It’s my wife’s birthday, and the gift the kids and I have prepared for her — a photo book of her “First 50 Years” — is stuck in ground shipping, despite the company’s guarantee that it would be in my hands two days ago. This is no small matter. The book took nearly two months to assemble and is our most important gift to her.
At dinner that night, the wrapped iPad we produce feels soulless and strangely inappropriate for such a momentous occasion. Other ideas — a weekend away, a party with friends — were long ago rejected by the guest of honor. It’s too busy a time of year at work to be heading out of town, and my wife would ordinarily prefer an appendectomy to being the center of attention at a grand celebration.
I know this from the 12 years of marriage we have under our belts. True, ours is a union in its infancy compared with where my grandparents were at this stage in their lives. But having had two kids and experiencing many of life’s ups and downs together, it feels as if I’ve known my wife since birth. That is, until the kids and I begin putting together the photo book.
New and interesting facts are revealed as I riffle through old photos late at night. Despite my own history that includes both longstanding friendships and a failed marriage, I’ve somehow come to imagine that the kids and I are practically the only important relationships my wife has ever had. But wait, didn’t 70 percent of her existence happen before I ever showed up? The photos I find stuck in the bottom drawer of the hutch and beneath mementos in an old trunk reveal a richly colored past with lots of close friendships. The ex-boyfriends in particular aren’t mere blips on the radar screen. The mutual friend who had introduced us, her “prom date,” had been her date at two proms, it turns out. It’s embarrassing to face it, but seeing some of those old photos makes me oddly jealous. How did these friends have the luck to share time with her before I did? What do they know about her that I’ll never know?
But I also find myself becoming even more enamored of this woman I am married to. Looking back on her life experiences — fall harvesting on the old farm, swimming off Clam Island, sharing holidays with now-departed family members — gives me context and a sense of the losses she has endured, as we all have. And I’m not so sure my high school girlfriends were quite this cute. Not to mention that these photographs aren’t arguing with me about getting dinner on the table on time or how my home-brewing operation is causing a spike in the house’s fruit-fly population. I even have moments of melancholy: Look at how little time is left. Why couldn’t we have started earlier?
The fact is, if we had started earlier, we never would have arrived at this moment. Her pictures of the late 1980s depict a responsible, conservatively presented recent Wellesley grad, whereas I during those same years was comparatively a bum: tangled beard, hair astray, a cigarette dangling from my lips. Where in her college pictures were fuzzy background images of knocked-over beer bottles and stray bongs? How did we ever get together anyway?
The photo album finally arrives, six days late, and while we look at it, my wife tells the kids, “If Dad and I had met back then, we probably wouldn’t have liked each other.” I dispute the comment but agree that we never would have married. Somehow our lives intersected at just the right moment, well into our 30s, when we two veterans of life were willing to give each other a little more leeway with our obvious differences. Sometimes I can’t believe it actually turned out quite this well and other times I can’t fathom it turning out any other way.
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