Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone who asked me, in reference to her husband’s prior wife whom I had seen recently, if the woman had looked pretty. We were rocking quietly on a porch with our backs to a surprisingly warm and bright beam of sun in the middle of winter. The air, heavy with heat in its concentrated ray, still cast a threat of coolness each time the swing of the rocker brought shadow across the edges of my knees. I thought about how hearts never age, how in second marriages, a ghost of the first one can still haunt. I looked at this woman, aging gracefully with a man who still after decades refers to her as his bride, and who has a completely devoted following of children, step-children, and grandchildren. I said to her, “She was just a woman.”
Define pretty. Define pretty after thirty some-odd years. Whatever your definition, what do you say to the woman who, although not responsible for driving the first wife out, still finds herself occasionally preoccupied with the lingering image of a rival female?
Last year, I had an interesting discussion with my boss about some kind of disagreement I was having with the woman that replaced me in my former home. Frustrated with the woman’s quick defenses, I had allowed an event to escalate to a place from which neither of us were willing to retreat without looking beaten.
“You know what her problem is, don’t you?” my boss had asked sagely in his thick foreign accent. “She is not first woman.”
First woman! Should I capitalize that? Brilliant! And no, I had never thought of this, ever.
“My mother was not first woman either,” elaborated my boss. “She was always competing. My father’s first wife had been dead for years. It did not matter. She felt second.”
There is a funny power to this realization that helped me gain a little perspective into the situation. I began, despite the complete horror that my ex-husband’s woman had played into once-upon-a-time, to feel a little bit sorry for her. No matter what she does, she is not the first woman. A justifiable consequence in her circumstances? Maybe. But it is what it is.
Ironically, things being the way they are and my own remarriage now a tangible state, I am not my new husband’s first woman either. But it does not really haunt me they way it haunts some others who wear shoes similar to mine. Maybe my plate is so full that I don’t have the time to allow those doubts to preoccupy me. Maybe, I am simply confident in my own role. Maybe, it has more to do with the fact that neither my husband nor I live in a house remotely associated with either of our past marriages. Maybe, not enough time has passed for me to draw further comparisons. My husband might disagree— after all, there is a kitchen table here with a history of wobbling and looking shamefully worn in his prior marriage. This year, I bolted, braced, screwed, and repainted that table into compliance. Replacing it would have cost less money. There might be something subconscious there.
I never will be able to forget the vulnerability of the beloved grandmother on her porch, a woman who past 70 years old can still do a split on a living room floor and then get up without grunting to go whip up the best pimento cheese I’ve ever had, and who still worries that once I had met the first wife, I would like her better. Before I left for the day, I sneaked a note onto her bedroom pillow. It said. “I love you. A lot.” What I meant was, “You win.”