I’ve been searching for a newspaper clipping for over a week. Forty-seven years ago, I clipped a political ad and stored it in a small rectangular white gift box with other mementos from the 60’s and 70’s. The ad contained a photo of a candidate, my boyfriend, dressed in a three-piece plaid polyester suit, a handsome giant. He captured my heart the first time I met him. Last year, I moved the clipping to a new place. I remember thinking I wanted his youthful image more accessible to reminisce how handsome he used to be. I should have left it in the box. It was always there and now it’s somewhere. I am frantic to find the fragile, tri-folded newspaper to bring me back to when I was first smitten. At the moment, I am as fragile.
Lance was twenty-seven and recently bounced from his first divorce. His marriage was not sanctioned by his family. So much, he moved out of town during his marriage to a broody-looking Armenian girl. He lasted barely a year before they split up and he moved back. He moved into the spacious apartment above the funeral home. He was the mortician for the family funeral business waiting for his turn for ownership.
I graduated with an Associate Degree taking a summer break before a full-time career. We began dating that summer, though the fall, through the winter, spring, and another summer. That summer he professed his love and asked me to marry him. He was ready for a second marriage, and I was not ready for a first much less to be a funeral director’s wife. That was tantamount to that of being a Pastor’s wife where there are roles with rules with no place for feminist thoughts. I was the ideal wife candidate. A hometown girl, with some beauty and poise from pageants, marrying up. I was just getting started.
In contrast, he was eight years and one marriage ahead of me. I would never be a person other than his wife. Later, I would observe my prediction with his second wife. While I loved him, I could not envision a future in his shadow. I had dreams of becoming a self-made woman. Had he placed a search light diamond on my left finger then, it would have been much harder to say no. I would have taken the short cut. At nineteen, I was a cross between a Gloria Steinem feminist and a former beauty queen who thought herself as destined to marry well and happily become a trophy wife. I had not seen much of the world sheltered in a small-town where everybody knew everybody. I began my feminist life without him.
When I was twenty-five, the next Mrs. came along sooner than I thought. Through the streets of our town, rambling in his vintage brilliant canary yellow and white convertible jeep, he paraded her, at his side. She was a classic Irish beauty with auburn hair, bright blue eyes, and skin as white as flour. By that time, I established myself as a photojournalist for a trio of small newspapers, freelanced, and was the recipient of numerous photography awards. For the funeral home’s 100th anniversary, Lance hired me for the publicity photo of the business. That photo was the centerpiece for all his publications. It was a way to bring me back into his life in a principled manner.
Our friendship remained cordial. So, cordial, he invited me to tour the home he bought for his bride to be. Oddly enough, I accepted. Atop a hill, a long gently curved driveway stretched before us. There stood a two-story stucco mansion of a home tucked away in a private enclave. It was painted classic white with a traditional wood interior overlooking lush green meadowlands. The views from the multiple large paned windows struck my photographer’s eye.
Perhaps he hoped I would realize the life he offered me was now substituted with someone else. It worked. I had a glimpse of what could have been my future. Despite my efforts, nourished by creativity, I was struggling while he prospered. There were few female photojournalists in my area. I managed a win for the Feminists. I soon found that life on the feminist frontier was more difficult than I thought. Becoming a self-made woman was a long road ahead. I began to understand why some women took the short cut in marriage.
I felt acceptance over my choices. Lance moved back into town to be closer to his work. He bought an impressive 1920’s two-story red brick Colonial on the main street just steps away from the funeral home. His wife came with him. Gossip spread of the dinner parties they hosted for a small cadre of local business owners. His wife now attended to some funeral duties. In winter, she wore a black full-length wool cloth coat that looked expensive and more deferential than fur. Her silhouette of black against her flour white skin achieved a stunning appearance as she adapted to the family funeral business. His family name of influence and affluence quickly acquired an infant son. I knew of the adoption before most from one of our conversations.
She seemed a perfectly suitable wife for him. People always referred to her as Lance’s wife. She had no name. By the time their adopted son was three, she took him and left. In response, he bought himself a big blue Mercedes. I began to understand the deals women made for marriage. It was a deal I was still unwilling to make. I knew I needed to leave my career as a photojournalist to trade up to a white-collar profession. I wanted a better life, yet determined to secure it without a marriage. I began evening classes at a university to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Hours have passed since I began my hunt to find my treasured political ad. I recall where I stored other photographs. Easily, I retrieve them as they have remained in the same spot for thirty-seven years. We are both in them, but not together. In a group photo, I am seated, and he is standing in the second row. In the other, we stand side by side, right hands raised, to take an oath of public office. He and I are not a couple again. Not yet. At twenty-nine, I made local history as the youngest woman elected to City Council. I kept these to remember him and our time in politics. He would manage to pull me away from the man who disliked the small-town life to be the couple who loved it.
We were both elected to local political office. Lance was undergoing a second divorce. This time from his Irish beauty. I was engaged to a man who matched my mind and principles. Both proximity and pull that Lance and I had led to another broken heart. We became a couple, again. We spent countless hours in his living room, nestled in front of a snapping wood fire that seemed to animate our joy of being reunited in the Colonial he shared with his wife, sharing our dreams for the future of our town. I had my own dreams of our future. I knew every room of that house. It was a house I perceived as becoming our home. I enjoyed rides in his big blue Mercedes. I enjoyed dinners with the same small cadre of business owners. I enjoyed every moment with him. Politics was the great equalizer of our relationship. The threat of simply becoming a shadow could not withstand the illumination we each brought to politics.
Nearing thirty, I was ready to say yes. My achievements were my own. But Lance was not. His second divorce was finalized. In his black pin-striped suit, his 1980’s uniform of a funeral director, I envision him sitting on my parents’ sofa. I remember hearing the words that he was divorced. I remember the anger I felt when he blurted out the words that he was not ready for a third marriage. I remember sending him away. I continued my feminist life. In response, I bought a house.
It seemed with every decade we reunited. But, at thirty-nine it did not happen. At forty, it did. After my fiery dismissal at twenty-nine, Lance dated a local for years. She wore heavy make-up and wore flashy clothes. She was present at every viewing and stood stone-faced next to the ever-smiling organ player. She methodically handed a pen to each person to sign the guest book. In exchange, she silently handed out the deceased’s laminated remembrance card. For that, he handed her keys to a silver baby Benz. As much as I would have liked to drive a Benz, that deal was not for me.
We were both invited to a local wedding, my best friend and his cousin. Right before the wedding, gossip spread of their break-up. For me, it was what I hoped for. And it was. We were reunited, a third time, at the wedding. For two weeks, we were together. Then, my phone went silent. He went back to her. This time, it was my heart that was broken. After an engagement, that did not end in marriage, she moved to the Sunshine State with an older wealthier man taking the baby Benz with her. It was years before I spoke to Lance again. Though, I quietly continued to track his life.
More years were spent with various women who benefitted from his finances. Like phantoms, they slipped in and out without any presence in his business. It all ceased when he became wheelchair bound. During this time, we no longer communicated. He continued to live in the spacious apartment above the funeral home. He expanded the family business to a second location vanquishing the only other locally operated funeral home in town. Spending shifted from woman to philanthropy. Incredibly adjusted being wheelchair bound, his family heart history would become his. He was due for a fatal heart attack.
Those were two emissive decades that rolled by with each of us on our own separate paths. By sixty-five, I was more educated and traveled than he. I bought my own luxury vehicle; a tacit message to him. I viewed the world through the lens of the Catholic missionaries. My boundaries of community expanded while his remained constant. I returned to my youthful pursuit of photography finding success in publications. Our lives had reached its greatest divergence.
Sometimes I ask myself if my own personal evolution would have the same outcome if I married him in any one of those decades. His life would not have changed. I know that. He was a wealthy man. He would have been that with or without me. Political influence and financial power afford normally unreachable privileges in life that would have been available to me. Politics sapped my creativity. Though access is ever so tempting, creativity is what I yearned for most. Still, I ask myself would I eventually make the same deal in exchange for it and leave as the others?
It seemed we expended all future reunions. That was until we were face to face with funeral arrangements for my father. The business of my father’s death required frequent interactions and more personal conversations. I still felt that same spark as I did at nineteen as did he. He asked me to dinner, when he could walk again, and after I was able to cope with the loss of my father. I looked forward to once again enjoying his charm, wit, and intellect.
I held no expectations for marriage, nor did I hope for it. We were in different phases of our lives. Perhaps, marriage to one another was never destined. His entrances and exits in my life were more like prompts. Those prompts filled me with raw emotion that regenerated within to heighten my artistic senses. Those prompts moved me further along my feminist path.
I was never jealous, nor did I envy the women Lance brought into his life. I was an eyewitness, an observer of sorts. They were my case studies. I wanted to know what he sought in other women. They were woman who needed him to get what they wanted. Whether that was a white infant, a luxury vehicle, or designer clothes, they were never his equal. That was what he sought in them that was not in me. In the end, all I needed from him was to know that I was the woman he loved most.
He waited to walk. Then the Pandemic came. Life was on lockdown. I thought the day would come and I would have the answer I sought. We had vaccinations. The current surge was over. I saw him last in June of 2021 at an outdoor church gathering. I remember greeting him with a kiss on his cheek. He still smelled the same as he did from his youth though time greatly changed this once handsome giant. He asked me to join him there for lunch. I was annoyed with him that day and left. A summer deadly virus surge arrived. I decided to wait. But, the surge was followed by another into the fall and winter without letting up. Later, that same winter, he died in his sleep on Christmas Day. I regretted not joining him for lunch in June. His fatal heart attack had come.
We were incomplete. We were not done. Our connectedness endured a lifetime. I sit alone mired in grief, an anonymous spectator, linked to live streaming of his funeral. I realize that I have no real place in any of his funeral events. Yet, I do in a way that no one recognizes. This is our final parting. I can’t accept it. An oversized hand rubbed gloss mahogany casket, with gold accents, sparkles in the winter sun. I spot two white horses, with well-groomed manes, an open wooden carriage, and a lone man sitting in the front seat sporting a black top hat and suit. I hear the slow trot of the horses. The caisson is out of my view. He is gone. I am left without an answer, without closure, and still in search of the newspaper clipping. I am only left with one last prompt: our story.
P. M. Merlot lives in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. She writes creative non-fiction. She holds an MS in Computer Science. She is a street photographer and many of her photographs have been published in literary magazines under her real name.