my parents were concerned, I was dismissed with a tired wave of one hand while the adults in my life gazed vacantly at some distant past or future, drawing another puff off their cigarette and bitching about their lives.
However, I did not want to spend years in college learning things I had no interest in doing later on, either. I wanted to express myself. I wanted to touch people with my words. My former father-in-law tried to explain the real world to me. He said, “Only lucky people, or very talented people, can live well as an artist or writer. Have you ever heard of the term, ‘A starving artist’?” I shook my head, no. He laughed, “Well, that’s what you would be—a starving artist with a college degree that is worth nothing but the ink on the paper.” His Brooklyn-New York-Jew accent felt like a punch in the face with each syllable. Then he grinned and winked at me, and his wife suppressed a giggle as she gently tapped my hand.
A prevailing sense of Not Belonging began to plague me.
I did not belong in the world my parents had grown up in, and I did not belong in this world into which I had married.
I was unable to understand the dynamics behind it for many years to come. All I could do was to try my best to fit in and be accepted by those I called family and friends. That I fell short of acceptance and felt a keen sense that I was an awkward outsider, with each new family or group of friends—even with my own children later on—was not lost on me.
Now, nearly thirty years after I was married for the first time, I remain restless and feel that nudging feeling of not being a fully accepted part of my group. I guess it has become part of who I am—someone who is not willing to break, or bend, to group norms for the sake of acceptance. I used to prostitute myself in this fashion and forego all of my most basic values and ignore my keenest instincts so I would get the scraps of what I believed were acceptance by those I loved. So hungry for that acceptance, I lost myself in others’ notions of who I should be, only to resent them for it later while I honed and perfected my self-loathing.
The day my first husband and I were married, his sister was helping me to get ready for the ceremony, which was to be held in the chapel at the university. She fussed over my hair and makeup, while she told me about her experiences as a model and dancer in New York. Seri was five years older than me, so I considered her experience far superior to my own. When I said as much, she smiled and reached into her bag and retrieved a book. Handing it to me she said, “Don’t ever doubt your own worth. Respect yourself.”
I held the book in my hands and read the title: Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You? (Jordan Paul PhD and Margaret Paul, PhD, 1983).
I looked back at her, a puzzled expression on my face, and she simply smiled.
Although I did not know it then, I was being given a gift of self-awareness, self-love and self-acceptance, and ultimately–self-respect–by this pretty girl I barely knew. It took many years before I realized she did not mean the gift of the book as an insult, but as knowledge and protection—for me, from the world and from my distorted sense of self. She understood me better than I understood myself.
Today, as much as I love my life and being married to my husband, I find myself fighting with that natural urge to give up what I think and believe so I am fully accepted and loved. I have come full circle, as Shakespeare coined the phrase, and returned to my home, my place of birth. I met my husband here nearly two years ago and we will be married a year next month. Much of his life experience is similar to mine, and much of it is just as equally foreign and strange.
However, the one thread of similarity that remains is that group acceptance thing. I learned about the concept in college, while I was attempting to earn my graduate degree in counseling psychology.
Essentially, when there is a change in the group and a new member arrives, there is upheaval. Groups of people—like families, gangs, organizations, towns, cities, states and countries—do not like change. They like for things to be comfortable and familiar. They like the status-quo.
My appearance here has garnered mixed reactions. However, the one thing that has caused the most controversy and elicited the most strain has been my unwillingness to let anyone, including my husband, dictate my boundaries or erode my sense of self. I had to learn the hard way, over the course of many years and through the painful process of three previous marriages and divorces, that what is acceptable to others may not be acceptable for me and vice versa. That concept is okay as long as there is mutual understanding and respect. However, the problem arises when one party expects another party to act according to his or her own sense of normalcy or within the confines of his or her boundaries and to adopt those boundaries as his or her own.
In short, my philosophy is to Live and Let Live. I may not agree with the way things get done, but as long as I am not asked or expected to participate in something I find destructive, or dysfunctional, or mean and disrespectful—then by all means, have at it. It’s not my place to tell other people what to believe or what to feel. The only time I have the right to say anything is when they run right through my boundaries by expecting me to participate in their way of doing things or adopting their way of thinking. That’s when problems begin.
Once that starts, my walls start to go back up, brick by brick. If you hurt me, or disrespect me, or scoff at me for being who I am—then you are not allowed within these walls.
That I ask my husband to support this is not expecting him to do anything but show unconditional love and protection. I do not expect him to withdraw his love or attention from his family or friends. I do not expect him to agree with or adopt my sense of boundaries. I do expect him to disallow his friends and family to run all over me because I’m the new person in the group and, according to their views, not to be trusted. Though he may not agree with a boundary I feel is necessary for me, I do expect him to support it if violation of that boundary would be harmful to our relationship or to one another.
My husband does not have to give up himself to be loved by me. He does not have to end friendships or stop loving others (exes aside) to be loved by me. He does not have to have the same politics, religious beliefs, or same beliefs about parenting to be loved by me. He does not have to change how he dresses, or talks, or acts or looks. He does not have to quit smoking or drinking or cursing. He does not have to lose weight. He does not have to make more money, or be smarter, or drive the best car or live in the nicest house. He does not have to like everything I do, or think or feel. He does not have to allow my kids to disrespect him because he is not their father, but an outsider to them. He does not have to allow my family or friends to sit in judgment of him because he is someone they do not know, but are also unwilling to know. He does not have to put up with any of my ex-spouses inserting their opinions of how we should live, how we interact with our grown children, or expectations that we do things their way. (Seriously, this situation is real. An ex has actually voiced expectations about how to act in regards to kids and actually called when we were asleep in our bed–in our home–to chastise for not acting according to their expectations) Fact is, none of our exes are welcome to do such things. We have been divorced from them for several years—for very good reason. My husband does not have to allow anyone to dictate his life to him, including me.
Likewise, I do not have to give up myself to be loved by my husband. All these things are true for me as well. I deserve as much respect as he does. It’s not my job to convert my entire person to his or his family’s expectations, either. Expecting me to do so is not only disrespectful, but unkind. Expecting me to do something that you would not be willing to do is ridiculous and narrow-minded. It only proves that you really aren’t as open as you pretend to be. It only serves to remind me to watch my back because your smile does not necessarily translate to you being my friend, or accepting me as one of your own.
The group will just have to adjust accordingly.
If only people would be willing to open their hearts and minds just a little more than they have comfortably done their entire lives, they would see that there is love and beauty in even the strangest of faces. They would see that doing something different does not necessarily translate to doing something wrong.
Respect for others is a universal language. We do not have to come from the same place to speak it. We can offer one another the gift of acceptance without sacrificing who we are and what we believe. We can only respect others when we respect ourselves, and that’s where it’s at. Self-respect is where we each belong.
March 18, 2015